In Hindi the word “chulha” means stove, but for millions of low-income people in developing countries, a stove is a pile of stones heated by an open wood- or cow-dung-burning fire in their homes. This method of cooking poses a serious health hazard: indoor air pollution resulting from the burning of biomass fuels is a leading cause of respiratory diseases. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that 1.6 million people — mostly women and children, who are more likely to cook or to be confined in the home while cooking is done — die annually from indoor air pollution; India alone accounts for 25 percent of such deaths. That’s why Philips’s Philanthropy by Design unit, working with the company’s Indian office and the organization ARTI (Appropriate Rural Technology Institute), chose for its first project to create a stove that wouldn’t taint the air. “The goal was a low-tech, low-cost, low-smoke device that respects local traditions and culinary habits,” says Simona Rocchi, senior director for sustainable design at Philips and a member of the core design team for the Chulha project, which won the 2009 INDEX Award in the Home category.
The Chulha is a simple, modular concrete-block stove covered in brown clay. It features two potholes: one for circulating hot air for steamed foods such as rice, and the other for heating flat pans holding chipati (fried bread) and similar dishes. The modular format was chosen to facilitate production, assembly, installation and the replacement of parts. As the design progressed, two models of the Chulha emerged to accommodate different income levels: one version priced at 9 to 11 Euros ($13.10 to $16) has a double oven and hotbox; a pricier model, at 13 to 15 Euros ($18.90 to $21.80), includes a steamer. Both stoves feature a decorative pattern common in India, which could be described in marketing terms as a lifestyle upgrade. After all, notes Rocchi, “Design solutions for poor people don’t have to be ugly.”
A critical design element of the Chulha is a chimney fitted with a special filtering device made of slotted clay tablets to trap toxic particles. Many stoves currently in use don’t have chimneys at all, and those that do are often cleaned from the domicile’s roof, an onerous and accident-prone task usually undertaken by women. The Chulha’s chimney is equipped with a small trap door that affords easier cleaning from within the house. Initial tests suggest that the Chulha reduces indoor air pollution by up to 90 percent compared with indoor open cooking-fires.
Another goal of the project is to enable local people and entrepreneurs — especially women-run enterprises — to produce and sell the Chulha, based on a special training kit and open-source manufacturing plans made available by Philips. An estimated 1,000 new stoves will be distributed over the next year in Puna, India, to test the product and its social impact, and a second pilot project will begin soon in Bangalore. Rocchi says reduced-smoke stoves could be applied in Bangladesh and Pakistan — countries that have culinary traditions similar to India’s, but substantial adaptations would be required to fit the particular cuisines and rounder house shapes (necessitating a different kind of chimney) of potential users in Latin America and Africa.