Cooking with a traditional three-stone stove in south-west Uganda's sprawling Nakivale refugee settlement used to be an exhausting daily exercise for 39-year-old Runiza. "I had to walk for five hours every day to collect firewood," the Congolese refugee recalls.
It was not just physical exhaustion, she says. "The danger of being raped, attacked or robbed caused me to feel mentally drained." It's a major concern for all women in rural areas like Nakivale, where they traditionally collect firewood for the family - a journey that often takes them to dangerous areas far from the safety of their homes.
But a year ago, Runiza decided to give up the cooking technique she learnt from her mother as a child and to use environmentally friendly biomass briquettes and an energy saving mud stove. "Since I have learnt how to make mud briquettes, long-distance walks to collect firewood are just a distant memory," she says. "I have now two fire points and cooking is much faster."
Runiza and her family are among more than 200 households (about 1,000 people) taking part in a project aimed at introducing simpler, cheaper and cleaner cooking methods in Uganda's largest refugee settlement - and at the same time helping to protect women and girls. Those taking part learn how to make the stove as well as the all-important briquettes - a biofuel substitute for wood and charcoal made of mud, organic waste and agricultural residue.
"The plan is to hold community demonstrations for another 600 families by the end of 2013," says Jimmy Maguru, a project manager for the UNHCR partner that is implementing the project - the Nsamizi Training Institute for Social Development.
Maguru says the stoves that Nsamizi promotes are very simple. "What it takes is water, mud, dried grass, the trunk of a banana tree and a few days for the mixture to dry out," he explains. The mud stove, he adds, "produces little smoke, retains the heat for several hours and requires one third the amount of firewood to cook a meal as compared with a traditional fire."
The briquette, Maguru says, was developed to try and drastically reduce people's dependence on firewood for cooking. "It takes more than encouraging them to make and use a mud stove." He notes, while explaining that a government ban on timber harvesting and charcoal production never really worked, "because people were never offered a viable alternative."
Nsamizi has been teaching refugees how to make the briquettes since 2010. At the same time, says Maguru, his organization has been "piloting the production of charcoal briquettes using a press. At the moment, only one press is available for the whole of Nakivale and the output is 120 kilos a day."
But he says the project has great potential for expansion, adding that as well as being a cheap and effective fuel alternative, "it could also become an income-generation activity for refugees if mass production becomes a reality."
Nsamizi estimates that three kilos of briquettes can meet the cooking needs of a family of four for days and cost no more than the equivalent of 10 U.S. cents. But, he says, "more efforts are needed to raise awareness among the refugees about the benefits of this alternative solution for cooking, for both the environment and a family's finances."
Meanwhile, Runiza is making her own mud briquettes twice a week. She uses then to cook her children's favourite meal of maize, beans and beef, "but only once a week."