User-Centered Design in Humanitarian Energy Projects

From energypedia


ESDS aims to increase the supply of sustainable energy for refugee communities in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Their energy needs include not only energy for lighting, but especially energy for cooking. However, the figures show that this issue has been put on the back burner. In fact, the number of people without access to cleaner cooking solutions in sub-Saharan Africa actually rose from 750 to 890 million between 2010 and 2018[1]. The insufficient supply of clean and safe cooking energy has severe impacts, ranging from deforestation, to increased sexual and gender-based violence, to premature deaths.


The development of cooking systems in refugee camps poses a great challenge for humanitarian actors because distributed stoves are often not adapted to the users’ needs and end up unused on the dumpsites. In addition, the fuel is usually not sufficiently considered , which results in the choice of an unsustainable or inaccessible fuel and/or a mismatch between stove and fuel. Experiences with failed cooking system implementations show how important it is to start from the users' side when developing a cooking system and to make the availability of fuels a prerequisite.


Addressing these problems, SUN-ESDS has developed a bottom-up approach that puts the user at the centre of the design process. The user-centred design methodology consists of five steps:

  1. Empathize: Identification of preferences and challenges with refugees and host community.
  2. Define the problem: Definition of a problem statement with the community and partners.
  3. Ideate: Joint development and drafting of problem solutions.        
  4. Prototype: Make dreams come true by building first prototypes reflecting ideation results.
  5. Test: Iterative process of prototype testing to guarantee complete user satisfaction. Efficiency test of the cooking system followed by upscaling.

Fundamental to the user-centred design methodology is the intensive cooperation with the users of cooking energy, the close involvement of the host population and the in-depth consideration of the local settings, including local resources, innovation and skills. Thereby it enhances acceptance rates and strengthens local value chains.


In March and April 2021 two consultants, commissioned by ESDS, and the project partner UNHCR implemented the user-centred design methodology in Gambella within a period of two weeks.

Cooking together on different cooking systems is a crucial part of the first step in the process. ©UNHCR, 2021
  1. Empathize: Two days were spent observing cooking habits. This was followed by two days of intensive interaction with representatives of refugee and host community. A clear preference for clay stoves was found. 
  2. Define the problem: Using the insights from the first workshops, different cookstoves and the suitable fuels were evaluated. Energy experts, agencies and policymakers were included to discuss availability and affordability of fuels, as well as experience with previous cooking interventions. The need to focus on biomass was noted. Refugees identified lack of protection during firewood collection as their biggest problem and the reduction of firewood need as a good solution.
  3. Ideate: A workshop including local clay stove producers to design stoves that fulfil the refugees needs identified in Step 1 and the requirement to decrease firewood consumption and other negative impacts as derived from Step 2.           
  4. Prototype: Joint construction of 15 different prototypes, development of basic construction tools for standardisation and firing with stove producers on three days. Visits to local farmers to discuss sourcing of harvest residues as alternative and/or supplement to firewood.        
  5. Test: Distribution of prototype stoves to refugees for testing and conduct of efficiency tests. Gathering of feedback after a few weeks of usage.

For monitoring purposes, the adoption and frequency of firewood collection are assessed. If potential for improvement is identified, the process starts again at Step 3.

📣 Watch the 30 minutes Videopresentation by Christa Roth on You Tube. It presents all steps in Detail and describes the experience made on the ground.

User-Centered Design for Cooking Energy Solutions - YouTube


User-centred design and its implementation have received consistently positive feedback from all stakeholders involved. We see great potential to implement this method in other places and to develop holistic and sustainable cooking systems with a high user involvement and product uptake. However, the user-centred design methodology is not only limited to the development of cooking systems but could also prove helpful for various response options in protracted situations of displacement. 


Further Reading


GIZ's Energy Solutions for Displacement Settings (ESDS) project cooperate with UNHCR to enhance the access to sustainable energy in displacement contexts, and the Energypedia page has been created to share learnings across various practitioners to spur the development of clean energy solutions.

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