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Fighting the ‘Silent Killer’ With Cleaner Cooking

Each year more than 4 million people die prematurely because of indoor air pollution, with women and children particularly vulnerable. But some organizations say a simple solution already exists: cleaner cookstoves.

Written by Christine Chung Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
An Indian woman blows air through a pipe to kindle the flames of a crude clay cookstove at her house in a village near Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh state, India. She is one of millions of Indian housewives who, with the simple act of cooking family meals, fill their homes every day with deadly airborne pollutants. AP/Manish Swarup

Anyone who has experienced the smog in Beijing or New Delhi won’t be surprised to learn that air pollution is the leading environmental risk factor for disease.

According to the International Energy Agency, each year around 6.5 million premature deaths can be attributed to air pollution. The Lancet describes air pollution as a “silent killer” responsible for more deaths each year than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and road injuries combined.

And household or indoor air pollution particularly affects women and their children, because women are usually the ones cooking over open fires or old-fashioned cookstoves that spew harmful particulate matter, such as soot and toxic gasses, including carbon monoxide.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), household air pollution kills more than 4 million people annually; 3 billion people around the world use solid fuels for cooking, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. But various environmental and health organizations say the solution already exists: cleaner cookstoves.

Organizations such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves are trying to raise awareness about the economic and health benefits of switching to cleaner cookstoves; so far, their efforts have led to more than 50 million families adopting cleaner stoves and fuels. Along with being healthier, clean cookstoves are also greener, reducing the amount of carbon released into the environment. And in many places they provide a new livelihood opportunity for women.

In 2014, Mercy Corps began working on energy access in Myanmar, one of the poorest countries in the region. In Myanmar’s “Dry Zone,” which covers 13 percent of the country but is home to one-third of the population, an average family consumes 4 tons of firewood each year according to a Mercy Corps’ assessment. Mercy Corps partnered with the Slow Life Foundation, which is funded by the Soneva Group, to purchase clean cookstoves from Envirofit, a Colorado-based social enterprise company. Envirofit’s cookstoves still use firewood, but up to 60 percent less than a conventional stove, which cuts cooking time in half and reduces the amount of smoke and toxic emissions produced by 80 percent. Together, the organizations launched a program to help rural communities obtain Envirofit’s cookstoves and give them the opportunity to earn a living by selling the cookstoves to others in their communities.

Mercy Corps has been encouraging women to join the program, but often comes up against men who won’t allow their wives and daughters to participate. “For women to go from house to house, village to village, is not proper; that’s the traditional way of thinking,” says Lin Lin Aung, the organization’s program director for energy access. As a result, only 27 percent of the more than 300-person sales force in the Dry Zone is female, according to Aung. Training the women has also proven challenging. “We’re finding that the entrepreneurship training alone is not enough,” Aung says. “You really need to add the gender topics, and the empowerment topics.”

Last year, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves provided Mercy Corps with a research grant to encourage more women to participate as sales agents. According to Aung, the private-public partnership hosted by the United Nations Foundation has been testing a theory about whether women make better sales representatives than men. “In the Myanmar context, it’s actually true,” she says. “On average, women sold 77 more cookstoves than men during the pilot period from 2014 to 2015.”

Mercy Corps has found engaging women to be easier in the ethnic conflict zones where it cooperates with the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), which has a memorandum of understanding with the government to work in more sensitive regions, including Shan, Mon and Kayin states. In these areas, Aung says, about 60 percent of the sales force is made up of women. “I think that’s because a lot of men have left their villages to work in Thailand,” she says.

Once they’ve been trained, many women appear to thrive in their new line of work. Mercy Corps has exceeded its own expectations with the sales of nearly 20,000 clean cookstoves in just over 2 years, according to Aung. The cookstoves cost around $30, but because they are subsidized by the program, sales agents sell them for about $13. Aung notes that one female sales agent made about $1,500 in five months – the per capita GDP in Myanmar is only $702.

But even with the financial incentive, expanding the adoption of clean cookstoves is hard work. “Whenever we go into a new township, the startup takes a long time,” says Aung. “Because our cookstoves are three or four times more expensive than the regular, clay cookstoves, we have to give communities time to really observe that in the long term: it saves time and money, and helps reduce harmful smoke. Word of mouth has been a very useful marketing technique.”

Although it’s too early to see the impact of cleaner cookstoves reflected in official health data, Mercy Corps’ evaluations have found that customers appreciated the stoves producing significantly less smoke because it’s cleaner for the house and better for the health of their families.

Simgas, a for-profit organization based in the Netherlands, is taking a different approach to clean cookstoves. Realizing that biogas solutions to indoor air pollution are already familiar to many people in Africa, the organization’s founders decided seven years ago to address the issue of scale and see if they could make biogas digesters that are suitable for mass production. Targeting Tanzania and Kenya, the company came up with biogas systems based on the decades-old science of traditional biogas digesters, which use farm animal manure to produce clean cooking fuel to power gas cookstoves. Microorganisms anaerobically digest the manure and water to produce biogas and slurry, an organic fertilizer. The biogas is then carried through piping connected to a gas cookstove in the house.

But Simgas’ biogas systems are made of sturdy modular plastic components – the same kind used for septic tanks – rather than bricks or concrete, making them much easier to transport and install. These biogas systems not only eliminate the need for costly coal and firewood and reduce household air pollution, the company claims, but they also produce fertilizer. The systems are intended for families with two or more cows, and the cost starts at $700-$800 with an estimated payback time of two to three years.

Some 1,500 Simgas biogas systems have been purchased in East Africa so far, with families taking care of their systems almost like they were pets. “It’s like keeping an animal,” says Winnie Versol, business developer at Simgas. “You have to take care of it on a daily basis; the biogas digester has to be fed manure every day.”

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