It is not hard to guess where gari is made in West Africa. Driving through rural villages in Ghana or Nigeria, the smell of fermenting cassava hovers over the countryside, where subsistence and family farmers grow, harvest, peel, wash, grind, press, ferment, sieve, and then fry the plant’s root into a grain-like meal.

This form of cassava has become not only a staple but a preferred source of food in the region—a fact that has evolved over centuries. Africa is now the world’s biggest producer of cassava. The yam-like plant is not native to the continent, however; it was introduced by the Portuguese about 400 years ago.

Cassava’s ability to grow in poor quality soil and its resilience to drought, pests and disease have earned it a reputation as a food security staple. It has its downsides, however. Cassava’s nutritional content is pretty poor. While it can be consumed in a variety of ways, it has a high cyanide content, which means that careful preparation is required. And it has a short lifespan, once unearthed from the ground.

The meticulous process of making gari solves two of those three issues: it eliminates the plant’s cyanide content and considerably prolongs its lifespan by turning it into a dry product. Indeed, gari has become the most commercialized cassava product in Ghana, where it is produced for both domestic urban consumers and for export.

“But making gari sucks. It is one of the worst job in the world,” says Whit Alexander.

Alexander is the founder of Burro, a Koforidua, Ghana and Seattle, Wash.-based company that designs and manufactures low-cost productive tools for the West African market. One of Burro’s latest products is a gari cookstove called “the Elephant”.

Cassava was introduced to Africa by the Portuguese 400 years ago. Africa is now the world’s biggest cassava producer.

The reason making gari “sucks,” he says, is because it requires hours of constant tending over smoky, hot metal pans. Men and women share the burden of the numerous aforementioned steps to processing cassava into gari, but like so much of the world’s most taxing labor, the final stage of drying, frying, and roasting the fermented pulp falls disproportionately on women and girls.

Because of demand, however, gari making can be a lucrative undertaking for cooks who can produce it at some measure of scale. That can be hard to do. Gari is ill-suited for mass production because of its unique cooking process. “We might think of it as roasting, but it is really its own process—a combination of drying, frying, and crisping that is actually known as ‘garification’,” Alexander explains.

The art and science of gari making

Gari is traditionally prepared in an aluminum wok-like dish that is about 60cm in diameter, set on top of a mud oven fueled by a wood fire. The cooking starts over low heat, to dispel water from the fermented cassava “dough”, then finishes over high heat. It is common to see one woman tending two pans or two women working together to tend three pans, but managing any more than that is difficult because the heat requires constant attention and the dough, which clumps and burns easily, has to be continuously stirred. (Cooks’ preferred tool is known as a “chimi,” which is a rugged instrument cut from a gourd. It is used to both chop and smooth the gari as it cooks.)

Most of the gari produced in West Africa is prepared by small farmer households. “You can do factory-level gari production, but the quality is not as good,” Alexander explains. “It requires running the final product through a hammer mill to break up the clumps.” One of the Elephant’s design team members says that automating gari production “would be like trying to automate scrambled eggs.”

The cassava plant itself also hinders centralized production of gari. “Cassava is heavy, it has a high water content, and it spoils quickly. Once you harvest it, the clock starts ticking,” Alexander says. Transporting the raw crop long distances is therefore unfeasible for small producers.

As gari, cassava gains a year or more of shelf-life, which opens up entirely new market channels for producers. A 2013 study published in the African Journal of Agricultural Research found that even Ghana’s smallest (female) gari producers earned considerably more than minimum-wage workers in the country. “Given that the daily minimum wage in Ghana in 2012 was 4.48 Ghanian Cedis (GHS)”—about US$1—“an average worker would be earning approximately GHS1,613 per annum, which is 210 percent less than the net income [of] the lowest earning [gari] processors in the study area,” the study found.

Because the product is popular and business costs are low—primarily basic equipment, fuelwood, and labor, if processors recruit help outside of their own households—gari producers tend to be profitable. What’s more, the 2013 study found that the product “contributes significantly to the standards of living of women cassava processors, in terms of income generation and family food security.”

