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The Goal: Using Cookstoves to Change Women’s Lives


clay cookstove
A woman carrying food near a Toyola-made cookstove in Ghana, where the stoves are generally sold by word of mouth and by text message, attracting people to villages or urban centers to buy. The stoves, produced by a Ghanaian small business, burn charcoal but are said to be more efficient than other coal-fuel stoves. Photo: E+Co.

As the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+ 20, opens on June 20 in Brazil, a final document continues to be hammered out with a focus on a worldwide green economy and related environmental issues. Chronic air pollution remains a big part of the dialogue, and one major source of dirty air comes from the billions of people who still use primitive open-fire stoves to cook in their homes. These old-fashioned methods not only create dangerous living conditions but also deplete valuable fuel sources like wood, which leads to deforestation and possibly conflicts over arable land: in short, a vicious cycle.

This is where cookstoves enter the discussion. For years, they have been championed as miracle workers in helping to cut indoor pollution while lightening women’s daily chores and managing natural resources better through their energy efficiency. Energia participates in this sector as an international network working to improve conditions for women through sustainable energy use, including promoting cookstoves in developing countries.

Recently, Sheila Oparaocha, a  gender and energy specialist from Zambia working with Etc Energy, a nonprofit group in the Netherlands that manages the Energia network, and Nozipho Wright, a regional coordinator for Energia in Botswana, came to New York for Rio+20 preparations. They spoke to PassBlue about cookstoves, which in developing countries tend to be made of local raw materials like clay and imported high-tech ones, using liquefied petroleum gas, are generally made of metal. In developing countries where people live on $1 a day, the clay stoves, costing a few dollars to $6, can seem expensive; the high-tech ones fetch up to $15.

Q.  How did Energia get involved in cookstoves?

A. Oparaocha: Energia works across the spectrum of energy and development in 15 countries in Africa and 11 in Asia. Since we started working on energy issues in 1996, one key thing we noticed was that people in the energy sector were not talking to people working on gender issues and vice versa, so the links between these groups in developing countries were not being addressed. One link is cooking. In developing countries, 90 percent of all energy used is biomass-based, mostly wood, cow dung and crop residues; 70 percent of that is used for cooking and heating in households. We found that people producing cookstoves had made some developments on the technical part and in disseminating more efficient designs, but there was very little use. So the technology was being developed and tested, but rolling it out in rural areas wasn’t being done very well. We realized that this is where gender comes in, that the technology has to meet the needs of the women.

Q. What is the main problem regarding cookstove use?

A. Oparaocha: The biggest issue is getting cookstoves to as many households as possible. We have so many women who are doing traditional cooking and do not have access to cookstoves. Look at Kenya: we find in rural areas that only 20 percent of households use cookstoves. So the problem is getting people to use them. The cookstoves that are being produced need to ensure that women can actually put their pots on them, that sort of thing. When women cook, they might cook two to three different things at once, and when you have just one cookstove with one burner, you have not met their needs. Having multiple burners is one feature that could be included in design. Like in our modern kitchens, you have a microwave, you have your kettle, you are cooking a lot at once.

Q. What are other major issues regarding cookstoves?

A. Oparaocha: The real issue is the whole process of cooking: collecting fuel wood takes a lot of time and chopping it and storing it is also time-consuming. Women would like bigger combustion chambers in the cookstoves, so they don’t have to cut wood into very small pieces. Another thing is the chimney. One main driver of cookstove use is indoor air pollution. Wood that is not burned properly produces a lot of particulates and smoke, including carbon monoxide, which is extremely bad for your lungs and a top cause of mortality and morbidity in developing countries. It’s very important to have ventilation, to have a chimney. Designing chimneys in a lot of African and Asian homes is a challenge because people are not used to having chimneys and not used to cleaning them. They’re seen as hot and dangerous. Chimneys need to be made so you can clean them, or they create more smoke in the household.

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Q. You must have a chimney with a cookstove? What else is important?

A. Oparaocha: Actually, we have found that you don’t always need a chimney. You can produce cookstoves with a high level of combustion and efficiency and not need chimneys. Over all, when you walk into a woman’s home, you have to look at the whole house; you have to look at the kitchen; hygiene is important. Where is she going to put her utensils; is she going to stand or kneel; how is she going to wash her hands; is the kitchen connected to the household or is it outside? One reason there’s been a slow uptake of stoves is because we’re not looking at the whole picture, looking at how she is going to cook in her environment: kitchen management. Women like to have a clean house, they think a cookstove is going to improve their hygiene, but sometimes when they find it’s not going to meet all their needs, they are disappointed.

Q. How are cookstoves related to gender issues?

A. Oparaocha: Introducing cookstoves is a chance to focus on gender issues; you want an intervention that encourages men to start cooking. If you don’t help interaction in the household, you won’t improve women’s lives. It’s important to create an environment welcoming for sons and husbands to cook. Men can learn to make a meal and give their wives more time to do other productive things.

Q. Have women been involved in designing and producing stoves?

A. Oparaocha: Certainly some designs have taken in women’s advocacy over the years, particularly in the push for cookstoves in urban areas, but cooking and other energy needs of rural women are still largely overlooked. There is a great distance between the advocacy and the planning and technology. So that was one area we started first working in, getting women involved in developing and adapting cookstoves to their needs.

