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by Marios Cleovoulou


In January and February of 1997, in conjunction with the British charity Salt of the Earth, the author visited the main campus of the aid organisation Social Change and Development (SCAD) near Cheranmahadevi, Tamil Nadu, India, to investigate the possibilities of introducing fuel-saving cooking techniques to the local villages served by that organisation.

SCAD provides aid to over 150 villages in southern Tamil Nadu, populated by about 125,000 people from the most neglected groups in Indian society, such as gypsies, salt-pan workers, leprosy-affected people, and other Harijans ("unthouchables"). The aid provided includes education, health care, agricultural assistance, small savings schemes, and other community organisation and rural development services.

SCAD employs about 17 administrators and 20 "animators". The animators are responsible for bringing SCAD's aid services to the villages, each animator taking care of about 6 villages, normally visiting and living at one each day of the working week. All of the animators except one are women.

SCAD also has a volunteer in each village, one of the villagers, usually a teacher, who acts as the day-to-day interface between the animators and the villagers.

The objective of the visit was to try and introduce cooking methods that would reduce the dependence on wood as a fuel source, thereby reducing deforestation, time and labour spent on collecting fuel, and the health problems that accompany using open wood fires. A primary goal of the project was to achieve cultural acceptance and to provide technologies that were appropriately costed to the poorest-of-the-poor.

Cultural Aspects

Before starting on any particular method it was important to try and understand the daily lives of the people the techniques would be introduced to, in particular the women who as well as being responsible for the cooking bear a heavy labour burden in Indian society.

Visits to the villages and discussions with staff at SCAD and with three of the animators made clear that some methods would be more appropriate than others.

A day in the life...

An average household in the villages targetted consists of an extended family of 5 to 7 people, comprising of one or two grandparents, a husband and wife, and two to four children. The wife is responsible for all aspects of housekeeping, including cooking, for being the primary parent, as well as having a full-time job to supplement the family income.

A typical day (six, or maybe, seven days a week) for this woman would be:

  • Awake, maybe serve rice-water (see below) to the family.
  • Do housekeeping, cleaning, etc.
  • Light a small fire (or use a small kerosene stove) to make coffee. This could involve milking the cow, if necessary!
  • Prepare and serve a cold breakfast, usually consisting of rice cooked the night before along with a cold curried sauce. Clean up after breakfast.
  • Prepare a packed lunch for each member of the family, also cold rice with a curried sauce.
  • Draw a rangoli. A rangoli is an intricate design made with rice flour, drawn on the floor in front of the house as a sign of welcome.
  • Prepare the children for school (or work) and the rest of the family for work.
  • Leave for work. Work for these women is normally some form of unskilled labour. Carrying loads (e.g. baskets of dirt) is womens' work in India and is the most common form of job these casteless women will have. A typical woman's wage is 20 to 30 rupees per day. A typical man's wage is Rs30 to 40 per day. (January 1997: ~Rs57 = £1.00; ~Rs36 = US$1.00)
  • Finish work and start the journey home. On the way the woman will:
    • Bathe in a river or lake.
    • Do the family laundry, normally at the same place as bathing.
    • Collect the firewood for the evening meal.
    • Do the shopping and/or pick vegetables and herbs from the village plot.
    • Gather fodder for the cow, if they have one.
  • Arrive home and prepare to receive the returning family.
  • Fetch water.
  • Make coffee or tea.
  • Light two wood fires, one for the rice and one for the sambhar. Wash and cook approximately two and a half kilograms of rice, some to be served that evening, the rest to be eaten for breakfast and lunch the next day.
  • Boil drinking water.
  • Serve dinner to the family. The wife will normally eat seperately afterwards.
  • Clean up.
  • Put family to bed.


Cooking is normally done once a day, in the evening. Typically about 2½kgs of rice is prepared, some to be served that evening, the rest to be eaten cold for breakfast and lunch the next day.

A sambhar is also made. This is a thin curried soup made with lentils and, usually, just one vegetable, and flavoured with tamarind, coconut, onions, garlic, and spices. While tasty the sambhar is not substantial in itself, just a few spoonfulls are ladled over the rice to make it more palitable. The rice makes up the vast bulk of all meals.

