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What Hillary’s cookstoves need to succeed

This post was written by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk.

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton announced a new $60 million initiative to help 100 million households adopt clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels by 2020. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is a public-private partnership that includes the US State Department, the UN Foundation, the World Food Program, Royal Dutch Shell, the World Health Organization, and the US Environmental Protection Agency, among others.

Secretary Clinton, who made the announcement on the opening day of the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting, made a good case for the importance of cookstoves in the lives of women and families. She framed it as a global health issue:

Exposure to smoke from traditional stoves and open fires – the primary means of cooking and heating for 3 billion people in developing countries – causes almost 2 million deaths annually, with women and young children affected most.  That is a life lost every 16 seconds.

But here’s the thing. Improved cookstoves aren’t a new idea. They’ve been kicking around international development circles since the 1940s. The Magan Chula stove, for example, was introduced in India in 1947. Never caught on before. Why would this effort be different? Why would it work this time?

The major flaw in previous cookstove efforts was focusing too much on good design from a designer’s perspective, and not enough from a user perspective. The improved cookstoves were technologically sophisticated and environmentally friendly. But they weren’t comfortable for the women cooking on them, and they required changes in cooking methods, some of which made the food taste different.

In the kind of patriarchal societies that keep women tied to stoves and kitchen responsibilities, women don’t have a lot of autonomy for decision-making, especially not about major household issues like a new stove. Many of the benefits of better cookstoves don’t directly impact the families who use them. Decreasing the environmental impact of a stove has no obvious effect on its owner. And indoor air pollution isn’t an obvious problem to the people who live with it – they don’t necessarily connect their illnesses with the stove that causes them, and when everyone lives the same way, there is no comparison to demonstrate the link.

Most importantly, using a new kind of stove means cooking differently. That’s a huge lifestyle change. It’s hard for the women who are doing the cooking, and it’s hard on their husbands and families, who may not like the new kind of food that results.

If this new effort is going to avoid the mistakes of its predecessors, it needs to do a few vital things:

  • It needs to get as much input as possible from the people who will actually use the stoves. The stoves will need to be as much like existing stoves as possible, to minimize the change in cooking style required to use them. In particular, women need to be able to cook traditional foods that are appealing to their families. Listening to the women who’ll cook on them is the best way to do that.
  • It needs to produce affordable stoves and consistently distribute them. Price is a big barrier to use of better cookstoves, since the benefits aren’t immediately obvious. The stoves need to be cheap enough that families can buy them with a minimum of savings or debt. Since they won’t last forever, there needs to be a steady supply of available improved stoves. That means building a structure for production and distribution, not some kind of one-off stove airlift.
  • Finally, it will need to market the stoves intensely. Since the benefits to getting a new stove are obvious, and the problems aren’t, they’ll need to really sell these stoves. Women, and their families, will need to be convinced of the benefits. That will require a lot more than a dry brochure or an earnest slogan.  It will need actual ads, with an advertising strategy behind them.
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  1. Sam Gardner wrote:

    A good article, and I would even go one step further. When I was in Guatemala in the late 90s, we ran a similar program. However, when doing the economics of the improved wood stoves, and comparing them with alternatives, it struck us that if you wanted to do the investments, going for gas was the better solution. Consequently the uptake of simple gas stoves was way better. The support for gas stoves however did not find support with the donor, as it is not seen as “right” to increase oil dependency.
    Indeed, when population grows firewood becomes very expensive and always is wasteful compared to gas. It is however the initial investment in the gas bottles that is a big hurdle for poor families. With gas, indoor pollution drops to virtually 0 withut much home improvement programmes. With all the cracks in the house, CO-poisoning is rare

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 12:39 am | Permalink
  2. TheBroad wrote:

    What about when all that smoke is a cultural necessity? I just returned this morning from a Tibetan village where the yak-yogurt cheese (essentially strained yogurt) is placed on a rack above the woodstove where the smoke cures it. It was a stove that was introduced to decrease the amount of firewood used, and smoke was leaking out of all sorts of places. If it had been functioning properly, the cheese would probably just mold.

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 3:58 am | Permalink
  3. geckonomist wrote:

    Not so long ago, private business was all that mattered to the poor world, as stated on this blog.

    now, less than 3 days later, it is a big plan of how to design & market a better cooking stove that will make the poor healthy and rich.
    you couldn’t make it up.

    Perhaps guest bloggers that are “global health professionals” have nothing useful to say ’bout private health business’s real problems,…

    Prof. Easterly should invite a few private clinic/pharmacy owners in the third world for guest posts instead of the “global professionals”… am quite sure these lads face much tougher problems than fuming charcoal stoves.

