Andree Sosler: A Winning Recipe in Darfur

Commentary | September 23, 2011

It’s not easy to get to Darfur from Berkeley, California. For Andree Sosler, the trip begins with a month-long application process for a humanitarian visa to Sudan and two connecting flights to Khartoum. Then, a flight on a U.N. World Food Program plane, which everyone says is safer than a commercial airline, over dusty scrublands to Al-Fashir, North Darfur’s capital — a town so quiet you can hear the wind, so quiet you can almost forget why the Oxfam guest house’s roof is scrolled with barbed wire.

A few miles from town is Zam Zam Camp, which houses about 200,000 of the 2 million refugees who fled their homes during Sudan’s lingering civil war, which killed 300,000 people. 70,000 new refugees arrived in Zam Zam just this year: government troops are still burning villages, even as Darfur’s genocide has slid out of the news. In December 2009, Andree visited the camp to speak with women about a potentially life-saving device: A fuel-efficient stove.

In Zam Zam Camp, women face a terrible choice in order to feed their cooking fires: they must risk assault and rape to search the picked-over countryside for a single tree, walking for up to seven hours three to five days a week, or buy wood by selling their food rations. In 2005, at the request of the U.S. Agency for International Development and haunted by the women’s stories, Dr. Ashok Gadgil, a physicist known for inventing a cheap method of disinfecting water using ultra-violet light, led a team of Berkeley scientists to design a stove that uses less half the wood of the hungry fires.

The Berkeley-Darfur stove is one contender in the crowded, growing field of fuel-efficient stoves. Today, 3 billion people cook over open fires or sooty traditional stoves. According to the World Health Organization, each year 1.9 million people – mainly women and children – die prematurely from inhaling indoor smoke. Cook fires and polluting stoves also contribute to global warming, emitting greenhouse gases laced with sunlight-absorbing black carbon, and hurry deforestation. Last September, Hillary Clinton announced the launch of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership aimed to put clean-burning stoves in 100 million homes in by 2020, with $50 million from the U.S. government. They even have celebrity spokesperson: Julia Roberts.

According to the World Health Organization, each year 1.9 million people – mainly women and children – die prematurely from inhaling indoor smoke.

Stoves, in other words, are hot. There is something seductive in the idea that, by inventing one perfect appliance, we can save women’s lives, preserve forests and dramatically reduce global warming. But a good stove in the lab is not guaranteed to work in the field, which is littered with failed stoves projects. The challenge is not just designing a stove: it’s getting that stove to people and getting them to use it. That’s Andree’s job.

At this point, I should disclose that Andree and I have been close friends since we met in a Russian History class at Brown in 1999. A few weeks ago, we got together for a hiking trip in Bryce Canyon, where I did my best to forget my job and Andree couldn’t help but speak of hers.

Stepping around fallen trees at the base of the canyon, Andree wondered aloud, “Does it sound better if we say that putting 3 ½ stoves in the field reduces Co2 emissions as much as taking one U.S. car off the road for a year, or, since the stoves last 5 years, each stove in the field is like taking a car off the road?”

“The second,” I said. “I think.”

As the Executive Director of TISS, a fledgling nonprofit founded to help market and distribute the Berkeley-Darfur stove, Andree’s average day seemed to combine all the rigors of running a start-up with adventure travel and Kafkaesque bureaucratic procedure, not to mention the logistical puzzles of fundraising.

It’s rare to have a job dedicated to helping people who have been through the worst horrors of the 21st century, with slowing global warming as a bonus and so, when I got the chance to interview Andree about her work, I leapt at it.

Andree told me that she decided to do development work in Africa during her junior year abroad in Cameroon.

“I was really impressed by how people can survive on so little and still have so much passion and joy,” Andree said.

Andree was struck by what she saw in Cameroon, in part because it was so different from how she’d grown up in Coconut Grove, Miami, where she saw that money didn’t necessarily bring happiness. Her mother died when she was fourteen and her father, in poor health by the time we graduated from college, died when she was twenty-five.

Andree believes that losing her parents pushed her to consider what she wanted out of life, saying, “Meaning became important to me maybe earlier.”

To me, those losses seemed to give Andree an early independence and a kind of deep, implacable calm. Andree is unfazed by things like scampering cockroaches in Brooklyn bedrooms, crossing motorcycle-crazed streets in Hanoi and brushing her teeth with questionable water in developing countries.

At 23, when most of us were slogging through our first cubicle jobs, Andree was traveling alone to West Africa to visit villagers who were opening small shops and raising livestock with microfinance grants administered by Trickle Up, a New York-based nonprofit. There, she saw that the grants were making concrete changes in peoples’ lives.

Andree is unfazed by things like scampering cockroaches in Brooklyn bedrooms, crossing motorcycle-crazed streets in Hanoi and brushing her teeth with questionable water in developing countries.

