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Key considerations for cooking fuel

Last edited: July 03, 2013

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  • Access to cooking fuel is often limited in conflict and post-conflict settings. Despite the fact that most food rations distributed by aid agencies need to be cooked, cooking fuel is not typically included in the distributions. Not only do women need firewood for cooking, but many women also collect and sell firewood as a means of earning money.  Because of this, many women resort to collecting firewood outside of camps, which in turn exposes them to increased risk of sexual assault (Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children,2006a). For more information, see Women’s Refugee Commission. 2011. Cooking Fuel and the Humanitarian Response in the Horn of Africa.: Key Messages and Guidance for Action. New York: WRC.
  • Programmes that take into account cooking fuel shortages during crises can help reduce a key risk factor for violence against women and girls by encouraging the use of fuel-efficient stove and cooking methods, exploring alternative fuels, and supporting safer, more sustainable income-generating activities.
  • The IASC GBV Guidelines (p. 53-61) and GBV AoR tip sheet on Non-Food Items provide guidelines and recommendations to prevent VAWG through addressing cooking fuel strategies and distribution of other non-food items.  In addition, the following considerations should taken into account when developing appropriate cooking fuel strategies:
  1. Conduct a Participatory Needs Assessment. Involve local leaders, those collecting firewood, communities and authorities from the host environment, and women members of Food Management Committees to determine types and extent of fuel needs.  Assess and analyze the locations, routes, means, and personal safety for collecting cooking and heating fuel.  Specific attention should be paid to whether violence is occurring outside of or within the camps. 
  2. Coordinate efforts with the local community. Create a strategy for safer fuel collection. Coordinate with local authorities around needs of women and safe and sustainable access to natural resources, and facilitate ongoing communication between women and local leaders.  Raise awareness with local communities, beneficiaries and humanitarian partners through workshops and campaigns about the link between firewood collection and sexual assault, and foster discussion, research and development of alternative strategies.
  3. Consider the Use of Alternative Fuels. Alternative fuels can reduce the need to travel long distances and frequently to collect it, thus reducing exposure to abuse. Explore and implement alternative fuel technologies, and provide trainings on the use of these alternatives. Such alternatives include:

o Loose waste, such as cow dung, maize cobs, husks, twigs, etc.
o Fuel briquettes
o Grass
o Peat
o Biogas
o Kerosene
o Solar energy
o Ethanol
o Liquefied petroleum gas (Owen, 2002).


Source: Chart excerpted from Owen, 2002, p. 36)

  • Long-term goals should address environmental issues (such as deforestation) and economic issues of those dependent on firewood, or on the manufacture and sale of charcoal.


Example: As a means of reducing both the incidence of acute respiratory infections caused by cooking smoke as well as the risk of VAW faced by Somali refugee women collecting firewood outside of the Jijiga area camps in eastern Ethiopia, the Gaia Association and UNHCR introduced ethanol fuel and “CleanCook” ethanol stoves beginning in 2005, which burn cleanly and can cook locally-preferred food (njera). With sufficient supply, ethanol eliminates the need for firewood, and thus contributes to both protection and environmental concerns.
Source: Patrick, 2011, summarized from UNHCR, 2008b.

4.    Encourage Fuel-Efficient Cooking Practices. Provide both formal and informal education around the following examples of fuel-efficient cooking practices, working in collaboration with IEC/BCC partners (The Academy for Educational Development. 2010):

  • Pot management
    • Cover pot with a tight-fitting lid to retain heat
    • Use a pot size that corresponds to the quantity of food being cooked
    • If two pots are available, begin warming a second dish by placing it on top of the main pot
  • Stove/fire management
    • Do not overstuff the stove with fuel
    • Shield the stove or fire from strong winds
    • Clean and maintain the stove as instructed to increase stove performance
  • Fuel management
    • Dry firewood before using it. Dry fuel burns more efficiently and completely, and releases less smoke.
    • Cut firewood into small pieces to manage fuel consumption better
    • Completely extinguish fire when finished cooking rather than allowing it to burn out on its own
  • Meal planning
    • Presoak hard foods, beans, and some grains for several hours before cooking to reduce the cooking time needed
    • Use tenderizing methods, such as filtering water through ash, to cook beans
    • Cut hard foods into smaller pieces
  • Supplemental cooking technologies
    • Use haybaskets or another type of heat-retention cooker
    • Gently simmer foods (as opposed to rapid boiling)
    • Cook together with other families, or establish institutional cooking by local agencies, using shared pots to reduce fuel consumption
  • Advantages and Disadvantages of different cooking stoves:

Source: excerpted from Owen, 2002. “Cooking Options in Refugee Situations: A Handbook of Experiences in Energy Conservation and Alternative Fuels.” UNHCR, Geneva, p. 16.


Case Study: Partnering with FAO, UNHCR, the Women’s Refugee Commission and others, WFP is taking forward the recommendations of the UN Interagency Task Force on Safe Access to Firewood and alternative Energy (SAFE) by providing over 100,000 women in conflict-affected settings around the world with mud/clay stoves for their homes and larger institutional stoves for schools to use for feeding programmes.  