Gari producers’ earning potential is mostly restricted by their own cooking capacity. Burro’s “Elephant” was designed to help them earn more by overcoming their capacity limitations. The Elephant, as the name suggests, is bigger than most gari cookstoves and can produce roughly twice as much gari per batch, owing mostly to its larger size. It also includes a number of features that make the job less taxing for women.

Productive mammals

Burro launched the Elephant for Ghana’s 75,000 small-scale gari producers earlier this year. The lead up to launch involved years of research, design thinking, prototyping, and field testing with support from students enrolled in Stanford University’s “Design for Extreme Affordability” course, a team of designers from Catapult Design, and funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Its story exemplifies why Alexander started Burro in the first place: to help African farmers and agri-processors improve their productivity. (The name Burro, which means “donkey” in Spanish, was chosen to represent trustworthiness and the spirit of hard work.)

Before Alexander started the company in 2008, he had accrued decades of experience in product development, though not quite in the same category as the Elephant. He co-founded the game Cranium, and prior to that, he built and led the team that developed Microsoft’s Encarta World Atlas. “We saw this amazing new technology medium—CD-ROMs—that we thought was going to change the world,” he says, with a laugh. (It did, in a sense: the Encarta CD-ROM changed the way people learn about the world.)

Alexander describes those years of his career as a “distraction” from the work he is doing now, however. “As a young man,” he says, his ambition was to develop a Sears-like catalogue of productive tools for Africa’s workforce.

“As I was traveling, I saw all of these things advertised as ‘the better mosquito net’ or ‘the better water filter,’ and I thought, if that’s the case, why isn’t someone making a business out of selling them?” he recalls. Such products will never catch fire unless they are commercially-viable and pay off for the people investing in them, he adds.

Through Burro, Alexander has been steadily building such a catalog of products, which is listed on the company’s website as “Tools for a Better Life.” The catalog includes agriculture, solar, battery and charging, and affordable home products, though Burro’s main focus for future products will be in agriculture and agri-processing, Alexander says. The company has a hit list of priority sub-sectors, including shea nuts, cocoa, and palm oil—all important income-earning crops in West Africa.

Burro began tackling gari cookstove design in 2013 in partnership with a team of Stanford’s design students. The students seized on the health hazards—namely smoke inhalation and the risk of burns—that gari producers face using traditional cooking equipment. “They were focused on making an exceptionally low-cost innovation that would mitigate the smoke hazard while contributing enough to productivity that the device would eventually pay for itself,” Alexander explains. Their main design constraints were to work with existing pans and to keep the cost of their solution below $75.

“Automating gari production is like trying to automate scrambled eggs. Factory-made gari is possible, but the quality isn’t as good.”

There is some precedence for this approach in the gari sector. A 1989 study published in the journal Outlook on Agriculture reveals how little gari processing and the technologies supporting it have changed in the past three decades: “Pans made from iron or earthen pots are used for roasting the fermented pulp. Fuelwood is the [main] source of energy for boiling, roasting, steaming and frying.”

The study notes that “slight changes in the equipment used in [gari] processing can help to save fuel and lessen the discomfort, health hazard, and drudgery for the operating women.” It advises: “The first step to take for improvement of cassava technologies should be to improve or modify the simple processing equipment or systems presently used, rather than to change entirely to new, sophisticated, and expensive equipment.”

Delving into design

The Stanford students’ solution for Burro was a pedal-based stirring mechanism that could be affixed to typical gari cooking pans. Alexander describes the device as “rough and Rube Goldberg-esque,” but credits it as a “solid first effort to address both safety and productivity” for gari cooks because it would allow them to tend to more than one pan while removing them from the heat and smoke of the cook fires. It offered no fuel savings or reduction of smoke output, however.

