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Simple things can make the biggest difference in the DRC

DR Congo, June 19, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Dee Goluba/Mercy Corps  </span>
    IDP camp residents building a fuel-efficient stove. Photo: Dee Goluba/Mercy Corps

When asked by family or friends after a field visit, "How was your trip?" or "What's new in Africa?" I'm often guilty of giving oversimplified responses, though I realize our programs go way beyond "fine" and "interesting."

For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the more interesting and complex places on the planet. It's hard to sum up years of conflict, more than five million conflict-related deaths, thousands of displaced people, and the beauty of the country and its people in a few words.

Fighting in North Kivu Province of the DRC has displaced tens of thousands of Congolese. IDP camps and the local population currently host more than 100,000 people. This population influx would create a strain on resources under any circumstances, but has become a critical issue in the DRC where the IDP camps in the Goma area border Virunga National Park — one of the most important ecological sites on the African continent.

Virunga National Park is not only home to two of the earth's most active volcanoes, the only mountain glaciers in Africa, and the almost extinct mountain gorilla, its forests are the major source of charcoal for the city of Goma. Charcoal is widely used as cooking fuel, and its production has been leading to a loss of forest cover for decades.

Last month, I had the chance to visit IDP camps where Mercy Corps is implementing an environmental program. What started as a fuel-efficient stove pilot project in 2007 has expanded to include firewood distributions, seedling nurseries, reforestation activities, and environmental education.

So far, Mercy Corps has provided fuel-efficient stoves to 20,000 displaced families. Rather than using charcoal, these stoves burn either wood or biomass briquettes and only needs half the cooking fuel required by traditional stoves. These stoves also emit less black carbon than traditional cooking methods.

Overall, the program has been a hit. Beneficiaries I spoke with were ecstatic about the cost and time savings they're realizing. I met with several women and asked what they are doing with the money that they would have used otherwise on firewood. One woman told me that she's able to buy more food for her family, another told me that she can afford to take her daughter to the health center when she falls ill.

Even in a country as complex as the Congo, it's sometimes the simple things that make the biggest difference.