Building Businesses through Cleaner Cooking Fuels in Ghana

by Edward Burgess, Research Editor for The Sustainability Review For this interview, we spoke with Dr. Mark Henderson, Director of the Global Resolve project at Arizona State University. We discussed some of his latest research efforts in Ghana, Africa where he and his colleagues are working with local villages to design technologies and businesses that could improve the health and well-being of the local people and their environment.

The Sustainability Review: Dr. Henderson, you direct the Global Resolve program at Arizona State University. Can you tell us about it?

Dr. Mark Henderson: The purpose of Global Resolve is to help start sustainable economic development projects in the developing world. The way our process works is that we first visit communities in the developing world to conduct interviews and really immerse ourselves there. We want to find out what the community needs and help solve the actual problems they face, usually through the development of some technology. Ultimately, we also want to convert that technology into a business venture for the community. The hope is that the community could benefit from these ventures in several ways. First, they could get employment. Second, it could solve a problem they face. Third, they could sell the products and get income. And finally, they could be a role model for other communities and spread the business.

TSR: What projects are you currently working on?smoky cooking fuel pull-quote

MH: The two latest examples we have are the "gel fuel" and the "twig light" projects. I’ll talk about gel fuel first. In a nutshell, this idea grew out of a UN development project to use ethanol as a smokeless cooking fuel and reduce the incidence of respiratory disease by replacing wood and charcoal. The main problem with liquid ethanol is that if it spills it can spread a fire throughout the whole house. In order to make it safer and a better product, we gel it—or make it like a jelly. Have you heard of Sterno?

TSR: You mean the little cans for keeping food warm?

MH: Yes it’s similar to those but using ethanol instead of methanol. Part of the reason we want to provide a new fuel source is that smoky cooking fuel is a leading cause of death among children worldwide. If we can remove the smoke from the fuel then hopefully we can save some lives. And perhaps we can also create some businesses around producing the fuel. Right now, many villages create charcoal fuel to sell by pruning branches from trees and smoldering them. But it’s very smoky and it’s also deforesting the jungle, so it’s not a sustainable solution.

The gel fuel actually is a sustainable solution if we can use biomass that can be converted to ethanol. Corn is one example that is used in the U.S., but you can also use sugarcane and many other plants. And if we can make the process of converting cellulose more affordable then we can use any cellulosic plant—maybe grass or bamboo, which grows very fast, like a weed. Using cellulose removes the competition between food and fuel.

TSR: So the technology is not quite there yet for cellulosic ethanol?

MH: You can do it, but it’s expensive because of the special enzymes needed. We’ve just concentrated on using starchy and sugary biomass like sugarcane or corn.

TSR: In terms of sustainable harvesting, are there implications for land use if this takes off?

MH: Sure, those are definitely issues we need to consider. And there are also issues to consider for social sustainability, too. If you start creating this gel fuel, you might create unintended consequences that disturb the cultural activities in the community, and we want to avoid that. For example, women often spend several hours a day gathering wood. If we try to implement gel fuel, we have now taken that social time away from the women. That time spent gathering wood is like their "coffee klatch." Interfering with this social time would be an unintended consequence of the technology and may be a bad thing.

TSR: Are there any other unintended problems with the gel fuel technology?

MH: Another problem is that if you remove smoke from houses, the incidence of malaria increases. The smoke drives away the mosquitoes that transmit the disease and they come back if you take it away. So how do we balance this? Just think—in the U.S., how do we drive away mosquitoes from your patio?

TSR: (laughing) Well, we build a whole screen around it!

MH: Yes we do! But what else might we do?

TSR: Well, maybe we could use one of those scented candles.

