Why you should care

Saving millions of people from a daily, seemingly innocuous danger is a tangible goal, but it will fail without local input.

It sounds too innocent to be lethal. But cooking a simple meal creates indoor air pollution that is deadly. It kills an estimated 4 million people per year — more than HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis combined — and sickens millions more. It disproportionately affects women. And about 3 billion people, some 40 percent of the people on earth, are at risk.

The good news? A simple, cost-effective solution already exists: clean cookstoves. Unlike the rudimentary heating schemes that many of the world’s women rely on (think three stones and a fire), clean cookstoves emit less or none of the smoke that causes asthma, pulmonary disease and pneumonia. Widespread use also has environmental benefits, including reduced carbon emissions and deforestation.

Clean cookstoves are just the kind of thing that policymakers love: a simple-sounding solution to a tangle of interrelated problems. And so, in recent years, a movement has coalesced around clean cookstoves and the nifty no-brainer that cooking shouldn’t kill. In 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lent her imprimatur. She marshaled millions of dollars to establish the Global Alliance on Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership that aims to bring clean cookstoves to 100 million households by 2020. Manufacturers saw a potential market as big as 500 million households. Julia Roberts joined as celebrity spokesperson. Since then, the alliance has driven some $35 million in investment into clean cookstoves, and manufacturing of clean cookstoves has doubled, to nearly 10 million, in the past year.

Micrograms per cubic meter of air

  • 150 µg/m3 - U.S. EPA indoor air-pollution limit
  • 1,000 µg/m3 - typical indoor air-pollution level in households reliant on biomass fuel or coal
  • 3 to 7 hours - daily exposure time for women who cook and the infants they care for

24-hour mean levels for lung-damaging particulate matter (PM10), Source: WHO

End of story? Not quite. In fact, it’s just the beginning. For over the past three years, the cookstove saga has revealed a lesson that those in the international development community seem to learn over and over again: No solution is worth anything unless it’s actually usable and used. From One Laptop Per Child to the Styrofoam prefabs for post-earthquake Haiti, development products touted as the next big thing routinely fail for lack of local understanding.

“Even two or three years ago, we had international manufacturers design stoves ‘off-site’ without consumer input and attempt to push product, if you will, in a country,” says Radha Muthiah, the alliance’s executive director.

Clean cookstove usage declined rapidly as stoves broke down and households failed to repair them.

It didn’t work. It rarely does. A 2012 study by MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, an authority in the field of aid effectiveness, showed that usage declined rapidly as stoves broke down and households failed to repair them. The study ignited a good deal of gloating on the part of naysayers and skeptics. (Call it stovenfreude.) Muthiah says that the study, which was based on research conducted before the alliance was founded, underscores the importance of understanding consumers in poor countries.

“So many entrepreneurs now tell us their success hinges on having local operations, on having local partnerships and local distributors,” she says. “And that’s the trend we’re seeing now.”

For cookstoves, the problem is particularly sensitive. Food preparation is such a deep part of culture that stove manufacturers have to be as much anthropologists as engineers. In West Africa, for example, stoves need to accommodate round-bottom pots and should be sturdy, because food prep involves a lot of pounding. In many parts of Latin America, in contrast, stoves need bigger burners and lower levels of heat.

Kebribeyah family swaps kerosene stove for the Project Gaia ethanol CleanCook stove, March 2011

Kebribeyah family swaps kerosene stove for the Project Gaia ethanol CleanCook stove, March 2011

“It’s still a very difficult nut to crack; even when you get the distribution and technology challenges, there’s still the usability challenge,” says Oren Ahoobim, an associate partner at the development consultancy Dalberg Global Development Advisors.

But, adds Ahoobim, there may never be a better time to see if the cookstoves movement can get it right. “Now is the time to translate the interest and the money into delivering real impact,” he says.

Whether the cookstoves movement can deliver remains to be seen. But we know we’re not the only ones waiting for it.

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