Burro and Stanford’s initial exploration in gari technology drew the attention of the Gates Foundation, which offered a grant to Burro to deepen its research and product innovation. Burro approached Catapult Design, and together they embarked on a year of research, concept development, prototyping, and testing with the goal of getting an improved garification product to market. Catapult’s one precondition to supporting the project was that the team be able to explore all avenues for improving gari producers’ livelihoods, and not be restricted to enhancing the Stanford students’ automation mechanism.

That caveat turned out to be essential to the ultimate development of the Elephant. “Catapult really helped in the earliest phase of research,” Alexander says. Under Catapult’s direction, the team sought to deconstruct the elements of gari making by interrogating prior research, expert insight, and existing product designs. “When we started to dive in more deeply, it became clear that productivity was mostly a function of pan size. We needed to have the flexibility to propose a new pan,” rather than pursing mechanisms for automation, Alexander recalls.

In fact, during the 10 weeks that Catapult spent in Koforidua speaking with gari producers, most expressed skepticism of automated mechanisms. “The problems that they saw with gari making had nothing to do with automation. They did not see the importance of the mechanism,” one of the field team members says. “What was important was the size of the stove—everyone was always more interested in a bigger pan—as well as firewood efficiency, and comfort cooking.”

The physically taxing process of drying, frying, and roasting cassava into gari falls mostly on women and girls.

Burro and Catapult’s teams realized that focusing on automation over other aspects of stove design would likely result in a product that no one wanted to buy, or one which would fall into disuse. Neither scenario fit with Burro’s market-based approach to product development. The teams approached the Gates Foundation about refocusing their efforts on simpler but still unexplored areas for cookstove improvement, like pan geometry, materials, and fuel efficiency. These elements became the foundation of the design team’s new approach.

There were not many existing products for the team to reference as a guide, however. Larger pans are in use in parts of Ghana, and they do increase labor productivity, but with no attention to safety, fuel efficiency, or scalability, Alexander says. “A lot of the big pans people are trying in northern Ghana are ergonomic nightmares, and best case, they are made of stainless steel. Stainless is terrible for cooking. It has terrible heat transfer problems and is not as efficient as aluminum or cast iron.” Worst case, the pans are made at least partially from aluminum, but with a number of other types of scrap metal cast in with it.

The team also looked outside of Ghana for inspiration. Brazil has a long history of cassava processing, including some techniques similar to gari production, minus the fermentation step. Most of the technologies used in Brazil to make farinha de mandioca, a dry cassava product, include electric frying machines and mechanized roasters. But being dependent on a constant source of power, none of them were suitable for adoption in Ghana’s primarily off-grid gari producing households.

Burro and Catapult recruited a material scientist to help them narrow down metal varieties to use for their design and to provide definition for the stove’s geometric shape. They explored several types of aluminum and steel and ultimately settled on a combination of the two: a thin sheet of steel coated with aluminum known as aluminized steel. For cost, processing, and durability reasons, this was the best choice. Gari processors who tested the material confirmed that it was also suitable for cooking.

The final design Burro and Catapult settled on is a large, curved pan, approximately one meter by 60cm with an insulated fire box to ensure optimized combustion and heat distribution while protecting the user from intense heat exposure. The ergonomics of the stove are familiar to gari makers. “It is a curved pan, but longer than traditional gari pans,” explains Alexander. “That is why it is so familiar to a woman when she sits next to it—the cross section is the same as what she knows.”

The firewood door at the base of the stove is also similar to traditional gari mud stoves. It accommodates firewood sizes that gari makers are used to and allows users to constantly monitor the fire. A tall chimney, which is shaped like an elephant’s trunk, diverts smoke from the fire away from users.

A final design aspect is the stove’s portability. While larger than traditional gari pans, the Elephant can be easily carried for safe storage or for use closer to where cassava is harvested.

The Elephant’s march to market

Burro launched the Elephant on the Ghanaian market in March of this year. The stove retails for GHS795 ($180). Burro sold about 12 stoves per month for the first few months it was on the market, but is starting to see the sales volume pick up. Alexander says the profit margins for the device are slim for now, but he expects the Elephant to become profitable, particularly as the company begins manufacturing the stove in larger volumes. This will bring its production cost down.