MH: Right, maybe we could add something like Citronella in the gel fuel. Right now, we’re not sure if that would be toxic since the fuel is used for cooking. I always assumed it was safe, but those are things we need to find out when we think about how to minimize the disruption in the community.efficient stove pull-quote

In addition to simply producing the fuel, we have to make sure it’s an affordable solution. Nobody is going to buy it if it’s more expensive than what they already have. Right now, harvesting wood is free, which is a hard price to beat. So instead we want to see if the village could actually sell the gel fuel to the nearest larger city where people have to pay for wood and charcoal. We’re trying to arrive at economic parity with those other fuels. There is a stove being built in South Africa that is about 15% efficient, but that wasn’t quite good enough, and the gel fuel was too expensive. To help bring the price of the fuel down, we designed and built a stove that’s more than twice as efficient as the existing South African stoves. Brad Rogers, another professor in Global Resolve was in charge of this. He’s the one who really understands the thermodynamics of the gel fuel process.

TSR: Do you have any trips planned for the near future?

MH: We’re going to the village of Domeabra in Ghana in a few weeks with the new stove design. Our plan is to find out if we can produce the stoves there. We’re also going to try to ratchet up the production of gel fuel in the village and hopefully help them start a business. We are bringing a great team including myself Brad, John Takamura in design and Dan O’Neill in technological entrepreneurship and eight students and two teaching assistants. We also have five MBA students from Thunderbird School of Global Management who are staying longer to help develop a business plan.

TSR: So are they connecting the villagers with the market in the city?

MH: Yes, eventually. Right now, we’re supplying fuel to a school that we’ve partnered with in Kumasi, Ghana. The School Director works with other schools in the area, so if we can start with her, I think the village could start using the schools to create a larger business that would be successful.

TSR: How did you get started on this type of research?

MH: Well the first step was deciding to do it. I’m an engineering faculty, and so is Brad, and we had another faculty member in Global Studies (David Jacobson) and another in Business (Rajiv Sinha). We all had coffee at Starbucks one day in 2005 and asked ourselves how we could match our interests together.  We soon realized we’d all been having similar ideas about helping sustainable development in the "base of the pyramid" countries. Once we realized we’d been thinking the same thing, we began to build upon that to create a program that would not only help the countries but could also bring in other faculty and students.

TSR: Were there any breakthroughs in technology that helped Global Resolve projects?

MH: Yes—a year ago a grad student at our Polytech campus developed the concept for the "twig light" that I mentioned earlier. It’s a device that generates electricity from heat without a battery. You don’t need the sun either. All you need is heat. In many places, a household might be cooking with charcoal as the sun is going down, and there’s a need for a light source. With the twig light, all you need to do is put a few hot coals in the top, put the bottom in water as a cooling source and in the middle there is a "thermoelectric generator." It produces enough voltage to power LED lights or a cell phone. This is different from solar devices, which can be quite expensive and which have a battery that wears out. And of course, you can’t recharge a solar device at night.

TSR: What’s the reception to having visitors? Is there any negative reaction along the lines of: "Who are these Americans that think they know all the answers to our problems?"

MH: Well, the truth is that we honestly don’t know the answers to their problems. Only they know what they need, so they help us come up with solutions, and we offer what we can by trying to help out. We enter the community as learners. It’s very important to make that distinction because we don’t have the answers, and they truly are the experts in their lives and needs.

One exercise we’ve used in the past to help convey this notion is Rural Village Appraisal, which includes a collaboration exercise to have the community help us draw a map of their village. We might use charcoal or colored paper or sometimes just twigs and leaves to have them show us where the chief’s house is, where the toilets are, the church or mosques, the water sources, the rivers, roads, etc. Through this exercise they show us something about themselves and their needs. We show that we’re there to learn, and hopefully we can become trusted partners. That’s the key—to have trust on both sides. But in general the community members are welcoming and excited about the possibilities of improving their lives.

TSR: What are the biggest challenges the projects face now?

MH: Right now, our big challenge is starting the businesses. The way people in Ghana do business is not necessarily the way we do it. Even after testing out the solutions, we still have to really see how business practices work and see if there is a way to help. Often, it can be very difficult for someone in Ghana to start a business. If someone there is living on a dollar a day, on the brink of starvation, they don’t have time to spend 24/7 starting a new business. We have to help the communities understand how to create a business at a low risk. There are ways to do that: one option is micro-finance through groups like Grameen Bank.

