To combat the perils of indoor air pollution, The Good Stove Project builds fuel-efficient cooking stoves. Dr. Sai Bhaskar Reddy Nakka, who heads the project, speaks to Tansha Vohra about empathy in design, the importance of participatory research, and developing solutions that matter.
When I think about local food systems in India, my mind is drawn to the sounds of markets teeming with people and produce, the taste of wild greens that emerge right after the first rains, the smells of different breads making their way through a city, and the gentle touch of relationships forged over a kitchen fire. Yet somehow, I’ve never looked to the fire itself as a shaper of systems. The irony isn’t lost on me—it is after all the very element that transformed the way humans eat and nourish themselves. It is around this fire that our story begins.
Spearheaded by Dr. Sai Bhaskar Reddy Nakka, The Good Stove project aims to build fuel-efficient cooking stoves across rural India to combat the unprecedented perils of indoor air pollution. While Dr. Reddy is the Director of the Council for Earth Leadership and Sustainability, and a technical expert at the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, the titles he enjoys the most are ‘Poyla Sir’, or the ‘Sir of Stoves’, and ‘Gramala Nestham’ meaning ‘friend of the villages’—names given to him by the people he has worked with.
Over a morning Zoom call with a customary cup of coffee, Dr. Reddy talks to me about one of his visits to Srirangapur, a village in Telangana, to study the different sources and forms of energy—primarily biomass—consumed by the community. A little under 50 per cent of India relies on traditional biomass as fuel. “While conducting my research, I observed heaps of firewood being collected, and food being cooked on rudimentary three-stone stoves with open fire. As women were primarily cooking, they inhaled the most amount of smoke and particulate matter (PM), severely affecting their physical health and cognition,” he explains.
Exposure to high levels of particulate matter from indoor cooking stoves that use open fire, as opposed to LPG, has links to a variety of health problems including respiratory infections, asthma, heart disease, and cancer. According to the World Health Organization, indoor air pollution from cooking stoves is responsible for approximately 4.3 million deaths each year, affecting primarily women and children as per this report by The Print.
It is these observations and numbers that prompted Dr. Reddy to initiate his own research into cooking stoves, and learn to design stoves that are fuel and emission-efficient, and likely to be adopted with ease by women in the villages he was working in.
“Between 2005 and 2012, I conducted intensive research in over 1000 different homes to assess the different sources of biomass used. I identified wood, dried dung, and discarded crop material from the cotton and castor harvests as the main inputs, and documented materials available in these arid and semi-arid regions to build stoves out of,” Dr. Reddy shares. Today, he has created over 50 open-sourced designs for biomass stoves, including gasifier biomass stoves.
Families in Srirangapur that have switched to using Dr. Reddy’s design have noticed that they save up to 550 kilograms of fuelwood a year, not to mention the time and energy it takes to fetch that much wood. Dr. Reddy has also been working on stove designs that allow for the traditional practice of harvesting biochar (charcoal made from the biomass burning in the stove). Essentially a byproduct, biochar is used in farms and kitchen gardens to improve soil conditions, allowing beneficial microbes to colonize and aid in the sequestering of carbon. He is also a pioneer in popularising biochar in India.
Having open-sourced his stove designs, Dr. Reddy’s designs are available on his website for free, along with his books Understanding Stoves and Good Stoves Facilitation. Collaboration and skill-sharing are vital to the larger goal of reversing the climate crisis, and I am particularly inspired by his willingness to share design solutions. We need all the help we can get.
The other integral aspect of Dr. Reddy’s design process is participatory research—a design principle that appreciates the value of different perspectives, knowledge, and experience. He emphasizes how this is at the heart of The Good Stove Project. “If you don’t develop a solution alongside the people whose problem it is, your solution may never really be implemented, and you may not achieve what you set out to do,” he reflects.
To illustrate this, he tells me a story of the humble jowar roti, a staple food in the region of Telangana that he mainly works in. A few homes were given an initial iteration of a Good Stove, asked to use it for a week, and provide feedback on the design, utility and comfort. When they tried to make a jowar roti—typically less elastic than other kinds of rotis—they found it coming apart as they lifted it from the pan into the plate.
They reasoned that it was because the stove was higher than the three-stone open fire stove, and that the extra height was a large inconvenience to them although it is the reason for increased fuel burning efficiency. “To increase the adoption of Good Stoves in these villages, the height of the stove was then reduced by two inches. It reduced the efficiency slightly, but over 10,000 houses started to use the stoves after this change,” says Dr. Reddy. A little compromise in efficiency was well worth the increase in its utility, as that is the project’s core mission. “Sometimes, ‘best’ is the enemy of ‘good’,” he adds.
For Dr. Reddy, Good Stoves is just one of his projects. He is an international environment and development consultant with over two decades of experience in working on projects concerning climate change, disaster management, energy, agriculture, and water. At present, he is working as Director to the Council for Earth Leadership and Sustainability through capacity-building programs designed to encourage environmental stewardship, with a focus on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. He also conducts training programs for interested youth, and works closely with the Telangana State Forest Department to develop environmentally sound forest management practices.
As our call is coming to an end, Dr. Reddy reminds me that the most crucial research skill anyone can develop is sensitivity—to a place, a community, a setting. “Without sensitivity, despite your best intentions, the work only goes so far,” he says. The ability to be empathetic and respectful isn’t often prioritised in the field of research and development, yet without them, very little progress can actually be made.
I’m comforted with the knowledge that there are people like Dr. Reddy who value these traits, actively practice them, and are willing to dedicate their time to teach a new generation of design thinkers. He thanks me for making the time to write this story, I am left unable to thank him enough for the work he’s done.
Tansha Vohra is a food writer and researcher, embarking on a Masters in Anthropology of Food at SOAS. In 2021, she was a resident at the Serendipity Art Foundation’s Food Lab where she initiated her project Boochi, an interdisciplinary investigation into edible insects in India. The project was invited to Dubai Expo 2020 and India Art Fair in 2022. If she could, she would grow gills and fins and live under the sea.
THE LOCAVORE CHAMPIONS
To learn to do good through food, we also turn to others for inspiration. The Locavore Champions is our way of gathering stories of people who create meaningful change in the Indian food system.