Makambayire Venantie leans over her Mimi Moto stove in Kigeme camp, Rwanda, cooking for her family of six. Until a year ago, Makambayire relied on firewood distributed by aid agencies, but the amounts were never enough.
No one’s life should be limited by how they cook – least of all, those who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, conflict, and persecution. Makambayire’s story is one that is shared by an estimated seven million refugees and displaced people living in camps worldwide who cook with polluting open fires or inefficient stoves, with negative consequences for their health, livelihoods, and safety. However, the Alliance and its partners are beginning to change that story. Inyenyeri and the Gaia Association, grantees of the Alliance’s Humanitarian Clean Cooking Fund (HCCF), are not only providing cooking solutions to refugees; they are also engaging their refugee partners as customers, producers, and distributors.
Kigeme refugee camp in southern Rwanda is home to about 18,000 Congolese refugees who fled fighting in their home country between 2012 and 2013. Inyenyeri opened a shop in there in 2016 to lease Mimi Moto stoves and sell biomass fuel pellets to the refugee population. With support from the Government of Belgium, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) replaced firewood bundles with a cash-based assistance program that enables Kigeme’s residents to purchase alternative fuels. This model overturned the traditional, free distribution approach to cooking assistance and provides some additional financial security for the refugees. “Now I am getting 1,900 [Rwandan francs] per week,” says Makambayire. “With this money, I can buy enough pellets and other fuel type[s] to use for the whole month without any problem.”
In contrast to when they receive free products, Kigeme’s residents can appeal to Inyenyeri for feedback, repair, replacement, and other after-sales services. Inyenyeri also follows up with households when fuel sales go down to find out whether this is due to financial restrictions, customer dissatisfaction, or a need for further training on using the stove and fuel. Moreover, Inyenyeri has trained and employed 30 refugees as service representatives and technicians in Kigeme, meaning that customers are engaging with community members who understand their unique challenges. With assistance from the Alliance and the IKEA Foundation, Inyenyeri has scaled up its business to 2,236 households in Kigeme (13,442 people), with a 99% customer retention rate.
To the northwest, in the Assosa region of Ethiopia, a group of women from South Sudan earn income by producing carbonized charcoal briquettes for the residents of Tsore and Sherkole refugee camps. Butha Dimi, Lucia Ahol, Ester Poul, Eyaye Gae, and Mebruka Mubarek are members of one of two refugee-owned business cooperatives established with the assistance of the Gaia Association. Together, the two cooperatives operate four businesses across both camps – briquette production, ethanol sales, and stove assembly and sales for both fuel types.
UNHCR Ethiopia has launched a pilot assistance program that enables 1,520 households (approximately 7,600 people) across both camps to trade vouchers to the cooperatives for stoves and fuel. Once the vouchers are tallied and verified, UNHCR transfers the sale proceeds into a shared bank account, from which the cooperatives can draw funds for salaries and business operations. The program is in its early days, but it is well-rooted in both the refugee and host communities. Not only do the cooperatives currently employ 40 refugees (24 women and 16 men), but Ethiopian nationals from the surrounding host community benefit from harvesting and selling savannah grass as feedstock to the briquettes cooperative, and a local association of clay-makers constructs the ceramic components of the briquette stoves.
By engaging refugees all along the value chain, Gaia and Inyenyeri have laid the foundation for long-term adoption and retention of the cooking solutions they have introduced. However, without long-term financial assistance to supplement refugee purchasing power, the market-based approaches underpinning both projects may become unworkable. Meanwhile, clean cooking and energy access remain grossly under-prioritized issues in humanitarian assistance broadly – a topic that was addressed at the Humanitarian Energy Conference hosted by the Alliance and the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on July 31-August 1.
Universal access to clean cooking solutions, a core component of Sustainable Development Goal 7, will not be achieved without addressing the needs of crisis-affected people. The Alliance’s HCCF grantees demonstrate that, with enough commitment, clean cooking can help achieve two global imperatives: leave no one behind and provide modern and sustainable energy access for all.