The water for both rice and sambhar are brought to a rolling boil for a couple of minutes before adding the ingredients, in order to sterilise it.

Some families cook the rice in a large amount of water (4 cups water : 1 cup rice) and drain the excess after cooking, keeping it for drinking cold the next morning. Others use less water (3:1) and do not drain the rice.

Dimensions of typical pots and lids


Most extended families live in a small (3m x 2m) hut with low mud or brick walls (1.5m) and an interwoven palm-leaf roof. There is a doorway, but often no door and almost never any windows. Their possessions consist of one change of clothes and their cooking utensils. It was considered imperative that cost be a major factor in any solution proposed. The animators involved suggested a maximum cost target of Rs40 (~£0.65, ~US$1.00)

Solar Cookers

It is apparent from the description above that some fuel-saving cooking techniques would not be appropriate. In particular solar cookers, considered originally, would not fit in with the life-style of the villagers as all cooking is done at night.

The idea of loading a solar cooker in the morning and allowing food to cook during the day was considered. However, the problems of designing an ultra-low cost cooker that would work unattended (i.e. without being reoriented or reflectors being adjusted) and produce consistently good results were considered too challenging.

In addition the time at which dinner is eaten would mean that the food would have to be reheated anyway, the heat invested in boiling the water for sterilisation would be wasted, and the monsoon and cool seasons mean that solar energy is only reliably available for nine months of the year.

The use of solar cookers may be re-visited in a "second phase" to allow low fuel consumption on non-working days, but was not considered a good option for a primary fuel-saving technique.

Hay Sacks

The method that appeared most suitable, given the cultural considerations, was a variant on the traditional hay box. This is basically an insulated container into which a pot of boiling water and rice would be placed and allowed to cook in its own heat. This technique would work irrespective of the weather, would preserve (indeed, use) the heat energy employed to sterilise the water, and could fit in well with the customs of the village family.

Sacks were chosen as the container over boxes because jute sacks and jute thread are much more commonly and cheaply available in the target area than the wood and nails needed to build boxes. Indeed, the villages usually have a supply of used sacks from bulk buying of rice and have the thread and tools to sow them up for various uses. Sacks also have the advantage of being lighter.

While hay sacks would work well for cooking rice, they (like solar cookers) could not be used effectively for the sambhar, as the traditional way of cooking this involves adding ingredients at several stages during cooking. Continually opening the hay sack (or solar cooker) to do this would result in considerable loss of heat and render the technique ineffective.

Therefore, it was decided that a reasonable goal would be to try and reduce the number of fires used for cooking from two to one. Instead of cooking rice and sambhar on two fires, side-by-side, the rice would be started on a single fire and then put into a hay sack. While the rice was cooking in the sack the sambhar would be prepared on the same fire, thus saving nearly half the wood. This would also save the effort of starting a second fire, for which extra kindling as well as heavier wood has to be collected, and considerably reduce the amount of smoke and ash-dust that the woman cooking has to suffer.

The Hay Sack

The first prototypes of the hay sack built were variants on the Wonderbox successfully used in South Africa. These used polystyrene for insulation. When available polystyrene has several advantages over hay:

While the use of this modern material may seem incongruous for villagers leading a basic rural existence, many third world countries are in a mixed state of development. South Africa is the prime example of this, with a highly developed modern western-style economy existing side-by-side with a large undeveloped poverty striken population. Many parts of India as becoming like this too. India has a significant industrial base and cities like Bangalore are becoming important global information age players. At the same time the vast rural population (two-thirds of the total of 980 million) is seeing only a very slow change in their standard of living.

As it turned out the rural villages in southern Tamil Nadu are too distant from sources of polystyrene offering sufficient quantity to provide Wonderbox variants for the large number of households envisaged. While small quantities are available, as waste from electrical suppliers, hospitals, etc, it was deemed more appropriate to promote hay sacks built with the traditional material -- hay -- as the primary variant. Polystyrene filled sacks were not abandoned, they were demonstrated alongside the hay filled sacks, however as hay is plentiful and easily available in the rural environment it is envisaged that many more of this type will be built.

