Healthy cooking starts with the stove

Harmful cookstove smoke is one of the top five threats to public health in poor developing countries.

Nearly half of the world's population cooks on open fires, a contributor to deforestation, global warming, and early childhood mortality [Ben Grey/Solutions Journal]

Improved cookstoves ought to be one of the easy wins in global health. Inefficient, old-fashioned cookstoves do real damage to human health and family incomes. Traditional cookstoves are generally open fires in the middle of three stones, which hold the pot. The fuel is biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal, and the smoke and fumes cause health problems that range from burns to respiratory infections to cancer. Since most of the heat is lost to the surrounding air, they need a lot of fuel.

Improved stoves, which come in all shapes and forms, direct the heat to the pot and cleaner fuels can reduce environmental and health impacts. Yet three billion people – that is nearly half of the world’s population – still use traditional stoves. Why? It is about human nature. The impacts of improved cookstoves appear over time, and they are not obviously connected to the cookstoves, while the negatives of upgrading are obvious and immediate.

Most users of traditional stoves are poor and live in developing countries. Imagine that you are poor, and each expenditure must stretch as far as possible. You currently collect wood for fuel and cook over a three-stone fire. Would you spend family income on a better stove? I doubt it, unless someone made the benefits very clear to you.

Clear benefits, but not so obvious

Improved stoves are more fuel efficient, which means less money spent on fuel, or less time spent gathering fuel. However, it’s not easy to calculate fuel savings over time. (Do you know how much you spend per year on gas for your car?) If coal or wood are purchased in small amounts on an irregular basis, it is not obvious how much the annual cost is.

If wood is gathered rather than purchased, the cost is even harder to estimate. Women and children are generally the ones gathering firewood, which takes considerable time -time that could be spent in school or running a business. In conflict areas, they also risk violence and sexual assault. However, saving a woman’s time may not have an obvious benefit in a patriarchal culture. Saving a child’s time might seem downright pointless.

The health benefits of improved stoves are equally indirect. On a macro-level, we know that respiratory illnesses, cancer, asthma and burns are less common in communities that use improved cookstoves. Harmful cookstove smoke is one of the World Health Organization’s top five threats to public health in poor, developing countries. The WHO estimates that 1.9 million premature deaths are caused by indoor air pollution from traditional cookstoves. That is a life lost every 16 seconds.

On a household level, however, the health benefits of an improved stove are not obvious. Preventing lung cancer or emphysema 10 or 20 years from now is not a tangible advantage, or even especially believable for many people.

Women often cook with infants strapped on their backs. Children in a household with an improved cookstove get fewer respiratory infections. However, it’s not so many fewer that it would stand out – unless you were tracking how often your own kids got sick in comparison to your neighbours’ kids. Most parents do not habitually benchmark their children’s health.

There are also environmental benefits to improved cookstoves. Since improved stoves require less fuel, they reduce the burden on natural resources and decrease deforestation. In Kenya alone, over 100 million trees are cut down each year for firewood, according to the Paradigm Project. In addition, the carbon dioxide, methane, and black carbon (soot) from dirty stoves all contribute to climate change. 


Doha COP18

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, inefficient cooking stoves are responsible for around 25 percent of global emissions of black carbon. Again, however, those environmental advantages have an aggregate impact, not one that is clear (or even relevant) at the household level.

Big obstacles

The negatives of an improved cookstove, on the other hand, are immediately apparent. First and foremost, there is the cost of buying a new cookstove. Improved stoves can range from $7 (40 percent more efficient) to $100 (95 percent more efficient). Even if it is as cheap as $25, that can be a full month’s wages. You need to save for the cookstove, or take a loan, for a new technology with unproven benefits.

Financial obstacles aside, adopting the new stove still is not easy. In many cases, convincing a family to change stove means challenging some very personal traditions. In most of the world, the woman in the home does the cooking, and she will need to learn new techniques for the new stove. Even if it is a perfect stove – well designed for the local culture and easy to use – it is still a new stove. It will take a month or two for the household cook to get used to it. In that time, some food will turn out strangely, and some will be ruined; food the family cannot really afford to lose.

If it is not a perfect stove, learning to use it will take a lot longer. Some traditional food may be impossible to make, if it relies on a smoky flavor that came from a poorly vented oven, for example, or on a particular smooth or crunchy texture that cannot be created with the new stove. What if you are Ethiopian and your new stove is too small to make injera? It does not matter how efficient it is, you are not going to buy that stove. Even if someone gives it to you for free, you are not going to use it.

