The majority of women in the developing world prepare food on a technology called a three-stone fire. It is basically three rocks that support a pot with an open fire in the middle. This cooking method is very inefficient and leads to environmental and health problems. One very real side effect being that children are denied education and future because they are sent to collect firewood. Wood that every day is founder at further distances. The walk takes all day and leaves no time for school. However, since the three-stone method is a tradition since thousand of years a new stove must allow the user to keep their way of life intact to be successful. The solution is to make a stove that burns wood, but as efficient as possible.
The design approach has really been the same as with any design project. Design is about solutions – function, usability, unification – and about adding an immaterial – humane, aesthetic, iconic – dimension. You can still cook over burning wood, but with the Baker stove you need only one third of the wood of before. In numbers from tests at the University of Nairobi the Baker Cookstove achieve a 56% reduction in CO and 38% reduction in particulate matter. The goal was to design a subtly iconic object. A functionalistic design, yet recognisable and memorable. The road up to the final incarnation has turned several times after research and performance optimisation changed the technical parameters. There are good reasons for each and every design choice, like the use of recycled aluminium and the trapezoid folding that correspond to weight, heat transmission, sturdiness etcetera. The somewhat eye-opening obvious is that we all have an emotional relationship with our objects. The psychology is no different if you have less or have it all; if you relate to a basic cookstove in Africa or a high performance car in the streets of Europe. To hand out functioning – but crude and cheap – cooking tools to “the poor” is commendable but condescending. Would I myself really appreciate a cheap and ugly tool offered to me because it “works and improves my life”? Maybe that’s not good enough. As designers we need to put the same effort into an African stove as were we designing an Italian sports car.