Collaborative Consumption with the Community Cooker

An innovative design – set to change the way communities cook – has been awarded the inaugural International Council of Societies of Industrial Design’s (ICSID) World Design Impact Prize (WDIP). The Community Cooker, designed by Kenyans Jim Archer, Mumo Musuvo and Amos Wachira, is a waste-burning stove that transforms waste into energy, and can be used to cook food and bake. It is currently in use in one of Africa’s largest slums Kibera, in Nairobi, where electricity is not readily available, and works in three steps: collecting rubbish, sorting the collected rubbish, and incineration.
It is made of welded steel with eight circular hot plates for cooking and two ovens for baking. The stove generates heat by burning rubbish at a temperature of over 800 degrees Celsius to achieve complete combustion. The Cooker, said Janice Muthui, Coordinator at The Community Cooker Foundation based in Nairobi, is a labour-intensive, rubbish consuming, and large-scale, use-intended project. “The Cooker is aimed at informal settlements, especially slums and refugee camps, large scale energy consumers, boarding schools and restaurants, industries and generally areas of high population density where rubbish is produced on a large scale. It aims to create employment for waste handlers and Cooker operators who can sell whatever wares they make on the Cooker to consumers,” explained Muthui.

The project was nominated for the WDIP by Cape Town-based design company … XYZ Design which places emphasis on innovative, environmentally and economically sustainable design. Director at … XYZ Design Byron Qually believed that what made this design “unique” is the “collective nature required to operate it”. “There has been much talk of collaborative consumption, where one product is shared among various users and often at different times of the day. The Community Cooker does just that, but also brings an entire new layer of communal interdependence to ensure the product can actually function,” said Qually. The project is an exemplar of what can be achieved by Africans through creative, socially and environmentally responsible design.

“When you talk about sustainability, the Community Cooker ticks all the boxes: social, economic, environmental and technological. The fact that it’s a community project strengthens the sense of community and it also highlights the spirit of Ubuntu. It reinforces the social fabric and celebrates the way people used to cook in a collective participatory setting,” added Mugendi M’Rithaa, Professor of Industrial Design at Cape Peninsula University of Technology and executive member of ICSID. This design highlights the importance of participatory design. It showed that by creating an inclusive environment, skilled designers were able to work in partnership with local Kenyans to create a sustainable product to benefit poorer communities.
“Industrial design consultancies will look at something and come up with a solution but it happens within the profession. “We need to take a holistic approach, creating discussion between partners. We need to find solutions that involve a process that is equal and understanding of the needs of communities and professionals. When these partners come together, there are skills from the professional and originality from the community,” said … XYZ Design’s Managing Director Roelf Mulder.

Concern was raised about the safety and health risks, and the short and long term effects on the health of communities, who would essentially use rubbish to cook. “Although the concern indeed has merit in that emissions must not be mixed with food, I believe such concerns are premature. The project and design will still require the normal design maturity gates before being fully adapted by the market. However, health concerns cannot be downplayed and we encourage the team to look to some form of health and safety accreditation,” added Qually. Muthui reiterated the importance of thorough and strict tests before the Cooker would be rolled out to other communities. She said it was tested for stack emissions and residual ash content with “profound test results”. “It exhibited 99% combustion efficiency meeting both World Bank and Kenyan Draft Air Quality standards. The ash was also measured to be within the regulatory limit set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency,” Muthui said.
Meanwhile, M’Rithaa had added that in no way was the Cooker a get-out-of-jail-free-card for governments to ignore the basic needs of people. “Governments are mandated to provide basic services to their people. However, what makes us uniquely placed to contribute positive solutions of a socio-technical nature is that design is accustomed to working on complex problems. These slums face myriad challenges and aspirations of their denizens could easily fall by the wayside.

The Community Cooker is not a glamorous project – from a traditional design perspective. “The problems being addressed are not often viewed to be attractive for government as there are other competing priorities to be addressed. Notwithstanding, governments also have an ethical and moral obligation to communities,” he said. Winning the inaugural prize highlighted the role that Africa and its designers can play in the design arena “The Kenyan community feels the joy of an internationally recognised machine that will help in waste management, addressing sanitation and health issues and conserving the environment as an alternative cheaper source of fuel,” said Muthui. Presently the foundation is looking at establishing Cookers all over Kenya and Africa.
Article commisioned and edited by Design With Africa and written by Nadine Christians
First image sourced from Design with the Other 90%: CITIES photographer by Cooker-Jiko Ya Jamii, second image sourced from Reuters by Barry Moody, featured image sourced from

Published by kind permission of ...XYZ Design