Ghanaians who have purchased the stove already say that it pays for itself in about three to four months. Most of the payback comes from improved labor productivity, Alexander explains. “One person on an Elephant compared to a traditional pan can cook nearly twice as much gari per hour,” he says. “The productivity of doing more per day comes mainly from the larger pan size.”

The Elephant also cuts firewood usage by nearly 60 percent from a traditional pan because of its fuel efficiency. In Ghana, where gari producers often buy firewood rather than collect it themselves, this is a big cost savings. “Gari producers put a lot more value on their time than [typical] rural households,” Alexander notes.

One person using Burro’s Elephant cookstove can produce twice as much gari per hour as someone using a traditional pan. It also cuts firewood usage by nearly 60 percent.

While firewood remains the most common fuel source for gari production, Burro and Catapult designed the Elephant to also be compatible with liquid petroleum gas (LPG). The Ghanaian government and international organizations working in the country have been trying to encourage households to adopt gas and biofuels, which are more environmentally and health friendly than wood. Indeed, because Ghana has its own gas reserve, Alexander says the government has even resorted to giving away gas cylinders and burners.

Building the Elephant to be LPG-compatible was a way to future-proof the device, but it also has a positive impact on the stove’s production capabilities. “Gas almost doubles the labor productivity,” Alexander says. The frying temperature cooks typically use for making gari is limited by the heat threshold of wood fires. “If they can turn the temperature up, they can cook faster and to a higher quality.”

The Elephant also has the capacity to accommodate “gears and cogs” in the future, as one of the field team members describes it: the stove’s design is accessory-friendly, meaning an automation mechanism could be incorporated to further boost its productive benefits.

The Elephant’s current productivity gains already put the device within reach for a number of Ghana’s gari producers, price-wise. Burro recently launched a financing scheme to make it more so, much like what Sears did for its customers as its catalog of products expanded. Customers make a deposit of GHS75 for the Elephant, and then make monthly mobile money payments. If need be, they can stretch repayment over a full 12 months. Burro’s interest rate—43 percent annually—sounds high, but it is in line with microfinance providers in Africa. (Rural Ghanaians do not otherwise have easy access to loans or lines of credit.) And Burro offers incentives for those who pay the device off early. “The guidelines we used when setting up our credit scheme were: flexibility, incentives, discipline, and security,” Alexander says.

Burro believes that it can penetrate about 20 percent of Ghana’s gari production market, and that expansion into Nigeria and the rest of West Africa’s “Forest Belt” is also viable in the future. The company has been experimenting with its marketing strategy to work its way up to scale. It is building a network of sales agents to pitch and demonstrate the product in rural areas. Burro has also changed the way it frames the Elephant’s benefits.

“We were saying ‘Healthy for you and your business’,” Alexander says—a subtle hint at the Elephant’s safety and productivity benefits over traditional pans. But seeing gari makers actually sit down and work with the stove, the company realized that a tagline closer to the original mission of making gari production “suck” less resonates better.

“The minute the women sit down, they get this glow. They’re in the groove in 10 minutes, and they have no smoke, they’re removed from the heat, they can lean on [the pan] without getting burned. And by they time they’ve finished, they can see how much they can fry and how little wood they’ve used,” Alexander explains. “We now say, ‘Gari frying just got easier’.”

Noel Wilson is Catapult Design’s creative director who spends most of his time wandering the globe, immersed in projects, host communities, and multidisciplinary teams addressing a broad range of design challenges. Noel’s experience in industrial design spans rapid prototyping, technology R&D, and design education.

Jessica Pothering is business journalist focusing on social innovation, finance and economic development. Her reporting and research topics range from social impact bonds in the United States to social entrepreneurs in Southern Africa. She started her journalism career covering finance and now serves as Demand's managing editor.