Cookstoves. This is probably how colleagues in the corridor leading to Samer Abdelnour’s office would sum up his research subject. Abdelnour – who as a political sociologist sees himself as a ‘rare species’ within the business school RSM – smiles when he hears this. Sure: technically, they’re right. But it’s actually what these cookstoves represent that makes them interesting.

This is the deal: every day, millions of poor women, from South America to South Asia and Africa, can be found kneeling above a wood fire, improvising meals for their families. In small houses or tents that often lack a chimney and have very poor ventilation. With unsettling consequences: severe burns, pulmonary conditions, numerous diseases – including among children, who often stay close to their mothers.


In the feature section Science cowboys, Geert Maarse talks with researchers who take things a bit further than most of their colleagues. Samer Abdelnour (Rotterdam School of Management) went to refugee camps in Sudan for three years, to research humanitarian aid and entrepeneurship.

In response, aid agencies came up with the idea of manufacturing a low-cost, super-efficient, state-of-the-art improved cookstove. Designers set to work, procure funding for distribution, and with the aid of a few big names, in no time at all, improved cookstoves became the obsession of many aid workers. It could put an end to all sorts of health issues. And, according to some, the stove could even help combat deforestation and climate change, since it made local users less dependent on firewood. Abdelnour: “When I arrived in Darfur in 2006, some organisations even promoted these stoves as a means to reduce sexual violence against women.”

What the relation between a cook stove and sexual assault?

“It’s based on the very persuasive story that women are frequently assaulted while looking for firewood. They often need to walk for miles through unsafe territory to do so. So in theory, when you reduce their dependence on firewood, you simultaneously reduce the threat of sexual violence. The only problem is: we have no evidence to back up this claim. And it has never been subjected to rigorous independent research. Certainly women are at risk of violence if collecting fuel in unsafe areas, but vulnerable women risk violence in camps too. Most studies up till now either reproduce this seductive narrative of violence or is performed by an organisation that designs or distributes the stoves. And this research often had a very technical focus, namely: What’s its performance when it comes to reducing emissions?”

Using a traditional cook stove can lead to grave dangers, even sexual violence. Image credit: Samer Abdelnour

Important questions, right?

“Undoubtedly. And some of the smartest scientists in the world are contributing to this research. But still, for the most part cookstoves are designed and tested in laboratory settings and not in the contexts-of-use. In labs everything is controlled. There is a consistent gas flow, and the pot is positioned precisely on the centre of the heat source. However, when you visit the refugee camps, you can see people using these stoves in the strangest ways. They mix all sorts of fuel sources – once, I even saw someone who had turned one of these high-tech cookers upside down to use it as a brazier. There’s no way you could find this out as an industrial designer. And another thing that’s missing is critical reflection: why would people assume that a very simple domestic technology – a cookstove – can solve some of the most complex, deep-seated societal ills: climate change, deforestation, sexual violence? Because let’s be honest: the main cause of these problems isn’t poor women cooking their meals.”

Why did you decide to go to Sudan?

“Sudan more or less happened to me, strangely enough. I had been working in the private sector for five years or so – BMW, Honda and Canadian Tire, Canada’s largest retail company – when I experienced what you could call a quarter-life crisis. I was born in Canada, but my parents are Palestinian. I wanted to discover these roots, and I ended up at Beirut’s refugee camps, where I worked as a volunteer instructor for two summers. This was in 2003-4, when coverage of the Darfur crisis was reaching its peak. I planned to do a master’s project that combined my management experience with my interest in refugees. By chance, I met David Wheeler, one of the first social enterprise theorists. I started graduate school working with him and refugee studies scholars like Susan McGrath and Peter Penz and within a few months I was in Cairo building partnerships with Sudanese universities. And it didn’t take long for me to end up in Sudan myself. If I hadn’t gone to Beirut, my life would have taken a completely different course.”

Why did you want to get out of the corporate environment?

“I was raised in a working-class migrant family. My parents were refugees and travelled to Canada for a better life. They worked very hard to offer my brother and me a new future. They made it very clear that I should obtain a degree that guarantees you a steady income. But I always felt there was more to life than this. At college, in addition to management and economics I also studied African literature, Middle Eastern politics and economic development. And the weird thing is: after a few years working for the private sector, I started feeling that I was living a life that wasn’t my own. After creating opportunities to explore my original passion and interests, I felt more alive than ever. The first time I set foot in a refugee camp, in Lebanon, there was one thing I knew for sure: I’d never go back to the corporate world.”

You gave up a relatively comfortable life to start working in one of the world’s worst conflict areas. What did that feel like?

