Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center

Pioneering innovative bio-briquette design for cooking stoves in Timor-Leste


Mercy Corps is an international, non-governmental humanitarian relief and development agency with headquarters in the UK and USA. With current operations in 40 countries reaching close to 20 million beneficiaries, the agency exists to alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression by helping people build secure, productive and just communities. Mercy Corps’ work emphasizes community-led, market-driven interventions through public, private and civic sector partnerships.

In Timor-Leste Mercy Corps is at the forefront of efforts to transform the high rate of energy poverty in the country, where 70% of households currently relying on kerosene for lighting and using traditional inefficient three-stone fires for cooking. A market-driven approach is being taken to address these problems; Mercy Corps is working with private sector retailers and manufacturers to establish supply chains for solar lighting products and fuel-efficient cooking stoves to rural areas, based on market principles.

The issue of indoor air pollution and deforestation due to use of open fires for cooking is a huge problem, in particular in Dili. While fuel-efficient stoves will reduce firewood consumption by around 50% and thus help to ease the pressure on surrounding forests, this is unlikely to be enough to prevent continued destruction of large areas of forest. Given income levels in Dili, a shift to LPG is unlikely to take place in the foreseeable future. Bio-briquettes therefore offer a very good solution to continued wood use in the capital Dili at least.

Attempts to initiate bio-briquette production and use have been on-going in Dili for several years. To-date, while large numbers of briquettes have been produced (supported by a local NGO), there has been limited take-up. Market led production and distribution remain some way off. There are several reasons why bio-briquette production has not succeeded in Timor-Leste thus far. Firstly, there is no appropriate stove in which to burn the briquettes. The current clay design, produced locally by a community group, is extremely fragile and users (who usually receive the stove for free) complain that the stove lasts only for a few months. A second constraint is cultural practices of households. Shifting to briquettes in their current form requires a considerable change in the way of cooking, as it requires cooks to load the fire from the top, with little control over heat as with a 3-stone wood fire. Thirdly, there has not been sufficient awareness-raising and marketing of the briquettes, and development of effective distribution channels. Finally, the shape of the briquettes is poorly designed, and is unlikely to be very clean burning (though more testing is needed to measure actual emission levels).

The potential for briquettes is high, at least in Dili district. Timor-Leste is a coffee-producing country, and in Dili there are large amounts of coffee husks and other organic matter that are appropriate for briquette manufacture. The difficulty and cost of accessing firewood in the town, means briquettes are likely to be a cost-effective alternative. A high-quality stick-shaped briquette would overcome many of the constraints described above, and should be explored as an option. Crucially, it could be used in standard wood-burning stoves and in particular the rocket stove, so would be complimentary to the work that Mercy Corps is doing to develop high-quality and efficient stoves. This would also overcome the cultural preferences for cooking in manner similar to cooking on a 3-stone fire. The stick shape would also increase efficiency of combustion, reducing emissions. Further research is needed to establish the optimal briquette design, and to test user acceptance.

The Challenge

Mercy Corps is seeking a highly motivated volunteer to work with the Mercy Corps team and local NGO staff to pioneer the design, testing and market analysis for an innovative bio-briquette design. Research will be required into existing briquette designs (both in Timor-Leste and globally) and the specific materials available in Timor-Leste. Design work will involve the dimensions and production process for bio-briquette sticks, and research and design on simple manual tools for their production (a basic lever press). Testing will include functionality, perceptions of local Timor-Leste cooks and efficiency performance (with Mercy Corps support).

The individual will be required to rigorously document all research and testing work undertaken in-country, to act as a learning document for other Mercy Corps programmes globally.


The individual will be based in Timor-Leste in the capital Dili, with some travel to surrounding villages.

Qualifications, Preferences and Assets

Time Constraints

The volunteer will ideally be available for 6-8 weeks. August-September 2012 is preferred, but July-August will also be considered. Depending on availability, some of the work may be able to be undertaken remotely, prior to arrival in-country.


Please send a cover letter and CV/resume to:
Willaim Baron
Programme Manager - Renewable Energy


Mercy Corps has funds available to pay for the cost of the return flight from the US to Timor-Leste. The individual will be required to cover their own living costs while in Timor-Leste.

PKG Center Support

MIT students who develop projects around these ideas may apply for support from the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center's Internships or Grants programs. Please check the program descriptions and deadlines and talk to program staff to determine which is most appropriate for your needs and project.

If you want to volunteer or you have funding from outside the PKG Center that enables you to work on this project, that's great! However, please do let us know if you work on a project you saw advertised here, even if you don't use our funds. And remember, the PKG Center staff are happy to advise on service projects even if we are not funding them ourselves.

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