Fireless cookers are a simple insulating covering that allow pots to continue to
cook food even when they are taken off a source of heat. This helps reduce
the need for an open fire, for fuelwood and also reduces indoor air pollution.
The "fireless cooker" uses stored heat to cook
food over a long period of time. The food is
cooked on any stove type before it's transferred
to the fireless cooker. Fireless cookers are not a
new invention, it has been around for many
years but has been forgotten about in areas
where it used to be used and is new to others.
They are also known as hay boxes, straw box,
insulation cookers, or retained-heat cookers.
Practical Action has been promoting the use of
Fireless Cookers in Kenya in recent years
although they could be used in many parts of
the world. Fireless cookers are seen as an
accessory that can be used with all types of
stoves including solar, LPG, electric and other
Practical Action’s aim was to primarily reduce
indoor air pollution in people’s homes using a
variety of low cost technologies that could be
adopted by women in Kenya. However, the
fireless cooker is not just about reducing
pollution it can also reduce the amount of
fuelwood used in the home.
Figure 1: a new fireless cooker on
show with a ceramic jiko stove in
The fireless cookers have allowed people to continue to use their open fire which they are
familiar with and experienced in using while also reducing the negative effects of the
traditional way of cooking and is seen as an entry point to others, more expensive smoke
It was one of a series of interventions introduced by Practical Action in Kenya to alleviate
smoke along with smoke hoods, improved stove designs, structural changes to traditional
houses such as the introduction of lager windows and solar cookers. These cookits parabolic
solar cookers were promoted in partnership with Solar Cookers International, which was the
technical partner for solar technology.
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Advantages and disadvantages
Fireless cookers can save fuel. At its simplest level the fireless cooker comprising of a
basket, insulated with locally available materials such as banana leaves or old clothes
can reduce fuel use by 40%.
Reduce smoke in the home thus improving the health of women and children.
Can be cheap, use local materials and made locally.
It can reduce water use in cooking by 25%. Water is retained, rather than
evaporating, preserving nutrients, flavours and drinking water.
Help preserve local forests and the environment. This ‘green technology’ will help to
reduce the demand for scarce natural resources.
Fireless cookers can also be used to keep food cool.
Most significantly, allows for greater opportunities for income generation as women no
longer spend so much time collecting wood therefore freeing up time to earn money at
the market or in the field.
It is little known and potentially disregarded by many.
Approaches to cooking need to be adapted.
There is potential for contamination if the food stays in the “danger zone” for too long.
The danger zone is the term used for the temperature range between 5−60°C which
increases bacteria growth.
The layout of a fireless cooker
lining of tough
Tray of ash
Figure 2: The components of a fireless cooker.
Illustration: Neil Noble / Practical Action.
How to make a fireless cooker
In Kenya the main structure was provided by
means of a basket. The basket may be
bought or it can be made by the user.
However, the structure does not need to be
made from a basket, a wooden box or other
containers would be just as suitable.
Figure 3: Locallyavailable material
such as recycled
clothing is collected
Figure 5: Dry
line the cloth on
The inside of the container is then fitted
with a lining which is then stuffed with the
insulating material. Insulation can be made
from a variety of materials, straw or hay can
be used, hence the name hay box which is
used for fireless cookers. In the case of the
work in Kenya, recycled clothing was used.
The basket or container needs to be quite
large so that there is room for the pot and
the insulating material. The general
approach is to use the size of the biggest pot,
being used for cooking, to select the basket
The insulation is densely packed so that there
is just enough room to fit the pot without any
gaps for heat to escape from. A lining of tough
cloth needs to be cut so it can be used to
protect the cloth and insulation. It is circular
in shape, to avoid waste, but any shape will
work as long as it can fit all around without
the need for an extra piece. A good
seamstress can use several waste pieces quite
economically and still get a good fit. It also
needs to be slightly bigger than the basket as
the lining is attached on the outside of the
basket. The lining is stitched to hold the
insulation in position. A dry heat-resistant
polythene cover is fitted over the lining on the
inside, to protect and prevent moisture from
getting into the insulating material as this
reduces the effectiveness of the insulation.
Figure 4: The
is sewn into a
strong basket or
Figure 6: A lining
of tough cloth is
glued or pinned to
hold the insulation
Place the lining on top (at this point ensure that
the saucepan just fits inside), if not remove
some insulation until it does.
Figure 7: Two
around the top
and bottom of
Sew the lining to the outside of the basket (see
figure 4). This is done with large needles and
When cooking, a metal plate is
put inside the basket and filled
with hot sand and wood ash.