A four-pronged strategy allows WFP to:

  1. Reduce the vulnerability and frequency of exposure of women to risk through the major scaling up of dissemination of fuel-efficient stoves and alternative fuels.
  2. Explore energy technologies that can be effectively applied to protection, livelihood and environmental needs.
  3. Promote the creation of livelihoods to reduce the reliance of women on the collection of firewood for income.
  4. Provide schools with fuel-efficient stoves to help ensure that the cost of cooking fuel is not an obstacle to school attendance.

SAFE stoves have been distributed in Sudan, Uganda, Haiti, and Sri Lanka and there are plans to expand the programme to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Kenya. The SAFE activities often build on traditional WFP field operations such as food for work and food for training and school meals. In Kabkabiya, a remote area in North Darfur where the erosion of the natural resources is particularly bleak and protection risks are high, WFP is supporting the production of cooking briquettes made out of organic waste. Garbage collection and briquette-making involves hundreds of women. WFP beneficiaries are working closely with staff to improve the design of the briquette-making machines, and to select the most effective accompanying stove. The production of mud stoves is being supported in combination with food-for-work activities, such as gardening and tree planting.

Following training in the construction of stoves in Karamoja, Uganda, women reported a reduced need to collect firewood and that faster cooking time has allowed them to pursue other activities. Local youth groups are now producing and selling stoves in local markets. In combination with the dissemination of stoves, WFP is implementing community projects in the cultivation of crops (staples and vegetables), tree-planting (for wood and fruits) and rainwater harvesting. (Excerpted from the World Food Programme (WFP). 2010. “WFP and Safe Access to Firewood: Protecting and Empowering Communities.” Brochure.)

For more information about the WFP SAFE stoves programme, see the full case study.


5. Implement Strategies to Increase Safety and Security during Fuel Collection. In regions where firewood can be sustainably harvested, explore the possibility of safer collection areas.  Deploying police to patrol firewood collection routes, or providing NGO vehicles to transport women to and from collection sites can prevent violence from occurring (InterAgency Standing Committee, 2005).


Example: Internal armed conflict in Darfur, Sudan has led to a high incidence of sexual violence against civilian women and girls. Attacks occur when women/girls leave the relative safety of a village or a camp (to collect food, water, fuel, work the farm, etc.).  The African Union (AU) soldiers patrol along commonly used firewood collection routes in several of the established internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.  In addition, the GBV working group promoted training for women to construct and use fuel-efficient stoves. This reduced the amount of wood needed for cooking, thereby reducing the time/distance for collecting firewood, in turn reducing exposure to attacks.


Source: Excerpted from InterAgency Standing Committee, 2005, p. 60.

6. Encourage Alternative Income-Generating Activities. Because many women rely on the collection and sale of firewood for economic security, it is important that alternative income-generating activities be supported alongside the promotion of fuel-efficient technologies and alternative fuels.  For more information on income generating activities, see the section on Livelihoods

7. Aid Distribution. Simple considerations in aid distribution can significantly decrease women’s need to collect firewood:

  • When feasible and appropriate, provide emergency rations of cooking fuel along with food rations.
  • Include food rations that don’t need to be cooked (such as biscuits) with general rations.
  • Include quick-cooking food with general rations.
  • Distribute and install fuel efficient stoves and tighter pot lids – this decreases the amount of firewood needed.  Require the use of these stoves in schools and therapeutic feeding programs (InterAgency Standing Committee, 2005).
  • However, such direct aid distribution is often costly and unsustainable, and therefore it is important that this approach should be used in conjunction with other approaches.  It is essential that links between firewood collection and VAW be viewed in the context of social factors that support violence against women, such as gender roles and expectations of who will collect firewood.  If firewood is treated simply as a cause of rape and fuel is provided as a “technical fix,” deeper social issues will not be addressed and any success in decreasing violence will be limited (Ziebell, 2005).

Additional Tools:

The Women’s Refugee Commission has developed an e-learning portal that offers trainings in how to use the Matrix and Decision-Tree Diagram that were developed by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Force on Safe Access to Firewood and alternative Energy (SAFE). These tools help individuals to determine safe and appropriate methods of meeting cooking fuel-related needs.

The Women’s Refugee Commission and InterAgency Standing Committee Taskforce provide focus group discussion questions on the topic of cooking fuel needs and preferences.  

For a checklist to ensure gender equality programming in NFI distribution, see page 92 of the Gender Handbook in Humanitarian Action, Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 2006.

The International Network on Household Energy in Humanitarian Settings, 2007-2011. This is a project of the InterAgency Standing Committee Task Force on Safe Access to Firewood and Alternative Energy in Humanitarian Settings and the Women’s Refugee Commission, and provides resources and tools on non-food items.

USAID, 2010. Fuel-Efficient Stove Programs in Humanitarian Settings: an Implementer’s Toolkit. The purpose of this Toolkit is to help humanitarian organizations determine if an FES (Fuel-Efficient Stove) programme is feasible and appropriate for a given setting, and if so, how to design and implement an effective programme for wood-burning stoves. These guidelines and associated tools represent standard good practices approved by the United States Agency for International Development/Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) for FES programs in immediate and protracted humanitarian contexts.