Q. Have manufacturers begun to incorporate women’s suggestions?

A. Oparaocha: Yes, it has happened to some extent, but because cooking in our countries, in the developing world, is a sector that doesn’t receive much attention, because it is confined to women, it doesn’t have the same status as people working on a hydrodam, for instance. So we have not received as much attention as we’d like. Many cookstoves are still being developed with the same issues as 20 years ago. Women need to be part of the regular processes for designing and testing and rolling out.

toyola cookstove
A closeup of a Toyola cookstove, made by entrepreneurs in Ghana.

Q.How does Energia help women get more involved in the design, production and dissemination?

A. Oparaocha: By working with researchers and company that design the cookstoves to conducting the field testing of the stoves designs with women users and including feedback from women users as standard part of stove testing. Also by conducting gender analysis of the cookstove value chain by identifying bottlenecks and opportunities to women’s participation as producers, installers and retailers of cookstoves. And by ensuring that the dissemination is done at venues where women are found, such as church and health centers; through door-to-door campaigns; and the promotional media forms are adapted to the literacy levels of women. That is, using pictures as opposed to written materials depicting the perceived benefits of cookstoves for both men and women.

Q. How else can women be encouraged to try cookstoves?

A. Oparaocha: Governments need to push it forward. Cooking is a basic need, it needs to be a No. 1 priority; we need political support that household energy and cooking energy are very important, so we can scale up the use. That’s been lacking; we need more investment support, real money going into scaling up cookstoves and delivering them to rural areas. Investment is coming in through the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves [a public-private partnership group], but in comparison to electrification projects, cookstove priority doesn’t compare.

Q. What governments are showing true efforts in promoting cookstoves?

A. Oparaocha: Kenya has been very progressive; Uganda is also progressive but could be doing more. A lot of sub-Saharan countries are using cookstoves, but they need to be mainstreamed. In China, millions of cookstoves are being disseminated; give credit where it’s due. India also has a good program.

Q.Why is Kenya strong on cookstoves?

A. Oparaocha: The government has been responsive, and it was also partly from the women’s movement, after we had the women’s conference in Nairobi [in 1985], which gave a lot of momentum in civil society and government on gender issues.

Q. Where has the biggest success been in cookstove use?

A. Oparaocha: One major success is Nepal. There is a program we’re working with, the National Biogas Support Program, where we have found things being taken to a different level by looking at women’s income generation. We are talking a lot about cookstoves in households, but we’re also seeing that a lot of women’s businesses in rural areas are biomass-oriented, so they can also use cookstoves commercially. The Nepal program has looked at the supply chain of producing cookstoves, at women as users and as manufacturers. The beauty is that cookstove production can be a business for women too. They are used to working with clay, building pottery, using expertise they already have.

Q. Why has the program been successful in Nepal?

A. Oparaocha:  It has a very strong gender and energy network, and has done a lot of capacity building in civil society and government organizations working on energy projects.

Q. What are the issues concerning women entrepreneurs and cookstoves?

A. Oparaocha: When a business starts to do well, men sometimes step in and want to take over. So it’s important to form groups that allow women to organize and support each other. We also find that in starting up businesses, you need capital, which is a principal challenge for women. Getting credit can be a constraint; if you go to a bank, you need collateral, but women don’t own land in some countries so they have no collateral. I’m working with microfinance institutions on these issues, where women use peer groups and support as collateral as opposed land.

metal cookstove
A metal Gaia Project cookstove, which burns alcohol and is soot-free.

Q. How many countries are making cookstoves?

A. Oparaocha: I think in developing countries there are many different producers, but the way it’s done is at the community level, making one to two varieties. Internationally, there are about 20 companies making them. Shell Foundation is sponsoring one manufacturer’s production.

Q. How do you approach addressing family roles beyond cookstoves?

A. Oparaocha: That is the beauty of using a gender approach: it allows you to look at the whole family, at the relationships between the men and women, the boys and the girls, the poor and the rich, within communities and households. We have tools, like workshops, where we speak to the men and the women in a community. This is the added value of using such an approach in development work, taking a holistic view to interventions; it’s about relationships and what decisions and resources are required.

Q. What other advances are being made in cooking in the developing world?

A. Wright: Solar cookers have not done very well, except in my country, Botswana. There, a group of women are making a slow cooker, called a hot bag, which is a pouch that women can use to slow-cook when there is not enough fuel wood for a stove. They cook part of the food in a cookstove, then put it in a hot bag, so it continues to cook the rest of the morning. It doesn’t require a lot of fuel, and they can take the hot bag to the field with them while they work.

Q. How does the hot bag cook?

A. Wright: It is insulated with polystyrene. It has a handle; it’s round. The heat doesn’t escape, so the food continues to cook for some time; it has characteristics of a slow cooker.

A. Oparaocha: It’s not a technology that has taken off widely yet. It takes time for people to adapt. We have to realize women are used to cooking in a particular way, so they won’t change their habits in one day.

Q. Where does the private sector fit in regarding cookstoves?

A. Oparaocha: We are trying to encourage the private sector to upscale and improve their cookstoves. It’s not business as usual when you’re working with poor people, though about 20 percent of their income goes to energy and cooking. They might not be able to pay everything at once; they may need innovative payment schemes or installments. The private sector is beginning to see that the poor do have an income, they do pay, but it’s a different level of engagement, and you have to be careful not to exploit people. Successful companies are willing to change their level of engagement. Shell Foundation is engaging with us and understanding what the needs are, how to work with women’s groups. What we’re doing here is trying to change women’s lives.

Additional resources

 Assessing the Power of Farm Women: A New Approach

Paying Attention to the Hidden Strengths of Rural Women

Nagging Hunger Undermines Millennium Poverty Goal

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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