If we want improved cookstoves in as many homes as possible, we are going to need a great design, a low price and fantastic marketing.

The efficient stoves will need to look and handle as much like traditional cookstoves as possible, to minimise the perceived negatives in switching over. That will mean different models for different markets; one standard improved cookstove will not work for the whole world.

Next, we need the cookstoves to be affordable. It does not matter how much people can save by using them if no one can buy the stove in the first place. That is probably going to mean subsidising the stoves. Some kind of loan for purchase might work too, either on its own or in combination with a subsidy.

Finally, you cannot just put the stoves on the market without preface: Demonstrations of the new stove in action, with examples of the delicious traditional foods it will produce; and detailed but understandable explanations of the cost savings that the stove provides. An improved cookstove is like any new product on the market, which means it needs pretty pictures, personal testimonials, and the rest of the marketing package.

In some ways, cookstoves are just an extreme example of the problem with every innovation. People do not adopt something just because it is good for them or economically rational. If you want people to change the way they do something, you need to show them the benefits. You need to talk them into it.

The good news

There is reason to believe we can achieve the trio of good design, affordability and solid marketing. One reason is the increase in political will and attention on cookstoves. Improved cookstoves have been kicking around international development circles since the 1940s, but the issue gained attention in 2010 when Hillary Clinton announced the launch of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which now has 12 donor countries and over 200 implementing partners.

On the design front, there is increasing emphasis on building user-friendly and culturally appropriate stoves. The Darfur Stoves Project (now Potential Energy), which arose from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is one such example. The design team adapted a stove from India to suit the pot shapes, cooking style, type of food, windy conditions, and sandy terrain in Darfur.

One key element is that the new stove would be able to cook traditional Darfuri meals such as assida, a sticky dough topped with fried onion, meats and spices. Assida is continuously stirred over high heat, so the design team rejected solar stoves, which work more like ovens, providing lower heat over time. They also iteratively tested their prototypes in the field (Darfur) and lab (Lawrence Berkeley) before settling on the design, now version 14, for scaling up.

Working with partners like Oxfam America, Plan Canada, and others, they have distributed more than 22,000 Berkeley-Darfur stoves with the final design. The more stoves that cater to local needs (in terms of performance, cost, culture, and user-convenience), as the Berkeley-Darfur stove does, the higher the rate of adoption will be.

In terms of costs, the large amount of donor money pouring into the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves means that the cost of cookstoves is often subsidised. Moreover, carbon financing is an increasingly popular tool to offset the costs of improved cookstoves. According to the Global Alliance, improved cookstoves can yield about one ton of equivalent carbon dioxide per year. This can translate into a substantial revenue stream for stove manufacturers.

Toyola Energy in Ghana depends on the carbon market. According to a 2011 National Geographic article spotlighting the company, Toyola has sold the carbon credits to Goldman Sachs and each cookstove generates about $20 worth of credits over its estimated five-year life span. Twenty dollars is a substantial offset. The Darfur Stove Project currently fundraises in order to sell their stoves at subsidized prices. However, they are also exploring carbon credits to offset their costs. Between carbon credits and donor money, improved cookstoves can and are being offered at affordable prices to the poor.

Lastly, people are paying attention to effective marketing. The Partnership for Clean Indoor Air (PCIA), a public-private partnership, has created a website called the Social Marketplace, which is “a collection of best practices, tools, case studies and resources around the marketing of cookstoves and other social goods to poor consumers”. The Social Marketplace includes case studies, common barriers to adoption, and a list of dos and don’ts.

When all is said and done, there is a lot to be hopeful about in the dissemination of improved cookstoves. The challenges may be tremendous, but they are also well known. There is a large body of knowledge on cookstove design and adoption. No one is going into this blind.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves aims to help 100 million homes adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020. Let us hope they reach their goal of 100 by ’20!

Alanna Shaikh is an international development consultant currently based in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. She has worked in international development for about a decade with non-governmental organisations, contractors, the US government, and a United Nations agency. She has been in charge of programmes in East Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East and is currently a TED fellow.

Lillian Gu is an assessment specialist for biomedical equipment technicians in resource-poor settings. She is passionate about global health and currently works at the Developing World Healthcare Technology Laboratory at Duke University. 

A version of this article first appeared on the Solutions Journal.