Building a Hay Sack for cooking 2½ kgs of rice

A Hay Sack for cooking 2½ kilograms of rice should take about 1½ hours to build, not including collecting the hay, if there are not too many holes in the sacks to be sown closed.

The sheet of plastic has two purposes: first, it keeps the steam in thereby helping to stop heat escaping and the sack getting moist; secondly, it protects the inside of the sack from the wood-smoke soiled pot (the plastic is easier to clean than the sack!).

Materials and tools needed to build a Hay Sack for cooking 2½ kgs of rice

  1. Two jute sacks, about 110 cms by 70 cms, with any holes sown closed.
  2. A pile of hay, about one sackfull.
  3. Scissors, needle and jute thread, about 15 metres.
  4. A sheet of plastic, about 130 cms by 130 cms.
  5. A cooking pot and lid.
  6. A stand for the pot. E.g. a metal ring, but anything to keep the hot pot from rolling will do.

Constructing the Hay Sack

Steps 1 & 2
  1. Fold the bottom corner of one sack across to define a square and cut off the excess piece.
  2. The square piece (a) will be used for the top cushion. Cut the other piece down the stitches on one side to form a long piece (b).
    Steps 3 to 6
  3. Cut the other sack down the stitches on one side.
  4. Sow one side of the long piece onto the side of the cut open sack.
  5. Sow the other side of the long piece on to make a larger sack.
  6. Sow up the hole at the bottom of the long piece.
    Step 7
  7. Sow together the bottom corners of the enlarged sack to form a square base (a).
    Step 8
  8. Take handfulls of hay and tie them together with jute thread to make a hay mat. The mat should be about four pots wide by one and a half pots high, and about the width of a hand thick.
    Step 9
  9. Roll up the hay mat tightly along its length and insert the roll into the sack.
    Steps 10 to 12
  10. Push out the centre of the hay so that it fits tightly in the sack and forms a nest in the centre.
  11. Fold over the top of the sack, including the end of the long piece, into the nest.
  12. Again push out the centre of the sack.
    Steps 13 & 14
  13. Stuff a couple of handfulls of hay into the bottom of the sack.
  14. Use a pot to ensure that the sack is the correct shape and to compress the hay at the bottom.
    Steps 15 to 17
  15. To make the top cushion insert a smaller hay mat into the square cut from the first sack.
  16. Sow up the opening of the square to make a closed cushion.
  17. Walk on the cushion to compress it.

Cooking rice in the Hay Sack

Heating up the water and rice
  1. Heat up two quantities of water for each quantity of rice. Use more water if you want to drain the rice after cooking. Wash the rice while the water is heating up.
  2. When the water is boiling add one quantity of washed rice.
  3. Heat the water and rice until boiling. Use a lid at all times.
    Sacking the pot
  4. While the water and rice is heating put the plastic sheet over the sack and push the centre to the bottom (a).
  5. When the water and rice has come to the boil take it off the fire, let it rest for just a few moments, and then put it into the sack on top of a metal ring or other pot stand.
    Cooking in the Hay Sack
  6. Fold over or twist the plastic sheet closed around the top of the pot.
  7. If necessary tie a rope around the sack to make it fit tightly. Put the cushion on top.
  8. Make sure no heat is escaping around the cushion. Adjust it if it is. Wait for 30 minutes then try the rice. If it is not fully cooked immediately close the sack again and wait longer. The rice should normally be cooked in 30 to 40 minutes, but this may vary with different types and grades of rice.

Important: do not open the sack while the rice is cooking.

Building a Hay Sack for 1½ kgs of rice

A Hay Sack for cooking 1½ kilograms of rice can be built in a similar way to the 2½ kilogram variant, but as the pot is smaller the jute sack is already big enough and does not need to be expanded. Therefore steps 2 to 6 should be omitted. Building a Hay Sack for 1½kgs of rice should take about an hour.

Building a "Wondersack"

Building a Wonderbox variant of the Hay Sack -- i.e. one filled with polystyrene instead of hay -- is similar to building a Hay Sack. As these sacks need to be totally sown closed and as they do not retain their shape, Wondersacks need to be made larger than the hay filled versions. The 2½ kgs Hay Sack design, with the excess piece cut off and the top sown closed, is suitable for a 1½ kgs pot.

