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The Potential of Clean Cookstoves

by Isobel Coleman
April 3, 2014

A woman cooks inside her home in San Juan, Honduras, August 2008 (Courtesy Reuters/Edgard Garrido). A woman cooks inside her home in San Juan, Honduras, August 2008 (Courtesy Reuters/Edgard Garrido).

For decades, global health experts have recognized that smoke from indoor cooking is a major contributor to premature death.  Yet, in poor countries around the world, some 3 billion people still rely on wood, coal, or animal dung to cook their food over indoor fires. The impact of the resulting indoor air pollution is devastating, particularly for the women and girls who are largely responsible for cooking and bear the brunt of the smoke. A new study calculates that the toll from indoor air pollution is even larger than previously thought: the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that exposure to smoke from traditional cooking was linked to 4.3 million deaths in 2012 – more than was attributable to HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis combined, and double the number estimated just five years ago.

In 2010, a public-private partnership, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, set out the ambitious goal of getting 100 million homes to adopt clean cooking methods by 2020. Last week, I hosted a Council on Foreign Relations meeting that brought together three experts who are working on different aspects of the challenge: Radha Muthiah, the executive director of the Global Alliance; Gary Hattem, president of the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, which is helping to finance development of clean cooking solutions; and Jonathan Cedar, CEO of BioLite, an innovative producer of clean cookstoves based in Brooklyn. You can access the audio of this fascinating discussion here.

Since its inception, the Global Alliance has played a critical role in not only drawing attention to the need for clean cooking solutions but also getting a broad set of partners – including governments, donors, financiers, scientists, manufacturers, distributors, users, and advocacy groups – to work in a somewhat coordinated fashion.  One significant milestone occurred earlier this year when the Global Alliance was able to corral stakeholders into establishing a set of international standards – making it possible to rate cookstoves across markets on four important dimensions: fuel use, total emissions, indoor emissions, and safety.

As Hattem explained, such standard setting enables investors to evaluate promising technologies and unlocks capital for development. Deutsche Bank recently partnered with the Alliance to create a $4 million Working Capital Fund to invest in the sector. One of the fund’s first investments is in the producer BioLite, which has developed a low-cost biomass cookstove that reduces smoke emissions by up to 95 percent.

BioLite’s approach (one of just many different approaches in the marketplace today) is not to try to get people to switch to a different fuel source, but to produce a product that uses existing fuel (typically biomass) in a vastly more efficient and cleaner way.  Cedar notes that if given the choice, most people using traditional cooking methods today would be delighted to switch to the cleaner liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), but that is not a realistic solution given the price (which varies but averages around $400 per year for cooking). So BioLite set out to replicate the benefits of LPG as much as possible with existing fuel sources.  BioLite’s added benefit is that its cooker can also charge an electrical device such as a cell phone. Cedar noted that this can be a selling point for men in the household who are often not so interested in clean cooking solutions but do get excited about a power source – and they tend to play an important decision-making role in household purchases.

As is the case with distributing many useful products to those at the bottom of the pyramid, the last mile is always the biggest challenge. The benefits of clean cookstoves are so large one could argue that they should just be given away. But not only is this approach financially unsustainable, it never allows a viable market – with lucrative sales and crucial after-service – to develop. As Cedar notes, more than half of the cost of the BioLite stove is in distribution, which will create jobs and help develop rural economies.  (Cedar joins a growing community of social entrepreneurs committed to market-based solutions – such as Martin Fisher, co-founder and CEO of KickStart, a non-profit organization specializing in irrigation technology targeted to improve the crops of sub-Saharan Africa’s impoverished smallholder farmers.) Clean cookstoves will bring not only dramatic health improvements, but also a valuable new market to poor economies. They also save time for women and girls usually charged with collecting fuel and offer substantial environmental benefits.

The recent WHO report estimates that Asia contributed more than 75 percent of air pollution-related deaths in 2012, with a total of 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution. It makes sense, then, that the Global Alliance estimates 20 percent of its 100 million goal will be realized in China alone. Given that the Biolite stove is manufactured in China, it won’t have to travel far to have an impact.

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