Off-Grid Brooder for Cameroonian Poultry Farmers, Spring 2024

Battery materials test. Photo: Courtesy MIT D-Lab
Battery materials test. Photo: Courtesy MIT D-Lab

A safe and affordable off-grid chicken brooder designed to reduce losses and improve livelihood outcomes for poultry farmers in developing countries


MIT D-Lab class

Introduction to Energy in Global Development

Community partner

African Diaspora Council of Switzerland - Branch Cameroon (CDAS - BC)



Student team

MIT students unless otherwise noted.

  • Gabriel Balzaretti - MBA '25
  • Kathleen Bailey - Chemical Engineering '24
  • Nick Gilligan - Physics '26
  • Cameron Kokesh - Mechanical Engineering '24


The domestic poultry sector plays an important role in Cameroon's economy and food security. After the government imposed import restrictions on frozen poultry in 2005, domestic production grew substantially, accounting for 4% of Cameroon's GDP and 42% of total meat production in 2018. Today, the domestic poultry industry provides jobs and food to several farmers and communities.

Small-scale farmers face energy and safety challenges when brooding chicks. Chicks require an ambient temperature of 31-35°C in their first three weeks since they are unable to self-regulate their body temperature. Traditionally, small-scale farmers use open fires to heat the chicks. This practice is dangerous as well as energy and labor intensive.

Problem framing

MIT has implemented a low-cost, energy efficient, and safe brooding system that consists of motorcycle boxes and thermal batteries for chicken brooding. However, this system requires a change of thermal batteries overnight to maintain the ideal temperature. Consequently, farmers need to wake up at night and suffer from sleep deprivation. The objective during the semester was to design a system with long-lasting heat release that is affordable, easy to assemble, and scalable to 200 chicks.

Research areas

The team focused on optimizing two key components: the thermal battery material and box insulation.

1. Thermal Battery: The team tested the performance of affordable and locally available materials for thermal batteries. The materials tested include beeswax, water, oil, and soap. Even though it is more expensive, beeswax performed better than the other materials due to its phase-change material properties.

2. Insulation: The team tested the effect of various affordable and locally available insulation materials on the inside temperature of the box. The materials tested were straw, polypropylene, corn cobs, aluminum cans, and air. Straw demonstrated the best performance out of all materials.



Graph of battery insulation test results.
Insulation test results: Image: Courtesy MIT D-Lab student team


Thermal batteries in a plastic bin.
Insulation test. Photo: Courtesy MIT D-Lab

Conclusion and future work

The recommended design combines a reusable beeswax thermal battery with straw insulation lining the motorcycle box walls and lid. Field testing in summer 2024 will validate local material availability, construction feasibility, and live chick brooding performance compared to fire pits. Opportunities exist to optimize ventilation, integrate thermal mass, and design an insulated viewing window in the lid. This low-cost, locally-sourced solution aims to improve brooding conditions and reduce chick mortality for small-scale farmers.


Dan Sweeney, MIT D-Lab Lecturer and Research Scientist