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 5:34 am | Permalink
  4. Matt Muspratt wrote:

    I think the strongest point here is about “lifestyle change” (which isn’t too different from the not-designed-for-users point).

    Note that Clinton (and the press) also mentioned clean cookstoves produce fewer global warming gases. While that’s true, CO2-heavy industrial-country lifestyles remain the significant climate change culprit and so it’s a little ugly for Western donors to congratulate themselves on changing the global warming ways of the poor.

    Funny, then, that though it hasn’t proved easy to change the ghg-intensive lifestyles of Westerners (that’s me), clean stove projects seem to anticipate this won’t be a problem with poor women.

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  5. edawg wrote:

    I’d guess that after ever single failed iteration of the “improved cookstove” project a report has been written including this same list of identified problems and recommendations. The “improved cookstove” is a dumb idea–always has been, always will be. It appeals to donors and aid practitioners because of its elegant simplicity. Why wouldn’t somebody want to use something so cheap and useful that brings such great benefits?

    Few activities are more fundamental to culture than cooking and its associated rituals. People just aren’t very inclined to change the way they cook unless they’re doing so in response to something they see as a very serious problem.

    Just ask yourself how likely you or any of your neighbors would be to respond if somebody knocked on your door one day and told you you could now cook without using any gas or electricity just by putting some gaudy solar cooker contraption in one of the widows of your house? My guess is that most Americans would find the idea laughable because they don’t see their current use of gas/electricity as especially problematic, changing to a solar cooker would mean re-learning everything they know how to cook, they like their windows and kitchen just the way they are and don’t want to install some foolish looking contraption, they’d feel foolish when guests asked about it, etc.

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  6. Curious wrote:

    right on, edawg! loved your analogy.

    often, people buy the stoves for the sole purpose of a status symbol, but continue using traditional stoves for all the reasons already stated above.

    Alanna – I think the pre-occupation with tasty food has less to do with “patriarchy” and more to do with the fact that these cultures have not yet been integrated into advanced consumer capitalism to the point where they have become so alienated from food that they can’t tell the difference between processed crap and the real deal. (which is why an American foodie feels the need to brag about their ‘knowledge’ of food/wine technique instead of it just being a mundane and obvious part of life).

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink
  7. Jolene wrote:

    “Most importantly, using a new kind of stove means cooking differently. That’s a huge lifestyle change. It’s hard for the women who are doing the cooking, and it’s hard on their husbands and families, who may not like the new kind of food that results.”

    That’s agreeable. New cookstoves may not always guarantee cleaness and efficiencies.

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  8. Great stuff Alanna. Any efforts to improve people’s lives in the developing world must first be based on the locally available resources, rather than creating additional dependency on outside “expertise,” supplies, or technology. It’s also vital to avoid undermining local economies and local organizations, especially if products such as these are delivered through traditional funding mechanisms, with each layer of bureaucracy taking its share.

    Clinton needs to take a more responsible approach to throwing her support behind “solutions” such as these. The media must also stop portraying foreign assistance as a kind of ever-elusive (and arrogant) search for a single, magic “silver bullet” to solve poverty. Instead, let us all focus on putting real resources behind local initiatives and means of overcoming obstacles in the developing world.

    See also this related post entitled, Hilary, Stoves Won’t Save the World’t-save-the-world/

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  9. J. wrote:

    While I don’t disagree with anything that you say here, Alanna, my larger issue with the Hillary-Clinton-stove-initiative is that it just seems to represent a step *back* to about 1940 in terms of how We view poverty and ways to reduce it. I think that We need to – again, apparently – get past the idea that this new technology or that new gadget is going to solve what are in fact systemic, structural problems.

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  10. Matt Richmond wrote:

    The problem I have with programs like this is money going towards what I might consider projects of “second tier” importance, which may or may not have an affect. It’s a problem, but it’s not a fundamental issue and would probably fix itself if there were developments in other areas. Pour that $60 million into something more effective, like drilling wells, we know that works and has a huge impact.

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink
  11. Talking Cat wrote:

    I think you inadvertently garbled one of your last sentences:

    “Since the benefits to getting a new stove are obvious, and the problems aren’t, they’ll need to really sell these stoves. ”

    I think you meant to write

    “Since the problems to getting a new stove are obvious, and the benefits aren’t, they’ll need to really sell these stoves. ”

    Interesting take on the stoves. You seem to imply that the stoves need to be uniquely adapted to unique cultures.