This ensures that there is
sufficient heat to cook food
Figure 8: A fireless
cooker, ready to
Practical Action’s approach to Fireless Cookers
As part of Practical Action’s work into reducing smoke in the home the concept of the fireless
cooker was introduced to women in Kenya but initially had little success.
The early fireless cookers that were demonstrated by Practical Action had been made from brand
new baskets with nice materials and were shown cooking foodstuffs such as rice and beef, or
potatoes. It was found that this actually put off the women that the fireless cooker technology
was aimed at, as they perceived them as being “too expensive” and not appropriate or suitable
for their own simple foods and diet.
The approach of the later demonstrations then changed and focused more on making the
technology accessible to women. They could make their own baskets with locally available
materials and whatever insulating materials were available. It didn’t rely on them having to spend
a lot of money. The materials used included dried grass, sawdust, dried banana fibre and rice
husks or whatever they had in their homes.
They could also bring their own food and discover that they didn’t need to change to expensive
foods but could cook the same foods that they were used to and could afford. These included
sweet potatoes, traditional vegetables, dried fish and corn on the cob for testing.
The approach to promote the principle of insulation and conduction, rather than the item of
technology worked in convincing potential users that they could acquire and use the technology.
This approach engaged much more with women who did not work in a conventional situation.
Previous approaches assumed that women have a kitchen and were ready to take up a new
technology once she is shown that it works however there are many reasons why this is not the
From the three smoke reduction projects that Practical Action implemented, several women
owners of participating kitchens explained they hadn’t taken up the technologies on offer:
I have no kitchen (meaning that she has nowhere to put anything).
I share a kitchen with my mother-in-law (meaning that she has no rights in the kitchen
she is using).
I lost my husband recently and I am not allowed to do that (meaning that her culture
I do not have the money (meaning that her hierarchy of needs does not necessarily
include purchases for her kitchen).
I do not have a job (meaning that she associates any technology with salaried
employment, such as teachers and nurses, and not with improved kitchens).
I do not want to rise above my mother-in-law (meaning that her culture forbids her to
appear better than the mother of her husband).
We witnessed responses that had no apparent link, in our 'modern' thinking, with the act of
cooking, but which were matters closest to the hearts of those cooking that wished to have a
kitchen and to be comfortable in the knowledge that her closest community members - mum-inlaw, were similarly endowed.
In the light of such contextual matters, the apparently technically-sound technologies found little
audience and subscription and we found that the old faithful open fire soon found its way into
the cooking routine when the project monitoring stopped. Sporadic surprise visits to the kitchens
revealed that the open fires are never completely expelled from the home and were kept within
close proximity to allay any lingering doubts that the newcomer could meet all the needs of the
Cooking with a fireless cooker
Food is precooked in a conventional fire or cooker. The actual time needed depends on the
type of food.
Soft foods such as bananas should be cooked for around 3 minutes. Harder food need to be
cooked for longer, beans and meat should be cooked for 20 to 25 minutes.
The heating stone is heated and placed in the cooker. Then the covered cooking pot is set on
the hot stone in the cooker and the lid is placed on the well.
For softer foods it will take around 25 minutes in the fireless cooker and for harder food it can
take around 2 to 2 ½ hours.
Due to the risk of contamination when food stays in the danger zone it is important to minimize
the time food spends in this temperature zone and should move through this temperature zone.
The food should not be left for too long within the fireless cooker as this encourages the growth of
One way to get round this potential problem is to reheat the food to boiling on a conventional fire
before eating which will kill off any bacteria.
It is also important to cook the food at high temperature sufficiently before using the fireless
cooker as this will kill off any dangerous bacteria present in the food and this reduces the risk of
bacteria growing while the food is cooking at lower temperatures.
Some foods carry greater risks than others. Higher risk foods include meat and legumes such as
kidney beans and chickpeas.
Their success in low-income communities is evidence that women have been able to take up
the technologies, but under their own terms and conditions.
References and resources
Engaging Communities in Alleviating Smoke - What The Real Experts Tell You Vincent Okello
Fireless Cookers Development Alternatives Environmental Information Services
Guide to Designing Retained Heat Cookers Don O’Neal, HELP International
Haybox, Retained Heat or Fireless Cooker BioEnergy Discussion Lists
Heat-retention Cooking Solar Cookers World Network, Wikia
Cooking in a Basket blog
Chimney Stoves and Smokehoods – English, Kiswahili, Practical Action Technical Brief
Solar Cookers and Health - Practical Action Technical Brief
Nashetu-E-Maa; Building in Partnership with the Maasai Practical Action Technical Brief
By Vincent Okello, Published by Practical Action Eastern Africa on 02/06/13