By Brian Cartwright

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend the Engineers in Technical and Humanitarian Opportunities of Service (ETHOS) conference online. ETHOS is a non-profit organization that organizes an annual conference with the goal of bringing together individuals from within the clean cookstove community including academics, field practitioners, and other researchers. Being a clean cookstove novice myself, I appreciated learning about this interesting and important humanitarian sector. Of the many interesting topics discussed, I was particularly intrigued with the creation and use of biochar, and perspectives from field practitioners on cookstove adoption.

During the conference, I learned that biochar is created when typical biofuels are burned under limited oxygen supply, leaving behind fine-grained, highly porous charcoals that can help various soils retain nutrients and water. This biochar, in combination with a source of nutrients like manure, can improve agricultural yields and reduce disease in plants and animals. Stoves that produce biochar, such as the Top Lit Updraft (TLUD) stove, may provide added perks to stove customers through income generation by selling the biochar produced and improved soil nutrients. Despite these benefits, biochar producing stoves have had limited success in Uganda. A representative from Uganda’s Centre for Research in Energy and Energy Conservation (CREEC) attributed stove usability as a main barrier to uptake, touching on the social and cultural barriers to the adoption of new technologies. For example, tending to biochar producing stoves may increase the work burden of cooking often performed by women.

Several of the conference sessions focused on the challenges of stove adoption. Participants agreed that stoves should be designed to meet the actual needs of communities, paying close attention to local culture and cooking practices. As a current master’s student studying humanitarian action, in which social anthropology is emphasized, I was personally glad to see an entire day of the conference dedicated to challenges with adoption and the importance of listening to community needs. Representatives from Lifeline, specifically, spoke to the importance of eliminating the concept of the “beneficiary”, because this language can generalize important contextual distinctions between communities and perpetuate unequal power dynamics between aid “givers” and “recipients”. In particular, one of Lifeline’s presentations discussed how the “if you build it, they will come” mentality is too simplistic and does not work. This reminded me of the work of Nupur Savani, another Lifeline intern, who wrote a blog post about the importance of decolonizing development, which further speaks to these values.

One unique feature of the conference’s virtual format this year was that more people from around the globe were able to participate in the event and give presentations. In future years, this benefit of broadened participation could be preserved if the ETHOS conference adapts to become a blended mix between virtual and in-person presentations. Once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and the conference can be held in person, it will be important to maintain the momentum of including people from around the world to participate in the event. This global presence, for me, brings contextualization to the event, where attendees can gain a deeper understanding of the clean cookstove sector from the perspective of experts working outside of the U.S. It is also an opportunity to hear about cookstove innovations taking place in different regions worldwide, directly from the very individuals conducting lab research and cookstove development.

As a first-time attendee at the ETHOS conference, I was impressed by the discussions, panelists, and the overall passion for cookstoves that was felt and maintained throughout the entire week. While there was some discussion around the more technical side of cookstoves, there were also discussions that could be applied to the wider humanitarian aid sector. This energetic and friendly community has a wealth of experiences and findings to share and welcomes anyone to be a part of the conversation for the future and improvement of the clean cookstove sector.