“The circumstances in Sudan and Southern Sudan are so trying – particularly in regions destroyed by civil war – that there’s no way to really prepare for them. I remember my first visit outside the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. We visited Juba in Southern Sudan, years before it became an independent country. In one of the camps there, we met an older woman who talked about the violence she had experienced in her life. At that time I was still thinking a lot about this North-South conflict. But she said: all of that isn’t important. Any man with a weapon – whether it’s my neighbour, the police, the opposition, the army or a bandit – if you’re vulnerable, you are assaulted. The stories she told me… I won’t repeat them here, but they kept me up at night for weeks.”

August 2008 Nyala, Darfur CHF Stoves Workshop (6) copy
A stoves workshop in Nyala, Darfur (photo Samer Abdelnour).

How long have you worked in the Sudans?

“My longest trip was five months, the shortest ten days. All in all, I think I’ve spent around 3.5 years in Sudan and Southern Sudan since starting to work there as a researcher in 2006.”

That’s nearly one-third of that entire period. Why is it so important to stay there for so long?

“I believe it’s the only way you can gain a clear picture of how people there actually live, what the situation on the ground is like. When I first arrived in Sudan, my idea of the country – like most people – was mainly based on the reports in the media. For example, living there, I quickly found out that the conflict isn’t simply about religion or ethnicity. Whereas the international perception of this conflict and the aid we offer are both strongly rooted in this assumption. My initial trips really gave me an opportunity to challenge my existing knowledge: my degree programme, the articles and books that I had read, the experts I used to take my cue from.”

Did everyone get the wrong end of the stick then?

“As a researcher, you have the option of reflecting on people in different ways. When you’re developing a cooker, you tend to see people as the users of your product. When you work for an aid organisation, you see people as needy. In my research I keep an open mind when I talk with people – I ask them what they’re doing, and why. Then you realise their lives are much more complex and diverse. They have a tremendous variety of needs, aspirations and desires. You need to use this knowledge to constantly challenge your own approach to humanitarian aid.”

Could you offer us a concrete recommendation?

“The way I see it, the first lesson to learn from this is that you can’t just descend on an area without having an eye for the potential of local people and local markets. I have nothing against outside aid, but all too often, people assume that refugees have nothing left and have no skills. One example is people’s indignation upon hearing that refugees landing in Europe by boat had mobile phones. What did you expect? I’ve met women with master degrees in the camps of Darfur. Sudan and particularly South Darfur is rich in agriculture, but aid workers in camps acted like we were stuck in the middle of the desert. UN agencies brought in huge shipments of cooking oil from China, even though Sudan itself is a major producer of sesame oil. But in these kinds of situations, the international community often lacks the necessary insight or incentives to hook up with local producers. Aid is often seen as a problem of relief logistics, not a potential to support local socio-economic development.

Another lesson I believe you could draw is that programmes devote an excessive amount of attention to empowering women and girls without taking men and boys into consideration. Reducing the vulnerability of women and girls is an important issue, but when every refugee camp has dozens of programmes geared towards helping women and girls while ignoring young men it can lead to unintended consequences. It says a lot about how the West views societies like this – primitive, patriarchal – even though the Sudanese parliament may well have more female members than its Dutch counterpart.

And indirectly, this has resulted in a new wave of violence. Over the large-scale humanitarian campaign responding to the Darfur humanitarian crisis, a huge number of boys have turned to violence – I believe because they were ignored by aid programmes and thus felt they had little options for support. Around 2008-9 hundreds of off-road vehicles operated by the UN and other international agencies were hijacked. Chop-off the top, mount a weapon and bam, another ‘instant gang’. Hundreds of vehicles. This has hardly been written about.”

A focus group in Akot, Sudan. Abdelnour: “I’ve worked almost exclusively with local people and organizations.” Image credit: Samer Abdelnour

Do you ever find it difficult to keep going?

[with conviction] “By no means. Don’t forget: there are many different Sudans. It’s an extremely layered country, and has a very rich history and many cultures. Over the past few years, I have built up a huge network and made a number of good friends, so it feels like my second home. And it definitely helps that I get by with my Arabic, so that I fit in a bit better. Really, I’m one of the luckiest people in the world. I work for a wonderful institute, with very nice people, and I get paid to do research that I find very interesting. I feel blessed.”

How do your parents feel about your work?

“For a long time, they didn’t feel too happy about it. The way they saw it, I was trading a good job, a nice flat and a lease car for an insecure existence in a dangerous part of the world. They didn’t understand why anyone would do that. And of course, they were worried for my safety. But they’re a bit more comfortable with it now. They still can’t get their heads around it entirely, but they do feel I am doing something worthwhile.”