Protecting the environment and the livelihoods of families served: A case study from Ethiopia -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Protecting the environment and the livelihoods of families served: A case study from Ethiopia

By Carl Queiros and Jeanette Clark



Alem Muhye cooks on an energy-saving stove provided by Habitat for Humanity Ethiopia. The stove saves money on fuel, allowing Muhye’s husband, Belete Wassie, to repay his family’s Habitat loan more quickly.


Mohamed Eshetu dreams of a better future for his children. His daughter Hikmet, 11, is in fifth grade in Kombolcha, Ethiopia, and dreams of becoming a doctor one day. Her favorite subject is Amharic. Her brother Mubarak, 9, in grade three, loves going to school and playing with his friends.

Little more than six months ago, Eshetu’s dreams for his children seemed very difficult to achieve. Working in construction for a contractor in town, he would earn about 400 birr (about US$35 per month). The only accommodation he could afford was a 3-by-4-meter room (about 10 by 13 feet) for their whole family of five, for which he paid 100 birr per month.

Of the 300 birr he had left per month, more than half went toward energy costs, split between a little charcoal that they use for coffee ceremonies and the rest for firewood that he and his wife, Zehara, buy from local merchants.

In Ethiopia, the majority of the population depends on wood as a source of energy and fuel. Mohamed and his wife could not sustain their livelihood under these circumstances.

In a 1992 study titled “Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Practical Concepts for the 21st Century,” Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway define a sustainable livelihood as one that “can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, and provide sustainable livelihood opportunities for the next generation.”

In “Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: A Framework for Analysis” (1998), Ian Scoones adds that a livelihood is sustainable only if it is not undermining the natural resource base.

The current situation in Ethiopia highlights several issues related to sustainability.

First, for the poor in the developing world, burning wood remains the only viable low-cost energy option, but it has negative effects on the people and on the planet. Inefficient use of firewood is undermining the natural resource base. Deforestation is spreading, which in turn pushes up the cost of wood fuel.

This triggers a cycle in which the increasing expense of energy negates the possibility for sustainable livelihoods.

If a family cannot sustain their monthly expenditure and never reaches a level of economic stability—where they can save for the future or invest in their children’s education—they remain trapped in the poverty cycle.

Although the livelihoods of our partner families have always been a consideration in Habitat for Humanity programs, the focus on sustainable livelihoods is relatively new.

Chambers and Conway’s definition speaks to “capabilities” and “assets.” These include:

  • Human capital: skills and knowledge of the people themselves.
  • Social capital: the ability to draw on support or resources through membership of social groups or social connections.
  • Natural capital: resources found in the environment.
  • Physical capital: tangible assets such as tools and domestic animals.
  • Spiritual capital: religious and spiritual practices, support networks.
  • Financial capital: cash, ability to access loans and savings.

In 2008, Habitat for Humanity Ethiopia started to improve the kitchens in homes in Debre Birhan by providing energy-saving stoves as part of its traditional house model. This project has since expanded to other affiliates, including Kombolcha. The cost of the stove is added to construction costs and repaid by the homeowner.

In the northern parts of Ethiopia, communities have been using the stoves for some time, gradually adapting the design. The stoves are produced by local merchants, agricultural bureaus and a couple of nongovernmental organizations in the country. They are produced as four different compartments, made in molds using sand, cement and fine gravel, and then assembled when a home is constructed. The stove is manufactured to have one or more areas where food can be cooked simultaneously with injera, a local flatbread that is the staple food in the country. The stoves reduce wood consumption by 50 percent and the smoke released from the firewood by 60 percent.

Since Zehara has started using the energy-saving stove to cook injera, her family has cut their monthly energy expenses in half, from 45 percent of their disposable monthly income to 22.5 percent. Firewood bought from local merchants who pass by with a cart costs about 30 birr per bundle.

“We are saving money, but the new stove is also safer,” Zehara said. “I would often get burnt, and the smoke was definitely not good for my health.”

With the money saved every month, Mohamed Eshetu’s family now has the opportunity to increase its financial assets.

In the same community, Belete Wassie and his family also use the energy-saving stove. Belete used to struggle every month to make ends meet, but now the money he saves on cooking fuel gives him about 160 birr to repay his Habitat loan faster and build toward owning a physical asset.

The energy-saving stove project also has an impact on the sustainability of the natural resource base in Ethiopia.

“Using the stove reduces the amount of wood needed and thus can reduce the rate of deforestation,” says Yosef Gedamu, program manager for Habitat for Humanity Ethiopia.

According to recent studies, Ethiopia lost an average of 140,900 hectares—more than 348,000 acres—of forest per year between 1990 and 2000.

Habitat for Humanity Ethiopia has distributed stoves in four communities—Kombolcha, Dessie, Debremarkos and Debre Birhan—offering a sustainable alternative to the traditional cook stove and contributing to the preservation of the forest, which helps ensure sustainable livelihoods for the next generation.

Like Mohamed, Belete wishes for a better future for his children. He hopes the money his family saves can allow them to pursue and succeed in their own careers one day.

Carl Queiros is director of program development at HFHI’s Africa/Middle East area office. Jeanette Clark is communications coordinator for A/ME.


“Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Practical Concepts for the 21st Century” by Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway. Institute of Development Studies Discussion Paper 296, Brighton, United Kingdom, February 1992:

“Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: A Framework for Analysis” by Ian Scoones. IDS Working Paper 72, Brighton, UK, June 1998:

“Deforestation and Forest Plantations in Ethiopia: Sustainable Forestry Challenges for Developing Countries” by Eshetu Yirdaw (Kluwer Academic Publishers, the Netherlands, 1996).