Sofia Redal: A story about clean cooking in Awbarre refugee camp

By Segolene Martin and Mahder Alebachew
Gaia Association

May 6, 2011 — Sofia Redal, 53, is a Somali woman living in the UNHCR- managed Awbarre refugee camp in Eastern Ethiopia. She is a mother of four, and one of her sons suffers from a disability. She does not have any income and supports her family by exchanging some of her monthly ration of wheat for vegetables and other items. Sofia’s family is one of thousands living in the UNHCR camps in the region.

The UNHCR and Ethiopian non-profit organization Gaia Association have been working in partnership to provide clean, reliable household energy for cooking to families like Sofia’s for over three years. Gaia Association distributes the CleanCook stove by Dometic, an ethanol stove that has proved successful in refugee settings due to its durability, cleanliness and efficiency.

Due to a 2009 government mandate to allocate ethanol production for the transportation sector, Gaia and the UNHCR had a temporary break in ethanol distribution. As an interim solution, UNHCR/Gaia collected the CleanCook stoves from families and distributed kerosene stoves and fuel in the camps. Starting May 2011, Gaia resumed ethanol distribution in Awbarre refugee camp. The Redal family and 900 other Awbarre families currently benefit from the UNHCR/Gaia program for cleaner, safer household cooking. UNHCR/Gaia is also resuming distribution in Kebribeyah and Sheder camps in the upcoming months – thousands of more families will benefit from the program.

“It’s the best,” says Sofia about her CleanCook. She tells Gaia staff how happy she is to receive it back. Sofia used the CleanCook daily to cook for her six-member family before the interim. It is still in excellent condition despite three years of constant use in a rugged environment. The CleanCook stove was voted the most popular program in the Somali camps for three years running by the refugees themselves.

Upon her arrival in Awbarre camp four years ago, Sofia used firewood as cooking fuel. With six other women, she would walk up to 8 kilometers every four days to collect firewood. “It would take us the whole day to go and come back,” Sofia says. Indeed, Awbarre is situated in an extremely arid and deforested area, making fuelwood collection difficult and laborious. It was a risky task for these women and many others, exposing them to physical and sexual assault from local people and landowners. Access to household energy is a basic living standard that Sofia used to lack. Now, with the CleanCook, she can cook three meals a day for her family with one liter hydrous ethanol distributed by Gaia and UNHCR field staff.

The majority of Awbarre families are large, many with ten members or more. The CleanCook is designed to accommodate large pots and can simmer food on low heat for long hours. Furthermore, the CleanCook operates at a high efficiency compared to other cookstoves. Because their breakfast is cooked quickly, Sofia’s children can go earlier to school and receive better educations.

Cooking with firewood on a traditional open fire poses serious health risks for families. The resulting indoor air pollution has consequences varying from lower respiratory illnesses to eye ailments. “It is harmful and dangerous, I got burned once because of it,” Sofia explains about her experience cooking with an open fire before she had the CleanCook. She tells Gaia staff that the smoky environment created by her open fire even forced her to cook outside. In addition to firewood, some refugee families cook with charcoal – a polluting fuel which costs rural families five times the amount it costs in Addis. Sofia’s daughter notes, “Charcoal is dangerous. Some people pass out from the smell. In the camps, there were also some accidents because of kerosene explosions. People got burned.”

The CleanCook ethanol stove is smoke-free and meets WHO emissions standards for carbon particulate matter. It makes possible an environment where women can cook with their children by their side and avoid the dangers of fuelwood collection.

Gaia Association, an affiliate of Project Gaia, Inc. is an Ethiopian non-profit, non-governmental organization working to provide clean-burning stoves and alcohol fuels to families in Ethiopia since 2005. For more information, please visit