3 October 2012

Africa: Climate Conversations - Why Millions Still Don't Use Clean Cookstoves

There may be plenty of exciting ideas around that could help solve hunger, poverty and lack of access to energy. But the problem is persuading people to adopt them and roll them out on a large scale in poor, marginalised communities.

For instance, at the Convergences 2015 Forum in Paris last month, a photo exhibition entitled Innovate against Hunger, by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), presented several agricultural innovations that are helping farmers cope with drier weather and more unpredictable rainfall. Low-pressure drip irrigation, small seed packets, and bio-reclamation of degraded lands are all boosting yields and incomes, while boosting people's resilience.

At the same time, the images showed that technology alone is not enough to drive development. You also need good ways to scale it up - for example, social venture models to mass-market goods or training videos made by farmers for other farmers.

One example of how hard it is to get this right is the slow progress in popularising "clean biomass cookstoves" among the poor, despite a Global Alliance launched two years ago by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Three billion people rely on open fires or polluting, inefficient biomass stoves for cooking and heating. These households, made up largely of women and young children, are exposed to harmful indoor air pollution, causing 1.6 million deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization. This is the second-biggest cause of death in developing nations, ahead of well-known diseases such as malaria or tuberculosis.

Several NGOs and social enterprises - including Prakti Design, which received an international award for innovative partnerships towards poverty alleviation at the Paris forum - are tackling the challenge of marketing fuel-efficient and smokeless stoves to the poorest in society. The aim is to save lives, but also to protect trees and incomes.

CHEAP COMPETITION

In wood-scarce countries like Haiti, where over 70 percent of the population depend on biomass (charcoal and firewood) for cooking and spend up to 40 percent of their income on fuel, you might think that getting people to use stoves that work on half the amount of fuel would be easy.

But according to Mouhsine Serrar, the CEO and founder of Prakti Design, it is not. The main obstacle, he says, is the economics of biomass cookstoves. Crude clay stoves are popular because they can be cobbled together for almost nothing. Indian traditional mud stoves, known as chulhas, for example, cost as little as 50 rupees ($1) to buy.

In many regions, women and girls collect firewood, cow dung and other biomass fuels "for free", spending as much as 20 hours a week on this activity. This is time they can not spend on improving their livelihoods. But because they do not know of any other way to get the fuel they need, they just carry on.

As developers of clean stoves are competing with cheap, locally produced stoves that burn "free" fuel, their improved products need to add significant value if people are to start using them in large numbers. They must show much greater fuel efficiency and a drastic reduction in emissions that leads to better health.

FINDING PARTNERS

Thorough field research with the end-users is also needed to adapt the new stoves to local cooking habits, and keep them affordable, yet attractive for the cook.

Clean stove organisations then have to invest massively in communicating their benefits to a market that is often geographically scattered, socially diverse and has limited access to media.

Even then, there is a distribution challenge as stoves are used mainly by women, while men - who often make household purchasing decisions - tend to know little about them.

Building partnerships is a key step in reaching the people you want to buy and use the stoves. Collaborating with grassroots groups and local authorities can raise awareness and bring about social change. Funding from micro-finance institutions can make the product more affordable.

NGOs, the private sector and the community can work together to set up a sound and cost-effective distribution network. Social investors can also provide financial support, as they think beyond a simple return-on-investment ratio.

Making this happen is a long and sometimes rocky road. As Serrar, the head of Prakti Design, said: "A good partnership... is like (finding your) Prince Charming - you need to kiss several to find the ONE."

Jerome Bossuet is a communications specialist with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

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