- By Jamie Shea
Clean cooking faces an epidemic. More than 2.8bn people worldwide still rely on charcoal and firewood as their primary cooking fuel. Annually, air pollution from indoor smoke results in 3.8mn deaths and 50% of pneumonia deaths in children under five. That translates into more people dying from unclean cooking than from AIDS or malaria each year. Moreover, unsustainable charcoal production and firewood collection 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. Women and children may devote many laborious hours procuring firewood, which exposes them to the dangers of injuries, animal attacks or sexual assault.
These facts and figures dramatically convey a real and urgent worldwide concern, and while renewable energy, the green economy and a just transition are all popular topics, the lack of access to clean cooking technologies in the poorest areas of the world is less known. As with other vast and multifaceted issues, the solution hinges on coordinating global efforts to secure investments, support and attention. Every echelon of society, including policymakers, international agencies, academia, the media, local authorities, NGOs and even families and individuals, must concentrate on mainstreaming this narrative as was similarly achieved during the AIDS epidemic. Unfortunately, thus far, the courtesy paid to clean cooking appears disproportionately sparse when compared to the immensity of the issue.
Notably, the international community has yet to formally settle on a common definition of ‘clean cooking’, and the knock-on implications have made identifying and expediting the proper technologies difficult. Certain international cooperation agencies consider cooking devices to be ‘clean’ only when specifically powered by renewable energy sources which of course remains the finest option, while others include liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) due to its low emission rates and high tier, improved cook stoves which dramatically reduce the harmful consumption and properties of ‘unclean’ fuels. Some consider it a priority to promote lower-tier, locally-manufactured improved cook stoves, which reduce emissions and are relatively good at saving traditional fuels. This last approach acknowledges lower-tier stoves in the market as an initial or intermediate step towards clean cooking. Focusing solely on leapfrogging to higher-tier solutions – which are comparatively less affordable and technologically inaccessible than lower-tier solutions – millions of vulnerable communities, households and individuals risk being left behind.
We cannot think of household demand and local supply as silos
On the other hand, international agencies are able to agree on the ‘golden rule’ of the market-driven approach: supporting the development of a local market for clean cooking technologies with no or limited interference on the supply and demand dynamic. While this is a valuable approach, we should observe that some developed countries offer consumers monetary incentives – including subsides – for adopting renewables and other nascent or strategic technologies such as PV solar, wind power, electric cars or low consumption appliances. This kind of demand’s support is generally not accepted for the billions of people that still rely on firewood and charcoal for daily cooking and that have little purchasing power. We also have to note that the majority of them live in rural areas where households can procure firewood for free and do not perceive any convenience to adopt cleaner cooking solutions.
In this context, local governments should also consider the cost of deforestation and CO2 emissions and the urgency to stop or reduce both: is it convenient for governments to wait for the ‘natural’ growth of a local sustainable clean cooking market without subsidies? Is it the task of the private sector, namely clean cooking solutions producers and distributors, but primarily, will it ever be profitable for the private sector to reach the above-mentioned ‘last mile’ composed of millions of people?
Affordability is not the only barrier to the adoption of cleaner cooking solutions for households living in developing countries. Another main problem concerns the difficulties around promoting the adoption of new cooking practices. In fact, household behaviours result from a combination of complex factors, both tangible and intangible: personal and community values, languages, cultures and even social status aspirations. Therefore, we cannot think of household demand and local supply as silos, but rather as part of a broader system composed of specific determinants of cooking behaviours. For example, a lack of basic education drives the poor perception of clean cooking solutions’ benefits, on top of which longstanding cultural biases against the value of women and children in the household perpetuate the notion that the risks associated with traditional cooking methods are negligible.
The collection of more information would pave the way for strategic investment decisions
Interventions from the clean cooking sector can do little to dismantle these two conditions from the demand side. This is why a truly holistic approach is the most important but hardest principle to apply concretely when designing, planning and implementing behavioural change initiatives. As the Clean Cooking Alliance notes, the collection of more information would pave the way for strategic investment decisions about which solutions to apply a given market.
Behavioural change initiatives should be shaped on the factors which ultimately determine cooking behaviours, while remaining cognisant of the specific contexts in which these determinants arise. When possible, these initiatives should be embedded in other human capital development processes. For example, in an AVSI project implemented in the slums of Maputo in Mozambique, clean cooking technologies exceeded 60% market penetration in communities where other interventions related to education, urban regeneration, job creation and nutrition were implemented – compared to 10-20% penetration in communities only targeted by clean cooking sector interventions.
A systemic approach allows for broad synergies and an extensive range of holistic inputs, which can enhance self-development among targeted communities, households and individuals, including a more conscious approach to consumption, health and environmental protection.
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