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Permalink
  12. Xenobio wrote:

    You’re right, in industrialised countries, companies developing new products usually get a lot of consumer feedback and field-testing/beta-testing before they take a product to market. I realise development aid groups don’t have much money but surely would still be more cost-effective to conduct some focus groups and ask a few people to test prototypes, than producing 1000s of units only to have them be rejected.

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 10:57 pm | Permalink
  13. Stephen Jones wrote:

    ——“Interesting take on the stoves. You seem to imply that the stoves need to be uniquely adapted to unique cultures.”——

    They certainly need adapting for unique environments. In a Calcutta slum they found the perfect stove couldn’t be used because sparks from the chimmey would burn the rooves and the whole slum would go up in flames.

    Posted September 24, 2010 at 12:09 am | Permalink
  14. Tekders wrote:


    Posted September 24, 2010 at 4:08 am | Permalink
  15. rjs wrote:

    just an aside to the wood stove story…heard radio out of atlanta last night that hillary was sending OVENS to african countires that had no gas or electric to hook them up to..

    Posted September 24, 2010 at 6:36 am | Permalink
  16. Torben Behmer wrote:

    I like the article, but can someone please explain to me how 60m dollars are going to help 100m households? I mean, if 100% of the money was to go towards buying stoves (which it won’t), then there’d be 60 cents per household to spend. How is that going to work?

    Posted September 24, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  17. Rodney Chun wrote:

    I agree with the theme that one-size does not fit all here. Last year, I visited a friend working for the Peace Corps in Guinea, West Africa. In that country, it was considered a major improvement if families could switch from cooking over three stones to a molded clay stove/base that would enhance the efficiency of the fuel (wood). There was a Peace Corps project to determine a cheap but durable combination of basic materials that were freely available in order to construct these. This “recipe” depended partially on the region’s particular geology and resources.

    Typical households there have almost no capital to sink into even a simple stove, let alone gas or some other fuel.

    The hope is that by introducing this simple design into the community, early-adopters would then teach their neighbors (usually relatives) to do the same thing. From what I heard, it seemed that there was some dissemination through word-of-mouth.

    That said, 20 years ago a friend of mine, who spent 2 years in Africa (different country) with the Peace Corps told me that his project was development of a simple cook stove. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Posted September 24, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  18. Graham Cole wrote:

    So many comments above are made with prejudice. Please note that clean cookstoves does not mean the same in all circumstances. Maybe solar ovens, maybe gas cookers, maybe fuel efficient wood stoves, maybe solar electic power. Different places different devices will be possible.
    Just because people have not made much advance on this problem before doesn’t mean this initiative must fail. Comfortable ‘westerners’ please don’t ignore the huge tragedy of bad cooking methods. The comment that it would be better to spend money on wells for water supplies “because that always works” says nothing helpful about the damage to health caused by smoky cooking. Clean water supplies are needed, so are roads and other infrastucture, so is relevant education, so are health clinics. Because the problems seem endless SHOULD WE GIVE UP TRYING?

    Posted September 25, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Permalink
  19. Kate Freeman wrote:

    Some articles of interest for stove enthusiasts – extensive surveying has been undertaken in villages in Kenya, Tanzania and Senegal to do exactly what Alanna suggests is necessary: get user input, provide affordable stoves, and market intensively.

    An article published in Energy Policy, “Field testing and survey evaluation of household biomass cookstoves in rural sub-Saharan Africa” can be found at:

    An article published in Energy for Sustainable Development, “Testing Cookstoves in Rural Kenyan Stoves” can be found at:

    and a video on stove testing in Senegal can be found at:

    Posted September 27, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink
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    Posted September 28, 2010 at 2:21 am | Permalink
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    Posted September 28, 2010 at 2:22 am | Permalink
  22. Kyle wrote:

    The only way that $60 million is going to affect 100 million people is if, all of the other design, cultural, economic factors discussed here withstanding, people are able to copy the stove and build their own. The high point of my experience working on improved stove projects in Guatemala was returning to a village to find that one the the community members had, upon examining the stove that we had installed in a community kitchen, built a copy for his own family.

    Posted October 4, 2010 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

7 Trackbacks

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    […] dirty cooking stoves that spew toxic smoke with healthier, environmentally-responsible ones. (Read Alanna’s ideas on what this initiative will need to do differently to succeed where many previous efforts have […]

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by William Easterly, William Easterly, Global Network, CRS News, Texas in Africa and others. Texas in Africa said: I also really appreciated the explanation as to why cookstove projects have failed for the past 70 years: […]

  6. […] a dissenting view of that initiative—though not the idea that people need energy to cook—see this guest blog at Bill Easterly’s Aid Watchers).  In that context, people use energy as they need it, not because it is accidentally left […]

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