Clean cookstoves, easier said than done

The biggest potential gains in global welfare and environmental conditions would come from ‘cleaner cooking’, for the 2.5 billion people at the bottom of the pyramid who still rely on traditional cooking stoves[1].

Household cooking on open fires is very problematic

Most of the poorest people, in low- and middle-income countries mostly, still rely on solid fuels (wood, animal dung, charcoal, crop wastes and coal) burned in inefficient and highly polluting stoves for cooking and heating. Searching for and using solid biomass puts women and children’s safety at risk; depletes forests, which can weaken soil causing mudslides and destroying agricultural land; and jeopardizes human health and household and community air quality through toxic smoke emissions. In 2012 alone, no fewer than 4.3 million children and adults died prematurely from illnesses caused by household air pollution (HAP).  Black carbon, which results from incomplete combustion, is estimated to contribute the equivalent of 25-50% of CO2 warming globally. Methane emissions are the second largest cause of climate change after carbon dioxide. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.

Clean Cook Stoves could be the solution

If appropriately designed and disseminated, improved clean cook stoves can reduce a large share of emissions from cooking with biomass. These reductions also bring other benefits, such as reduced indoor and outdoor pollution, less pressure on forests, and economic and time savings due to the reduced need to search for or purchase costly fuels. The most effective way to reduce HAP is to switch to cleaner fuels, and by promoting improved cookstoves. This is based on evidence of climate co-benefits of cleaner household fuel combustion and opportunities for carbon finance. However creating meaningful impact requires scale to reach millions of households in developing countries to adaption and sustained use of clean cookstoves.

Targeting the Base of the Pyramid customers

It is important to understand the general difficulties to pioneering new business models to serve and benefit the poor in developing countries. The most obvious factor is that the poor have much less money, which make them much more risk-averse[2]. The poor are more likely than other people to make bad economic decisions, because they are more likely to lack the basic information needed to make good choices[3]. They also are more likely to live in societies which hold mistaken or harmful views[4]. The poor can be much more risk adverse because poverty makes people feel powerless and blunts their aspirations, so they may not even try to improve their lot[5]. When they do, they face obstacles everywhere, so they have no margin for error. They are therefore less likely to spend their money on unfamiliar products like clean cookstoves. In addition they are less well informed about available solutions to their needs, because they do not have access to the same information channels and resources, and because they tend to be less well educated[6].

Adoption and sustained use of cook stoves

Clean coostove adoption faces some of the greatest challenges as less than 30% of biomass stove users globally cook with some form of an improved clean stove[7].  Evidence from clean cookstoves in Burkina Faso[8] also confirms that so far improved cookstoves have not made inroads into households in developing countries. In particular in Africa, take up rates are generally very low and even market based programs have difficulties in achieving sustainable usage in their target areas. In spite of obvious advantages of using clean stoves, adoption rates were very low at only 10%, although the improved stoves are widely available. Improved clean cookstoves are a clear example of a push product[9]. Most customers are unaware of the problems of HAP. So not only is the value of clean stoves not clearly and readily apparent to target consumers, but using these products also often involves changes to established cooking practices in the home. Research concluded that decades of initiatives focusing on clean stoves in India – led by government, NGOs international donors and even multinational corporations – have not succeeded in driving widespread adoption[10].

Factors that make cook stoves projects successful or not

No matter how effective a stove is in terms of reduced emissions, health and climate benefits will not be achieved if it is not used exclusively and continued over time. In households with an clean cook stoves, there often is incorrect, inconsistent, and non- exclusive use[11]. It is therefore very important to understand the factors that make improved cookstoves projects succeed or fail for sustainable adoption and large scale uptake.  Clean cookstoves must meet consumer needs and preferences if they are to lead to correct and consistent use and to successfully displace traditional stoves. However, consumer needs and preferences are complex and are influenced by many contextual and social factors that require a deep understanding of culture, going beyond technology and economics. Successful improved clean cookstoves business models will need to be sensitive to cultural practices in both the design of the product and marketing strategies, and many other factors are relevant according to field studies[12].

The Homo Economics does not exist

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves published the following quote in their marketing research study[13]: The Case for Market Research in the Clean Cooking Sector. “For many years, a common response to the negative health, environmental, and socio-economic impacts of cooking on traditional stoves with solid fuel was to focus on technological solutions: designing stoves to optimize combustion and efficiency. User needs and preferences were often secondary considerations. Potential users of clean and efficient stoves were seen as beneficiaries instead of consumers, especially in cases where stoves were heavily subsidized or given away, rather than selected by consumers to suit their needs. Many programs attempted to motivate purchase and use of clean and efficient stoves and fuels by “educating” the poor about the negative impacts of traditional stove use. They emphasized the benefits of new technologies that aligned with development community values, such as reduced health and environmental impacts. Yet the evidence rarely showed that these benefits aligned with consumer values and led to increased demand and sustained use of better technologies. Understanding user needs and wants is now understood as critical to success in the clean cooking sector. It has become increasingly clear that the benefits of clean cooking cannot be realized unless consumers see technologies as desirable products that deliver an improved cooking experience and add value to their lives. In addition, there is increasing evidence that fully realizing the health benefits of clean cookstoves and fuels requires nearly complete displacement of traditional stoves by households. This evidence makes the development of products that fully meet consumer needs even more critical. There is also increased acknowledgment that base of the pyramid (BoP) consumers do not represent a homogeneous market, but instead consist of distinct market segments with diverse needs and motivations”.

Clean cooking is not easy but extremely important.

Happy cooking.

Herman Bril


The blog is based on my research paper: “Addressing scalability and carbon financing for sustainable clean cook stoves for Base of Pyramid consumers in developing countries”, 2015; CISL

[1] Michael Grubb; Planetary Economics; 2014



[4] See footnote 2

[5] See footnote 3




[9] See footnote 6







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