Yahaya Ahmed from Nigeria has pioneered a cooking stove to fight the encroachment of the desert and climate change. It is also helps to combat communal tensions. He told his story to Michael Smith at a recent conference on 'trust and integrity in the global economy' in Caux, Switzerland.
The Sahara desert, says Yahaya Ahmed from northern Nigeria, won't ask you if you are Christian or Muslim, animist or pagan. It will encroach anyway. 'We are talking about a common enemy, the desert,' he says.
Ahmed, Chairman and CEO of DARE (Development Association for Renewable Energies) in Kaduna, has seen at first hand the tragic consequences of religious conflict in his region: churches and mosques razed to the ground; the burnt carcasses of people caught up in violence. But religious warfare is also a conflict over resources, he says. And that is exacerbated by deforestation and desertification.
Now the Sahel, what he calls 'the veranda of the desert', across the whole of north Africa, is within a few miles of Kano, the Muslim heartland of northern Nigeria. As the desert expands 'people are being pulled south,' he says. Populations from Niger and Chad are pouring into Nigeria with the consequence that the country's 'middle belt will be choked up'.
Women, he says, are the ones most affected. But they also inadvertently cause the southerly creep of the desert, as they search for firewood for cooking. As trees are cut down, the desert sands blow and expand. If new trees are planted, they are stripped bare and chopped down, such is the demand for firewood.
Bulk haulage trucks are even bringing timber for firewood in tonnes from the forests of southern Nigeria to the north. Ahmed counted 23 such trucks in two and half hours – on a journey of about 180 km from Abuja to Kaduna. And petroleum tankers can be seen heaped with timber on top. He fears that this shipping of timber from south to north will, in turn, also cause deforestation in the south as much as the north of the country.
The problem is that traditional cooking methods take 3.5 kilos of wood to cook one family meal on an open stove. Women have to trek up to 6.5 kilometres to find the wood they need to keep their families alive. Meanwhile children also desperately look for drinking water. No wonder Nigerian women fear the invasion of populations from other countries in the north.
What can be done about it? Ahmed, who gained his civil engineering degree in Darmstadt, Germany, in 2002, founded DARE in 2004 with the idea of developing renewable energy resources.
He was especially inspired, he says, by an all-African conference he attended in Caux, Switzerland in 2006. There he heard Cornelio Sommaruga, former head of the International Red Cross, give a powerful speech urging Africans to find African answers to African problems. 'You are the ones to solve Africa's problems,' rather than relying on aid from the West, Sommaruga had said.
At that time Ahmed was also a broadcast journalist for a radio station in Bonn. But all the time he had been observing the encroachment of the desert till it approached his native Kano State. 'That was very alarming.'
Ahmed returned to Nigeria determined to put his engineering skills to work.
At first he and his team made solar cookers, the SK14, with a parabolic dish. But the women found it difficult to adapt to it. In hazy weather it didn't work well, and their menfolk didn't like their food as it no longer tasted smoky!
'It would take a long time to get their acceptance,' commented Ahmed. 'But the desert doesn't wait.'
Then his DARE team hit on the idea of a heat-retaining cooking stove. The portable metal box, standing about three feet tall, is made from metal sheets supplied by the German industrial company ThyssenKrupp.
This small piece of intermediate technology is called the Save 80 because it requires only 20 per cent of the normal quantity of wood sticks and twigs needed to boil water and cook a meal. It is combined with a round, lidded Wonderbox which keeps food hot for many hours: rice, vegetables, maize porridge, potatoes, chicken, fish and flatbread.
DARE now has a paid staff of 20 people plus 70 young men, aged 17 to 27, touring all over the region to market the new stoves and Wonderboxes. Some of the men, from Christian and Muslim backgrounds, have renounced violence thanks to their new employment.
So far they have sold over 5,600 Save 80 stoves to families across the region. Ahmed has an ambitious target of selling a million stoves by 2015, if the operation can be scaled up with a business plan, financial backing and staff training. 'We want to help to meet the UN's Millennium Development Goals,' he says.
Already the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has registered and validated the Save 80 stove. 'We applied for the CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) registration and were approved for a ten-year term. We have even been granted CERs (Certified Emission Reduction certificates) after evaluation of the project by UNFCCC auditors known as the DOEs,' Ahmed says. The CDM registration includes a subsidy which allows DARE to sell the stoves at a reduced price of about 50 euros (12,500 to 15,000 Nigerian naira). The villagers pay in instalments, usually over three to six months.
'This has allowed us to expand from a pilot project in mainly two towns in the Guinea Savannah to the rest of Nigeria,' Ahmed says. He calculates that 12,500 such stoves would save 30,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. 'We are contributing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.'
But what really encourages him is the way the project is bringing Christians and Muslims together. Muslims have entered a Christian church to see a presentation about the Save 80. And a Christian pastor was welcomed to the compound of the Muslim district head for the first time. Now a pastor and a Muslim village chief go together to villages to promote the Save 80. 'It is a sort of chain reaction of cooperation,' Ahmed says. 'The men who used not to have anything to do with each other have now become very good friends and go from house to house to teach the people to use the Save 80. At least in one community they don't see the church or mosque as a place of the enemy.'
Instead, together they are fighting the common enemy: the desert.
‘For me,’ Yahaya says, ‘love is the force or vibration which keeps me going when the going gets tough. Love is the secret which makes me say “I can” from deep inside my heart and enables me to see obstacles as my challenge -- and overcome them.’
Caux Initiatives for Business (CIB) encourages business leaders, young professionals, NGO representatives, trade unionists, experts and decision makers to work together to bridge the gap between the theory and practice of values - in personal conduct and in economic life.