Step right up and see a new way of cooking. Women from the Nasna Foundation show off their wares in Sanaa, Yemen, during a bazaar organized by the Yemeni Women Union for International Women's Day in 2019. (Courtesy Nasna Foundation)

Displaced Women in Yemen Become Entrepreneurs

Alternative stoves, special heat-retaining cooking bag help people cope with gas shortage in time of war

Hind Al-Jaberi, a 32-year-old woman living in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, recently started cooking with a unique, solar-powered stove due to a massive cooking-gas shortage in the north of the civil war-wracked country.

“My family and I have suffered a lot during this gas crisis,” she told The Media Line. “We had to resort to the black market many times to buy it. We also had to buy [food] from restaurants, which cost a lot and came at the expense of other household needs.”

Late in 2019, Jaberi became familiar with the Nasna Foundation, which works in development and creates alternative equipment for the home. The foundation came up with the stove and two other devices. Its purchase saved her a lot of money.

“Before the war, cooking gas was the last thing we had to worry about, but recently we have suffered continuously,” she explained.

Jaberi has been able to cook a variety of foods with the solar oven, including rice, soup, beef, legumes and other basic family dishes. She is satisfied with its performance so far, saying it is “at the required level compared to other alternatives I sometimes used before.”

Qasim Al-Burai, a 41-year-old father of five who works in construction, purchased the foundation’s two other devices.

“Before I bought the heat preserver and the economic stove, I used to wait for hours and sometimes for days to get a gas cylinder, which is consumed in less than 10 days,” he told The Media Line. “After that, more than a month passes before gas is available again in our area.”

Because of the scarcity of cooking gas during the war, which started in March 2011, authorities in Sanaa arranged for community leaders to sell it directly to households. However, the process takes hours and occurs roughly once a month.

Families that use up their gas cylinder in less than a month have to buy a replacement on the black market.

Burai adds that many times, his children have had to stand for hours in gas queues or scavenge for cardboard and firewood to use as cooking fuel. His family might pay 300% more on the black market for a single gas cylinder with a 20-liter capacity.

“I was able to protect my family’s health and save a lot of money by using these [gasless] devices,” he said.

The stoves are the brainchild of women displaced by the war. One of them, Hajer Hameed, founded the nonprofit Nasna Foundation, which she manages.

Hameed told The Media Line that she and the others decided to find an alternative to cooking gas and create jobs for women among the internally displaced population (IDP).

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration, the conflict in Yemen has displaced about 3.1 million people.

“After one year of being displaced in Sanaa under difficult living conditions that lacked essentials, we were able to come up with the idea of alternatives to cooking gas with help from a group of IDPs,” Hameed stated.

Getting the seed money was not easy.

“A few of the IDP women and I sold all of our jewelry,” she related, “and were able to obtain various loans from a group of people to finish preparing and purchasing the raw materials.”

She and her colleagues did a lot of research and looked into similar projects in other countries before developing their products with materials that were locally available.

“So far, we have been able to find three alternatives to cooking gas, and they are the ‘economic’ stove, the solar oven – genuine inventions – and the heat preserver,” she explained, noting that the latter is a development of an existing model available in other countries.

The ‘economic’ stove. (Photos courtesy Nasna Foundation)

The economic stove is a metal box with clay separators that has channels for heat distribution and the release of smoke. It runs on a small amount of firewood or charcoal inserted through an opening in the side, which is then closed.

The food is placed in a pot on the surface of the device, which generates and preserves enough heat to cook.

“We were able to produce the economic stove in large quantities, and it was well-received by the women and the community in general,” she said.

Hameed attributes its success to the fact that it consumes only a small amount of fuel.

The economic stove retails for YER 15,000, the equivalent of about $25. So far, more than 150 units have been sold.

A representative of the United Nations Population Fund inspects the Solar Oven.

The foundation’s oven runs on solar power and costs YER 30,000. It is a box featuring aluminum and glass panels with thermal materials that capture heat from sunlight. The cook puts food inside and then places the box in the sun.

According to Hameed, the device can be used to cook rice, beef and potatoes, as well as other foods.

“The solar oven uses clean energy and has no other costs,” she noted. “Food can be cooked with it in two or three hours. It cooks food like a gas cooker.”

Nada Hameed, an employee at the foundation’s workshop, provides an explanation about the last piece of equipment.

The heat preserver. Thousands have already been made.

“The heat preserver is a cloth bag with thermal insulation that allows it to maintain heat inside the bag for hours,” she told The Media Line.

Food is cooked with gas for an initial five to 10 minutes, and then inserted into the bag, where it continues cooking for up to 45 minutes.

The workshop has made thousands of the bags and sells them for up to YER 6,000.

Nada, whose family also numbers among the IDP population, says her income is enough to provide for basic needs.

“I and many women here are of different ages, and we have been able to form a team and a small foundation with the goal of meeting the community’s needs and creating job opportunities for displaced women from different governorates,” she said.

“After starting the project, many of the women here were able to supply their families’ basic needs,” she continued, adding: “More than 50 women are now working in the Nasna Foundation, and many displaced women are being trained to enter the cooking-gas alternatives market.”

She states that she and her colleagues are working on ways to adapt production, promotion and supply during the novel coronavirus crisis. The foundation ceased operations in late March after the government announced precautionary measures to combat the pandemic.

“Now, with coronavirus and the quarantine, it will be more difficult for women and poor people to get gas… or even to collect firewood or other harmful materials such as cardboard and plastic waste that they use for fuel,” she said.

The price of cooking gas was fairly stable before the war and averaged YER 2,300 for 20 liters, the cylinders being readily available at gas stations. After the war began, prices more than doubled, and canisters were available only through community leaders and on specific dates.

They are also available on the black market, but for YER 12,000.

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