Improved cooking stove projects: Principles for successful project design

Projects introducing improved stoves that save firewood and reduce emissions and indoor smoke address real needs but have often not succeeded as expected. Soini and Coe opine that one of the reasons for this is that lessons have not been learnt effectively. In a paper published in Development in Practice, they review the only available comprehensive list of principles for stove project design, modify it—then add more principles to it, based on literature and their own experience. The result is a list of 20 principles covering awareness-creation of multiple benefits, stove design and variety, participation of beneficiaries, production modes, role of subsidies, and the need for accurate assessments and reporting.

Farmers in Tanzania receive training on  firewood-saving stoves. (c) Liana

Farmers in Tanzania receive training on firewood-saving stoves. (c) Liana

Numerous initiatives to introduce improved stoves that save firewood and reduce emissions and indoor smoke have been implemented in many countries. The improved stoves have the potential to bring economic, health, and environmental benefits to users. However, these projects have been less effective than they could be mainly because of reasons related to project design; stove performance; consumer research and knowledge; and marketing.

Project planners don’t always assess alternative practices or evaluate technical solutions before selecting one to implement. More often, they find a model that has worked and base designs on that, running the risk of location- and culture-specific designs. Project designs need to be adapted to local contexts but general principles are an essential guide to project concept and stove design. A large knowledge base on both project concepts and technical solutions exists but is fragmented and difficult to use. Various reports delve into the design of projects using improved stoves, review such projects and provide overviews of their development over the past decades. Other reports review successes and failures, potential funding sources, and adoption motives. However, they do not provide advice on what does and does not work, or attempt to provide a list of comprehensive principles for project design. The authors address this gap by documenting the principles covered in available literature and adding to them with their own experience from two Tanzania-based projects by the NGO Liana.

Working off a World Bank report published in 1994, the authors review the principles of project design. Where their own experience did not support principles in the original report they suggest modifications. Of the 16 principles found in the original report, the authors found five to be problematic. These are discussed and modified. For example, Point 11 on the table states ‘Power output of stove can be adjusted’ as a reason for success and ‘Power output cannot be easily controlled’ as a reason for failure of improved stoves. According to the authors, adjusting power output is one of the sophisticated technical stove design principles, but it is not a factor that local people base their selection of a stove on.  However, local cooking and firewood usage practices are critical design factors and the stove should accommodate them. The authors claim that even if stoves are designed to very sound principles, they will not be adopted unless they support local cooking and firewood usage practices.

In addition to the five principles that were modified, four new principles were added to the table. Stated as reasons for project success, they are:

  • stoves choice and design are based on reliable evidence and, if needed, adapted to local user preferences
  • the project introduces multiple stove designs
  • the project concentrates on stove models with chimneys
  • the project assesses the project approach and the stoves, and reports accurately

The authors go further to say that the principles elaborated in the paper are necessary but not sufficient for designing effective stove projects. Other considerations are divided into two major groups: first, general principles for planning interventions (e.g. mode of participation, gender awareness, and sustainability); and second, practical questions concerning strategy and approach.

Specific recommendations from the paper are:

  • Awareness-raising lays the foundation for the project and builds the motivation to adopt. It is necessary to know the project area and its needs very well and it is also important to know what benefits are most important in each area of operation and raise awareness of those benefits.
  • Only stoves that are desirable will be acquired and used. A stove has to conform to design principles and those principles must be understood by those who produce the stoves and those who use them. Participation of users is essential for the creation of models that are acceptable. Several models are needed to fulfil the needs of the whole community.
  • Projects must be flexible about what production mode to facilitate and the subsidy level needed. Ideally, local government should be involved in in dissemination, technical advice and quality control, but not in production.

The authors assert that each project must do two things: carry out credible evaluations and publish the results of those evaluations. This open approach to generating evidence and learning from it is essential for improving projects and making them more effective—and allowing these beneficial technologies to reach more people.

Read the full paper here.

Eija Soini & Richard Coe (2014). Principles for design of projects introducing improved wood-burning cooking stoves. Development in Practice, 24:7, 908-920, DOI:10.1080/09614524.2014.952274

Smallholder production systems and markets is a key focus of CGIAR Collaborative Research Project 6 on Trees, Forests and Agroforestry, of which the World Agroforestry Centre is a key partner.'

Rebecca Selvarajah

Rebecca is a science writer, manager of publishing projects, trainer in science writing, and novelist — working partly from Nairobi, Kenya and partly from Morwell, Australia. With over 15 years of experience in writing, advertising/marketing, publishing and social media, she takes on varied assignments, travelling, if needed, to conduct relevant research and interviews. Originally from Sri Lanka, Rebecca holds a BA honours in Psychology, with minors in Gender Studies and Sociology. Email Rebecca on

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