For a 2½ kgs version cut open two sacks at the sides then sow them together to make a double sized sack. Put in the polystyrene and sow closed. Use this version "sideways", that is with one sack above the other, not side-by-side.

Construction time for the Wondersacks varies enormously depending upon the shape of the available polystyrene. The sack should be half filled with pieces of polystyrene no larger than a little finger, and preferably smaller. Breaking up larger pieces of polystyrene can be very time consuming. If small pieces are already available building a Wondersack is quicker than building a Hay Sack.

Cooking time and fuel savings

Cooking times proved to be difficult to compare due to the vagaries of open wood fires. The time needed to heat the water for both the traditional and Hay Sack methods, and the time to cook the rice for the traditional method, varied considerably.

On average it was found that heating the water, for both methods, took about 15 to 20 minutes, and cooking the rice over the fire took about 20 to 25 minutes. Cooking the rice in the Hay Sack was much more consistent for any particular grade of rice and never took more than 40 minutes.

Whereas, on average, rice cooked with the traditional way took about 40 minutes in total, rice cooked with the Hay Sack took about one hour in total and allowed a saving of half the wood used with the traditional method. There were no noticable differences in cooking times between Hay Sacks and Wondersacks.

2 Jute Sacks @ Rs 15 each30
15m of Jute Thread3
Sheet of Plastic10
Hay, 10kg @ Rs80/100kg8


The costs of building a 2½ kg Hay Sack using new materials and tools was estimated to be as shown to the right:

However, this is an unrealistic cost estimate. Villagers already have used sacks and thread, hay is all around them, the cooking utensils are already in the household, the plastic can often be picked up as scrap, and the tools are shared between villagers for patching up the sacks they already have.

The animators estimated that in reality a Hay Sack would cost the villagers between zero and a maximum of Rs 20, well within the target maximum cost.


Four sacks were built as prototypes; 1½ kg and 2½ kg Wondersacks, and 1½ kg and 2½kg Hay Sacks. Trials were run in the kitchen of SCAD's school for handicapped children, with the aid of the women working there, to determine proper cooking times and rice-to-water ratios. As is normal with hay boxes, it was found that cooking in the sacks requires less water than is usually used.

The sacks were then demonstrated at SCAD's centre to about 70 volunteers, animators, and staff to considerable interest. Rice was cooked in one sack while construction techniques were demonstrated using another half built sack. It was pleasing that, after the demonstration, one of the staff built a personalised "mini-sack" and was still using it a couple of weeks later.

A couple of the animators took the task of introducing the concept to a few of the villages to gauge response. The animators went to the villages and demonstrated the sacks, leaving a sack with each village volunteer to lend to the women to try out.

Response was strong, with villagers requesting training sessions on building the sacks within a week of the initial demonstration. Women reported no problems using the sacks, instead stating that they worked well.

Some villages reported difficulty in obtaining the sheet of plastic and instead were using scrap plastic bags over the top of the pot to keep the moisture and heat in and waste woven polyester sacks (cement bags) to stop the Hay Sack from getting soiled.

At the time of the author's departure SCAD considered the initial trials and deployment a success and were planning on spreading the concept to all of the villages the organisation serves.


Many organisations and individuals attempt to introduce novel technologies to third world peoples and are often perplexed at their lack of acceptance. While it is still too early to declare a widespread victory for Hay Sacks, the author believes that the strong initial response was due to the following reasons:

Postscript - The Megabox

After having assisted the author in the Hay Sack trials, the women working in the kitchen at SCAD's school for handicapped children asked him to build a Hay Sack for the 5 kg of rice that they cook every day for the 50+ children there.

The size of the pot for 5 kg of rice was such that a Hay Sack would have been too cumbersome and flimsy, so the author built them a large wooden hay box. The box, a cube 60 cms on a side, had 10cms thick polystyrene on the bottom and inside the lid, and woven polyester sacks filled with hay around the sides of the pot. Similar cooking times and rice-to-water ratios to the smaller Hay Sacks were found to work well.

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