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Clean Cookstove Opportunity Remains Unfulfilled

RP Siegel | Tuesday February 11th, 2014 | 0 Comments

cookstoveWhen I spoke with Cisco Systems last week about their latest strategic partnership on smart cities, with AGT international, I asked them how they interface with the non-technical world and how they ensure that they don’t merely produce solutions that are looking for problems. As a former R&D worker in a technology company, I know firsthand how easy it is to look at some cool new technology and imagine how well it might work in an application that we only know a little bit about. You can read what Cisco said here.

But today, I want to talk about an example of where, in a critical, potentially life-saving application, inventors have, according to some, repeatedly failed to come up with an effective solution that can fully meet the wide-ranging demands found in the developing world.

We have written before about the challenges and opportunities surrounding the simple act of cooking in developing nations, where some 20 percent of total energy use comes from preparing daily meals. Most cooking in these areas is done using wood or charcoal, often burned in open fire pits. Millions of people are still using this highly polluting and dangerous method, some using simple cookstoves that are not properly vented. All totaled, cooking causes some 4 million deaths every year, for the lack of a better alternative.

According to a story in the Guardian, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), T. Alexander Aleinikoff, says that despite a steady stream of innovative new stoves being offered, he has yet to see one that fully meets the needs of the population.

“We’re in the situation,” says Aleinikoff, “where everybody and his brother has invented a cookstove and none of them have really worked well for us.”

He cites example where he has seen “large, beautiful solar cookstoves” that were being used as storage cabinets because they didn’t cook food fast enough.

He blames his organization’s drive for a one-size-fits-all approach to the problem. Meanwhile, as refugees continue to use charcoal, many are dying from smoke inhalation, while forested areas surrounding the camps are being stripped of wood, which, in turn, leads to topsoil runoff.

The Ikea Foundation has decided to weigh in here, figuring that this is an area where philanthropy could help to tip the scales. It sees the cookstove problem as something it can get involved in, supplementing its current efforts in flat-pack housing and LED lighting. Per Heggenes, the foundation’s CEO, says this problem has not attracted the attention of major product developers because “this product…can only be bought by a very limited number of organizations.”

At the same time, a nonprofit like the UNHCR does not have the resources to undertake a full-scale product development effort. So, there is a gap, he says, that potentially “can be filled by an organization like ours, by a foundation that is willing to take some investments and take some risks and fund the developments to the point where it can be a commercial success.”

Radha Muthiah, executive director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC) said that the “process is complicated by the fact that the market is fragmented,” both on supplier side and the consumer side. On the supply side, the market is mostly being serviced by small- to medium-sized entrepreneurs with limited product development resources. On the consumer side, a study conducted by Accenture Development Partnerships found that “problems related to cookstoves are unique to different geographic regions,” requiring unique interventions.

Effective solutions vary by region, based on a number of factors including, available construction materials, available fuel, cooking practices, geographical factors and cultural preferences.

For example, while the ceramic-based, wood-fired, high-efficiency Justa stove has been successful in Honduras, where ceramics are common, saving both energy and lives with its “rocket elbow” and chimney that vents dangerous gases outside, the ethanol-fired NDZiLO stove has thrived in Mozambique — savings lives, creating jobs, and reducing pollution and deforestation.

Meanwhile, the New Lao Stove (NLS) which addresses the same problem in Cambodia, uses a design suited to regional requirements, using wood and charcoal as fuel, reducing their consumption by 22 percent.

Given this diversity, it makes sense then, that GACC is working with the International Organization of Standardization to develop a standard, namely ISO 285 specifically for cookstoves, which is expected to be ready in the next two years.

While the standard will not dictate design, it will provide a basis for comparison and will, hopefully, eliminate dangerous and ineffective practices.

“Once the standard is implemented,” says Muthiah, “people will be able to see how many stars a product has been awarded and what product is therefore most appropriate.”

Refugee camps, of course, have their own special problems. GACC is working with the UNHCR there, focusing not only on the equipment but also on the lack of training.

In an effort to reach their target of providing clean cookstoves to 20 million households by 2020, the GACC has taken a number of actions including the launch of a $3 million carbon finance loan fund to attract private-sector money. Within the alliance, the funds will be drawn from The Spark Fund, Pilot Innovation Fund and the Women’s Empowerment Fund. The alliance is also partnering with the Gold Standard Foundation and the Nexus Carbon for Development, because, says Muthiah, “Until now, the lack of commercial financing for clean cookstoves and fuels has served as a barrier to entrepreneurs and others to develop a thriving market for these technologies.”

Moving these millions of refugees and villagers, from dirty unvented wood and charcoal fires to either more efficient stoves or stoves using alternative fuels, will solve a multitude of problems all at once. It will save lives, reduce pollution, carbon emissions, deforestation and topsoil runoff, and could, in some instances, create meaningful work and jobs producing local equipment and/or fuel — thereby reducing poverty and hunger, as some successful projects have already done.

Image credit: Cookstoves: Flickr Creative Commons

RP Siegel writes about sustainability for Triple Pundit, Justmeans and other publications. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

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