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.