This piece was previously published on Mercy Corps Technology for Development blog. In 2017, Cisco launched a 5-year, $10 million partnership with Mercy Corps called Technology for Impact. Our goal was to help Mercy Corps use technology to deliver humanitarian aid faster, more efficiently, and to more people.

Every meal tells a story. For many of those in rural communities, that story lives in the lengthy and sometimes perilous journey to collect firewood for cooking fuel to feed families. Though firewood has been a staple of traditional stove cooking, the smoke of cooking over an open fire is harmful to both people and the environment. Inhalation of smoke from coal, charcoal, kerosene, and other traditional agents can lead to stroke, lung cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Household air pollution similarly harms children. As cooking often falls on women and girls, they disproportionately bear these grave health burdens and may even face familial conflict if they are unable to secure cooking fuel to prepare meals for their household.

Together, PESITHO and Mercy Corps are telling a new story by reimagining traditional cooking methods in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp and surrounding communities in Uganda so that the resounding tale is one of accessibility, affordability, and sustainability. Supported by Mercy Corps’ partnership with Cisco and the Elrha Journey 2 Scale (J2S) grant, PESITHO and Mercy Corps have introduced an innovative business model, the pay-as-you-cook (PAYC) model, to subsidize the capital costs of the ECOCA solar-powered cooking stove. Because many rural communities live off-grid and lack access to energy, few alternative energy sources exist to support the daily needs of living, most notably, cooking.

A cooking unit

​​The ECOCA Cooking Unit

The ECOCA solar-powered cooking stove is designed by PESITHO to power households with their cooking and electricity needs. According to PESITHO, a family with an average of 5–7 members can cook 3 meals per day, including after hours in the dark. The cooking unit also features two USB charging ports, which can be used to charge other appliances, such as mobile phones, and two rechargeable, portable lamps. This design expands opportunities for families to generate additional income or even continue activities that were previously limited due to a lack of electricity and adequate lighting. These activities may include studying or practicing skills and crafts that support income generation.

The Pay-As-You-Cook (PAYC) Model

ECOCA units are both retailed and assembled locally, hiring refugees and members of the host communities as technicians. The PAYC payment model allows households to pay per usage over a maximum period of 3 years. PAYGo units come with two circuit boards in the base which allow for the payment mechanism to function. The system is able to track usage data, providing insights into carbon emissions associated with each cooking activity.

The PAYGo system improves how technicians support participants as it has GPS tracking, allowing technicians to identify which units are out of money so that they may notify the participant. Sometimes, participants moved, further adding to the benefits of the PAYC system as its GPS capabilities allowed for retailers and technicians to maintain communication with participants. PESITHO continues to work with Airtel, a telecommunications company, to auto-generate activation codes that are sent to participants’ phones to self-activate or renew. Currently, the technical team is still manually generating the codes and going to participant homes to activate and renew.

Praises from Participants

Participant Abu Simon told our program team that before the pilot, it cost his family 30,000 UGX (about $7 USD) for a sack of charcoal, lasting for one month. Firewood set them back an additional 6,000 UGX ($1.55 USD) per bundle. From early morning until the afternoon, he and his family would gather firewood. The ECOCA cooker greatly reduced the time spent gathering firewood, which was an opportunity cost to pursuing activities for personal development.

For another participant, Moses, the ECOCA has illuminated his entrepreneurial spirit. In his zone, charging your mobile phone for the day costs 500 UGX. Moses has been able to add an additional revenue stream by offering the USB ports on his unit to his neighbors at a lowered price of 300 UGX. In addition to being another source of income, these entrepreneurial practices allow for the unit to pay for itself.

Improving ECOCA for the Future

Our team has identified how ECOCA can be improved to better meet the daily needs of participants:

  • Overwhelming demand: The demand for ECOCA units far exceeded the 25 units used in this pilot. To solve this gap in demand, private sector approaches have to be applied so that the units are accessible beyond the humanitarian context. Mercy Corps is in the final stages of onboarding Equity Bank Uganda Limited to pilot a rural financial services program for the ECOCA units. PESITHO has committed to supplying 100 units for the pilot.
  • Weak connectivity. Connectivity at participant homes and the PESITHO Innovation Centers has not been optimal. Retailers sometimes have to leave a participant’s home in order to get signal or adequate connectivity to access technical support, delaying the process.
  • Difficulty executing repairs: Many retailers have limited skills to handle repairs. The assembly center-based technicians have more experience and will host clinics at the distribution hubs in zones 3 and 4 to build capacity for this skill set and train and mentor retailers.
  • Availability of retailers: While the retailers were generally responsive, wait times to receive support with an ECOCA unit issue could take up to a week. This particularly impacted those who live in zones where there are no retailers. A similar issue arose with technicians attempting to help those in zones with no technicians or retailers. One participant had to wait a month to get support from a technician who was already tasked with addressing support requests in their respective zone and was offering additional assistance to those outside of the zone. To alleviate this, WhatsApp groups, managed by retailers, are used for communication ease and technical support.
A retailer handing out cooking units.
A program participant stands with a retailer to receive his ECOCA unit. (Photo credit: Guya Francis, an ECOCA retailer from Bidi Bidi Zone 3).


Cooking is more than just providing sustenance for ourselves and our communities. It is often a culturally salient ritual passed down from generation to generation, which can make the adoption of new modes of cooking a difficult transition. Peer-to-peer training and knowledge sharing are essential to the transition from traditional cooking to alternative sources of energy. Some community members are already adept at using the ECOCA and will be key ambassadors to scale this innovation so that clean energy can be more accessible and affordable. The program team has planned for peer-to-peer training and learning events for proper use where community members can gather together and share knowledge with each other. The enthusiasm for the potential of solar power is buzzing amongst participants with some even suggesting the development of solar-powered washing machines, water heaters, or refrigerators. With the PAYGo system, more households can have an affordable, accessible, and sustainable means to powering their homes and their futures.

The Technology for Development (T4D) team supported the Mercy Corps Uganda Team in the delivery of this pilot through partnership with Cisco, under a 5-year program aimed at using technology to deliver aid and development assistance faster, better, and to more people.

Learn more about Cisco’s partnership with Mercy Corps


Erin Connor

Director, Cisco Crisis Response

Social Impact Office