Are ‘clean’ solid-fuel cookstoves the solution or part of the problem?

BURN Employees work on the different components used in assembling Kuniokoa' at the company's state of the art Manufacturing facility in Ruiru. More than half of the employees at the company are women. BURN photo

Cooking over an open fire or with traditional cookstoves are common practices worldwide that some experts say kill millions of people every year, through indoor air pollution, and cause massive environmental impacts from natural resource depletion to climate change.

This has led to an international movement to build a better, cleaner cookstove.

BURN Manufacturing in Nairobi is one of the biggest players in this major global initiative to get cleaner solid-fuel cookstoves into the hands of the poor. But some say this approach, by BURN and other social enterprises focused on building a better cookstove, is contributing to the problem they aim to solve.

According to the World Health Organization about 3 billion people worldwide – mostly with low income and in developing countries – burn wood, charcoal, or dung on open fires or poorly functioning stoves to cook food and heat their homes. WHO estimates that millions die every year from lung and heart disease caused by cooking with solid fuels, and millions live with chronic respiratory diseases.

Woman cooking in Cameroon. Wikimedia

Woman cooking in Cameroon. Wikimedia

In addition to the health implications, reliance on biomass also has a significant impact on the environment. Unsustainable wood harvesting for the production of charcoal and dependence on wood as fuel have already led to pressure on local forests and other environmental problems. Up to 34% of woodfuel is harvested in an unsustainable way, and up to 25% of black carbon emissions come from burning solid fuels for household energy needs, according to this report.

In an effort to tackle these problems, in September 2010 Hillary Clinton announced the formation of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), which calls for 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020.

In 2006, United Nations Development Program (UNDP) initiated the Millennium Development Goals to help developing countries out of poverty, and called for the number of household currently using biomass to be halved by 2015.

BURN, based in Seattle and Nairobi, is a leading social enterprise trying to reduce the harm by bringing to market cleaner solid-fuel cookstoves. Yet some critics are beginning to ask why spend millions in development costs and focus Western innovative talent simply to promote a cooking technology that, while improved, is still significantly harmful for people and the environment?

Peter Scott, BURN CEO

Peter Scott, BURN CEO

“We are just being realistic,” said Peter Scott, founder and CEO of BURN Manufacturing.

“Charcoal consumption in Africa is set to double by 2050,” Scott said. “Cleaner fuels like LPG (liquid propane gas) are three times more expensive than charcoal, which makes it inaccessible to most people” says Scott.

BURN is in the process of designing a new line of clean burning stoves that use a variety of sustainable fuels such as ethanol and agricultural waste, Scott noted, but they believe that promoting only alternative clean fuels would leave behind parts of the population which most urgently need a solution.

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For now, at least, BURN is continuing the production of their hugely successful charcoal stove, the Jikokoa, and rolling out production of their new wood stove, the Kuniokoa, designed together with the University of Washington in Seattle.

Compared to traditional cooking methods, the Kuniokoa cookstove reduces harmful particulate pollution – the soot that increases risk of asthma, heart diseases and chronic coughs – by 67% according to the University of Washington team who helped design the stove.

But some critics think that pushing charcoal and wood stoves is just delaying the search for a real solution. In a Washington Post article, Kirk Smith, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley with more than 35 years’ experience working in the cookstove industry, says that: “We know what works; it’s gas or electricity or both. Why are we pushing these strange new gadgets that we never use here? It’s an ethical issue.”

But there are several obstacles to the wide adoption of gas and electricity in the developing world. The latter, electricity, is still inaccessible for 1.6 billion people worldwide, according to the World Energy Access outlook 2016.

Liquified propane gas or LPG, which is clean burning, efficient (by up to five times more than traditional fuels, according this report) and portable, is still used mostly by the middles classes. This is due to limited availability and the fact that it has to be bought in bulk, making it a high upfront cost for most families – a barrier for the poor. However, there are some companies which are trying to ‘democratize’ LPG. PayGo Energy in Kenya for example is one company that is successfully making LPG more affordable by allowing families to purchase it in small amounts.

Despite this, however, billions will continue to use biomass to cook. And while improved wood and charcoal stoves like the ones manufactured by BURN may not be the perfect solution long term, they at least limit some of the health impacts of cooking by reducing emissions. There are even bigger impacts on the environment, thanks to lower fuel consumption, and on people’s pockets.

“We never saw these stoves as a mainly health solution” says Scott. “The financial savings and shorter cooking times also have a big have the potential to transform the lives of families who use the stove.”

“If women have to collect twice as much wood to cook their food, then they’re spending less time raising themselves out of poverty,” agrees Jonathan Posner, UW associate professor of mechanical engineering and principal investigator of the Department of Energy-funded Clean Cookstove Lab at the University of Washington.

Andrew Heath, spokesman for Practical Action, an organization promoting technical solutions to poverty, said there are significant health and environmental gains to be had from improving cookstove efficiency.

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“People like to cook with traditional fuels such as wood and biomass,” Heath said. “Many think it enhances the flavor. Others are just used to cooking in this way and prefer it. Therefore when people get other stoves they will often not use them at all – or only for certain types of cooking.”

With a cost between $30 and $40, the BURN stoves are still not an easy sell to those who need them most. The wood burning stove is especially hard, as it is being marketed to the more rural – and poor– families in Kenya. But thanks to an extensive distribution network and a variety of payment and credit plans, BURN’s stoves are the most easily available and well known in East Africa.

BURN is also the only company which manufactures its stoves in country, in a facility just outside of Nairobi, the only one of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. “It made sense economically and philosophically” says Scott. “We asked ourselves, what does real economic development really look like? Making stuff in China was not the answer”. The facility employs over 100 people, 60% of which are women.

Over the next few years, BURN aims to create over 200 sustainable design, manufacturing, and sales jobs in Kenya as well as producing and selling 3.45 million clean burning biomass cookstoves in East Africa. Because although using biomass for cooking comes at a social and environmental cost, it also offers an enormous market opportunity: the household energy market in sub-Saharan Africa is worth billions, with close to 23.5 million potential cookstove buyers in East Africa alone.

But despite BURN and other companies like it making strides in developing cleaner and durable biomass and non-biomass cooking solutions, widespread adoption of clean cookstoves seems unlikely any time soon. ‘Up in Smoke’, one of the most extensive field study on the adoption and long term effect of stoves, argues that many cookstoves that perform well in lab conditions do not do as well in people’s homes, and, of course, it’s hard to convince people to completely stop using their traditional cooking methods alongside their new stove.

Six years ago, Hillary Clinton declared that “today, we can finally envision a future in which open fires and dirty stoves are replaced by clean, efficient and affordable stoves and fuels all over the world.”

Since then, companies such as BURN and organizations like the GACC have achieved a lot: there is more attention than ever before on the effects of indoor pollution, and 53 million improved and/or clean stoves have been distributed and sold. But with issues of affordability, durability and adoption, that future remains far off.

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Megan Iacobini de Fazio

Megan Iacobini de Fazio is a freelance writer with a passion for culture, food and music from different corners of the world. With a background in international development, Megan has spent the last few years working in East Africa as a communications specialist with different social enterprises, a sector which she is interested in covering – albeit with a critical eye.