Andree went on to Wharton, to learn how to manage a business, and then moved to Kigali to work for a competitive consulting company, advising the Rwandan government on how to make tea profitable. She found herself missing the kind of impact she’d seen at Trickle Up.

When she learned about the Berkeley Darfur Stoves Project, she was impressed, explaining, “from the beginning, Ashok understood that you have to tailor the products for the women, which is rare in this kind of work.”

The stove, now in its 14th iteration, is a modest Indian stove that Gadgil’s team adapted for Darfur’s high-winds and uneven terrain. Gadgil says that, in an earlier version, the stoves’ legs and handles were not sturdy enough, which caused the stove to wobble on uneven terrain and the handles to loosen – problems that could only be discovered by working directly with the women.
Certain she wanted the job, Andree offered to fly herself out to San Francisco for an interview.

“I said, we can’t have that,” laughed Gadgil. “But it was clear that she was the right candidate.”

I interviewed Debra Stein, TISS’s one other full-time employee, to get a sense of how she and Andree spend their days. The week I called, they were laboring through a US AID funding proposal and planning for TISS’s next venture: bringing fuel-efficient stoves to Ethiopia. They also had to figure out how to pay a the salary of a new Sudanese marketing expert – tricky, because it is illegal to transfer funds from the United States to Sudan, an official state sponsor of terrorism.

When it comes to getting technology to the world’s poorest people, Andree says, the problem of supply chains and distribution is sometimes as challenging as creating the technology itself.

When Andree began work at the Darfur Stoves Project in September 2009, the team had distributed 5,000 stoves with the help of a previous partner, who built them locally at a limited rate of 200 a month. Today, working with Oxfam America and a local Sudanese nonprofit called the Sustainable Action Group (SAG), the project has distributed over 20,000 stoves using an innovative “flat kit” approach: the stove’s metal sheets are punched-out in Mumbai and shipped to Al-Fashir, where a Berkeley engineer helped train twelve local people to assemble the stoves, creating vital jobs.

The shop also repairs broken stoves for free although, according to Adam Bushara of Oxfam America, so far none of the stoves have broken. Oxfam America and SAG also train women how to use the stoves and how to teach others to do so.

Women pay more than $2 a day for wood for their fires and only $1 a day using the stove, so, since the stoves cost $20, the purchase will earn itself out in twenty days. Andree adds that, in a planned marketing trial, people will be able to pay for the stove over three months and can return it at any time.

While it may seem counterintuitive to charge poor people for a product, Andree explains, “I strongly believe that selling something gives us valuable feedback.” That is, whether the women themselves think the stove is worth having and how it can be made even more desirable.

While it may seem counterintuitive to charge poor people for a product, Andree explains, “I strongly believe that selling something gives us valuable feedback.”

Speaking with Andree, I was struck by how much she relies on feedback, from planned independent assessments of the stove to a survey sent to a wide circle of friends listing possible new names for TISS, soon to be an independent nonprofit (the leading name is “Potential Energy,” although Debra still likes “Mule Tech: Carrying Technologies to the People who need them.”) And, of course, feedback from the women.

When Andree visited Zam Zam Camp in December 2009, she had the chance to listen to the women directly. They sat in a meeting area with a thatched roof and walls made of wooden polls, in slotted sunlight. Men in airy white clothes and women in brightly-colored dresses sat on woven mats on the sandy floor, passing around a few sample stoves, turning them over in their hands.

After introductions were made, Andree stood up and told women about the history of the stoves. She told them about the scientists in California who had shaped the stoves’ collars to fit their pots, the legs to suit their floors, and she asked the women to give the stove a name. There was a lot of chatter and then one woman raised her hand and proposed, in Sudanese Arabic, “the Five Minute stove.” Why? Because it the stove cooks their daily meal of assidah, a thick sorgum porridge, in under ten minutes rather than a half an hour.

The women who use the Five Minute stove include Mariam, who fled her home at fifteen when the Janjaweed attacked and wandered for two years before reaching Zam Zam Camp, and Hawa, a day laborer with seven children. Andree says that when the women learned how scientists thousands of miles away had designed a stove specifically for them, they were amazed.

“They loved that,” said Andree. “They were so moved.”

For Andree, the name Five Minute stove tells her a lot – it says that the women value the stove not for abstract concerns related to global warming or even bronchial health, but for the immediate improvement it brings to their daily lives.

Speaking with Andree about stoves, I began to see that a solution for the developing world hatched in the West can’t be just charity, or elegant science, or an intervention with multiple impacts, as the Five Minute Stove might be termed in nonprofit lingo. For the Darfuri women, a stove is a thoughtfully-designed appliance that makes food taste good – just what any cook would want to own anywhere in the world.

Abby Rabinowitz is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, and she teaches writing at Columbia University.