Also, we can’t just go and then come back and ignore the project. There has to be continued partnership with the community. We have set up a partnership with the Center for Energy the Environment and Sustainable Development (CEESD) in Ghana. It’s run by two faculty members at Kumasi Polytechnic University who did graduate fellowships with Global Resolve. It’s a great partnership because we need local partners for this to work and they can receive some funding from Global Resolve.

TSR: Where do you think this might be in five to ten years?

MH: There are so many problems in the developing world. In the past, there has been over a trillion dollars put forth to solve these problems, mostly through government aid and philanthropy. But what you often find is that this results in a lot of abandoned technology. Maybe a tractor was donated, but it stopped working, and there was no plan or funding set aside for maintenance. People have no choice but to just leave it to rust in the jungle. It could be a result of how the aid is administered. Sometimes the way aid filters down through the governments to the people doesn’t address what people need. It may never actually "trickle down" if there is corruption.

There are a few books I use to illustrate the problem to students. One is Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty, which suggests a top-down aid approach. Another is Creating a World Without Poverty by Mohammed Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank. He supports a more bottom-up approach through micro-loans. There is also William Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, which advocates for more village-level interaction, which is primarily what we try to follow. It’s slower because you’re dealing with one community at a time, but if it’s successful, the solutions should propagate out and spread. Additionally, we’re more certain the aid gets to the people who need it. And if we’re smart, we can sit back and listen to the community's needs directly, not force our solutions onto someone else. If we get this gel fuel business off and running, we hope there would be other gel fuel businesses popping up around it.

TSR: How has your thinking about sustainability problems shifted through the course of this research?

MH: For a long time, I thought sustainability meant only environmental sustainability. But now we talk about other aspects like cultural and social sustainability. And economic sustainability—it can’t be a flash in the pan that has big success and then dies. It has to grow rationally and reasonably over a period time. We also want to have sustainability in other areas like education—giving people the opportunity to educate themselves about the business, the technology, the supply chain and so on.

TSR: So you’re really talking about building capacity here.

MH: That’s right—we’re trying to build capacity in the villages. And sometimes building capacity means doing something like providing clean water. The community won’t be able to produce gel fuel, for example, if they are primarily worried about their health. To help bring up the capacity of the village we just had donations from Desert Cross Lutheran Church in Tempe provide about 700 water filters and by holding a benefit concert to collect funds to bring electricity to the village. Sometimes, you have to provide some basic needs before people can start to think about building a business.

TSR: Are there any important skills that are helpful this type of work?

MH: We love diversity. We can’t do this with just engineering or business or sustainability students. We need English majors, film and video, nursing, global health, you name it! Anthropology is especially important since we do a lot of ethnographic work. There are no prerequisites.

TSR: Are there any memorable stories to share from one of your trips to Ghana?

MH: Probably the most memorable time was the first trip I took to Ghana. I went by myself to a small village of 500, called Fawomanye. It was somewhat intimidating since it was my first visit to Africa. When I got there, the villagers held a meeting under the large fig tree near the chief’s house.  When I talked to the chief, it was actually through a "linguist" who then communicated to the chief. I started simply by saying, "I am here from Arizona State and Global Resolve." I told the village that I was there to understand their problems and hopefully provide solutions. They said, "We need two things: clean water and lights at night. We don’t want to have to go to bed when the sun goes down. We want a social life like the rest of the world. And we want our kids to be able to do homework at night." It was an extraordinary experience just being able to connect immediately like that without going through a government or university; we just went straight to the village. That experience helped guide the approach we take now.

Contributor Information:

Mark Henderson is a professor of Engineering at Arizona State University at the Polytechnic campus. He founded the ASU Global Engineering Design Team and also is co-founder of GlobalResolve (http://globalresolve.asu.edu). His research has led to over 60 papers and a textbook in computer-aided design and global engineering.

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