article

Universal access to clean cooking: a hot matter but cold topic


Alessandro Galimberti
published on 2021-03-11

Why are green economy and ecological transition becoming a worldwide priority?

Whilst the international community is appropriately discussing renewable energy, green economy and ecological transition, according to the following figures there is a worldwide priority that has always been out of the spotlight:

  • More than 2.8 billion people worldwide lack still rely on charcoal and firewood as their primary cooking fuel. Of course, they live in the world’s poorest areas.

  • Under the business as usual scenario of the International Energy Agency, this number decreases only to 2.3 billion in 2030.

  • 3.8 million deaths and 50% of pneumonia deaths in children under 5 are attributed to household air pollution (due to the indoor use of charcoal and firewood for daily cooking) annually - much more than malaria and AIDS.

  • Unsustainable charcoal production and fuelwood collection currently constitute one of the main causes of forest degradation, particularly in Sub Saharan Africa.

  • The poorest families in African urban settlements can spend up to 20% of their monthly income to buy traditional cooking fuel, especially charcoal.

  • In rural areas, women and children devote many hours to procure firewood, exposing themselves to the risks of sexual assaults, animal attacks and injuries.

  • Sustainable Energy for All estimates that finance for clean cooking solutions is far below the estimated USD 4.4 billion required annually until 2030 to ensure universal access.

These impressive numbers and dramatic facts show that the clean cooking sector requires further investments and attention from policymakers, international agencies, academia, the media, local authorities, NGOs, families and individuals. The solution to this massive problem could primarily depend on a coordinated and global effort as it has tentatively happened for AIDS and climate change. Contrariwise, the sector appears undersized, fragmented and dispersed.

What is clean cooking?

A first problem concerns the definition of “clean cooking” and, consequently, the identification of the technologies to be promoted. Some international cooperation agencies consider cooking devices to be “clean” only when powered by electricity produced from renewable energies and biogas; others include LPG and gas in general due to its very low indoor emissions; others also include high-tier improved cook stoves that can still use “unclean” fuels such as charcoal and firewood but drastically reduce their consumption and harmful emissions; finally, others consider it a priority to promote low tier improved cook stoves - i.e. the locally made ones - that relatively save traditional fuels and reduce emissions. This last solution acknowledges that there is still a scope for lower-tier stoves in the market as a first or intermediate step toward clean cooking. By focusing only on leapfrogging from tier 0 (e.g. open firewood) to high-tier solutions - generally less affordable and less technologically accessible than low-tier - millions of vulnerable communities, households and individuals risk being left behind.

The Golden Rule of Clean Cooking

A second issue is related to the golden rule of the so-called “market-driven approach”. Opposite to the clean cooking definition, all international agencies agree to support the development of a local market for clean cooking technologies with no or limited interferences on supply and demand dynamic. In particular, subsidIes are not welcome to safeguard the long-term sustainability of the market once the initial supports (e.g. technical assistance, awareness-raising campaigns, access to finance) are phased-out.

This kind of interventions to promote clean cooking typically face a trade-off between different objectives. For example:

  1. Promoting the adoption and sustained use of as many clean cooking stoves as possible, as quickly as possible to reduce deforestation and harmful emissions;

  2. Promoting their sustainable business through a market-driven approach;

  3. Leaving no one behind.

In fact, the billions of people that still rely on firewood and charcoal for daily cooking are the world’s most vulnerable ones and their purchasing power is very little. Moreover, the majority of them live in rural areas where households can procure fuelwood for free and do not perceive any convenience to adopt cleaner cooking solutions.

While some developed countries offer consumer subsidies for nascent or emerging sectors that are strategic (pv solar, wind power, electric cars, low consumption appliances, etc.), for developing countries there has been focus on a purely market-driven approach concerning clean cooking sector settings. The respect of this golden rule could influence the impact of clean cooking projects and programmes in terms of a number of cleaner cooking devices distributed, but also in terms of the reduction of deforestation and CO2 emissions and the improvement of health outcomes.

Donors, agencies and governments may be confronted with a dilemma: which is the priority? The “natural” growth of a sustainable market for cleaner cooking solutions and consequently “no subsides” or the start-up support to a very strategic and transitional sector, the climate emergency, the people’s right to health and improved quality of life and so “why not subsides”? To produce a holistic answer, they should also consider the costs for medical treatments associated with indoor air pollution, the cost of climate change impacts and all required mitigations and adaptations actions.

Why is so difficult to move from traditional cooking toward cleaner solutions?

A third main problematic aspect of the clean cooking sector concerns the difficulties to promote behavioural change from traditional cooking solutions toward cleaner technologies. In fact, on one side, households’ cooking behaviour results from a combination of complex factors tangible and intangible: personal and community values, languages, cultures and history; challenges, opportunities and aspirations. Therefore, we cannot think of households (demand) and local producers/distributors (supply) as siloed components but as parts of a broader system. This is the reason why a truly holistic approach is needed to address the variety of cooking behaviour determinants.

Of course, the main barriers toward the adoption of clean cooking solutions by vulnerable households are the lack of affordability, availability, acceptability and awareness. But, for example, the poor perception of all the risks connected to traditional cooking habits can be driven by an incorrect cultural position towards women and children value and rights. Again, the great convenience of cleaner cooking solutions can be poorly perceived because of the lack of basic education.

Apparently, clean cooking sector interventions can do little against these conditions on demand side. This is the reason why a truly holistic approach is the most important but the hardest principle to apply concretely when designing, planning and implementing behavioural change initiatives toward the adoption of cleaner cooking solutions.

How should we design a clean cooking transition project?

Because of the uniqueness of each community and project, the application of an integrated methodology entails avoiding any predetermined solution even if based on previous positive experiences and on organizations’ distinctive skills. Unfortunately, sometimes, local or external interests, donors’ budget or tender guidelines, an unrealistic conception of segmented sectors of intervention, the blind trust in technical solutions and personal expertise, have too much influence on clean cooking interventions design leading to unrealistic and unsuccessful strategies.

Therefore, cooking behaviour change interventions should be shaped on the ultimate cooking behaviour determinants related to a precise context, community and project and, when possible, should be integrated with other human development interventions. This systemic approach could lead to broad synergies and to an extensive range of holistic inputs that can enhance self-development among targeted communities, households and individuals, including a more conscious approach to consumption, health and environment protection.

In a project implemented by the Italian NGO AVSI in the slums of Maputo (Mozambique), clean cooking technologies exceeded 60% market penetration in communities where other interventions (education, urban regeneration, job creation, nutrition) were implemented compared to 10%-20% penetration in communities only targeted by clean cooking sector intervention. Challenging, for sure, but this is one of the ways.

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