NEWS The missing conversation around clean cooking

For a recent arti­cle in The Beamon gen­der, tech­nol­ogy and cook­ingclick here.

This arti­cle by Grace Mbungu and Daniel Kam­men was fea­tured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition.

The chal­lenge of pro­vid­ing clean cook­ing energy ser­vices to over 2.7 bil­lion peo­pleand 850 mil­lion or more with­out reli­able elec­tric­ity ser­vices world­wide is a daunt­ing chal­lenge. How­ever, this is a bat­tle that must be won, with no one left behind. The fail­ure poses enor­mous bur­dens and risks to human liveli­hoods and gen­eral well­be­ing. For exam­ple, the health impacts of expo­sure to indoor and ambi­ent air pol­lu­tion result­ing from the pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of bio­mass and fos­sil fuels are known to be the largest dri­ver of the bur­den of dis­ease world­wide. More­over, the unsus­tain­able pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of bio­mass and fos­sil fuels under­mine the achieve­ment of the UN Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goals (SDGs), and cli­mate change mit­i­ga­tion efforts under­scored in the Paris Agree­ment.

While there is progress in this cam­paign, efforts to date have remained largely tech­no­cratic and often sim­plis­tic. This is per­haps no sur­prise given the excite­ment and poten­tial that improved cook­stoves, lower and lower cost of solar pan­els and other energy-​​related tech­nolo­gies have shown in other parts of the world. How­ever, tech­no­log­i­cal stand-​​alone approaches are often igno­rant of the com­plex­ity of energy access chal­lenges, espe­cially the indi­vid­ual and con­tex­tual fac­tors that limit their accep­tance and effec­tive­ness, espe­cially in poor and mar­gin­alised communities.

The trap of sin­gu­lar approaches to energy challenges 

When it comes to design­ing energy access solu­tions for the poor in the Global South, sin­gu­lar and often dis­con­nected oppor­tu­ni­ties are pre­sented or high­lighted. For exam­ple, the cur­rent energy access dis­course has elec­tric­ity access in one box and cook­ing energy access in another dif­fer­ent box. Rarely are these two processes seen as con­nected and com­ple­men­tary. How­ever, sin­gu­lar approaches present a missed oppor­tu­nity no amount of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion could solve. Instead, such gaps war­rant a holis­tic under­stand­ing of the chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties within local con­texts, as well as strate­gic approaches to account for the diver­sity of needs and to take advan­tage of avail­able opportunities.

Mul­ti­ple and diverse needs

Energy needs are not sought in iso­la­tion, and can there­fore only be under­stood and addressed in the broader con­text of other unmet and emerg­ing needs. How­ever, while cur­rent cook­ing energy solu­tions address impor­tant envi­ron­men­tal and cli­mate change goals, they under­es­ti­mate the strug­gles faced by house­holds in many parts of the world to achieve broader indi­vid­ual and social needs. In the end, how­ever, end-​​users have been known to pri­ori­tise imme­di­ate and exis­ten­tial needs and not the astute­ness of tech­nol­ogy itself. The real­ity is that imme­di­ate and exis­ten­tial needs are not in con­flict with the need to pro­tect the envi­ron­ment and mit­i­gate cli­mate change. How­ever, accept­able and effec­tive energy solu­tions call for hon­est reflec­tions on cur­rent and past inter­ven­tions, col­lab­o­ra­tions with all rel­e­vant stake­hold­ers, and a depth of research that has been lack­ing, espe­cially in the cook­ing energy access discourse.


                                      “At the local level, men, often not involved in cook­ing activities

                                      within the house­hold, dom­i­nate the sec­tor as energy ser­vice providers.”


Energy pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion are inher­ently human and soci­etal affairs 

While tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment is pri­mar­ily a sci­en­tific endeav­our, the indi­vid­ual and social accep­tance, demand dri­ves, and access dynam­ics are social and con­tex­tual in nature. For exam­ple, despite the Kenyan gov­ern­ment effort to reg­u­late the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of char­coal, its dom­i­nance in both rural and urban areas has become dif­fi­cult to unset­tle. This is strong evi­dence that clean cook­ing and cli­mate energy solu­tions are not only about tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment or pro­gres­sive and climate-​​friendly poli­cies but instead are also about hav­ing a will­ing and able coali­tion on the ground to imple­ment them.

Design and imple­men­ta­tion of energy access solutions 

Whereas the devel­op­ment of cook­ing energy solu­tions has been pre­dom­i­nantly dom­i­nated by tech­nocrats, their imple­men­ta­tion has also been dom­i­nated by exter­nal aid and char­i­ta­ble organ­i­sa­tions. At the local level, men, often not involved in cook­ing activ­i­ties within the house­hold, dom­i­nate the sec­tor as energy ser­vice providers. We see this image often: a room full of women and chil­dren, a man is on stage demon­strat­ing the use and value of bio­mass improved cookstoves.

The impor­tance of direct and mean­ing­ful involve­ment and empow­er­ment of first-​​hand users ( mainly women) to become the face and voice of change processes was demon­strated by the BBC news in a story on the Water Wise women ini­tia­tive in Jor­dan.  It showed that despite the efforts by the gov­ern­ment to address water waste from leak­ing pipes, progress was only made when women got involved in the process. The engage­ment of women as water stew­ards was cru­cial because they were the pri­mary water users within the house­hold and hence knew best where the leak­ages were, which saved time and human resources. An added advan­tage was the empow­er­ment of women with income-​​generating activ­i­ties and finan­cial inde­pen­dence to address other every­day needs. Hence, the empow­er­ment of women as pro­duc­ers, con­sumers and cus­to­di­ans of cook­ing energy ser­vices can prove instru­men­tal in the cook­ing energy access processes, because it has the poten­tial to gen­er­ate inter­est among women beyond the house­hold cir­cles, improved ser­vice pro­vi­sion, and empower women with skill and income-​​generating activ­i­ties needed for the sus­tain­able access of clean cook­ing energy solu­tions. Hard­ware lessons are often coun­try and region-​​specific, but the need to empower both stove sup­pli­ers and end-​​users to cre­ate use­ful stoves and viable eco­nomic and dis­tri­b­u­tion mod­els for stoves that peo­ple truly want is the goal of vir­tu­ally every local to global organ­i­sa­tion and agency.

Stove Educator at Kibera Town Center - © Daniel Kammen
Stove Edu­ca­tor at Kib­era Town Cen­ter — Photo © Daniel Kammen

Use con­text, in-​​built con­di­tions, and imme­di­ate liv­ing environments 

The ulti­mate goal of pur­su­ing uni­ver­sal access to afford­able, reli­able, sus­tain­able energy is to improve the qual­ity of life and gen­eral well­be­ing of cur­rent and future gen­er­a­tions. While tech­no­log­i­cal improve­ments play an impor­tant role in meet­ing these objec­tives, their effec­tive­ness is lim­ited if imple­mented in inap­pro­pri­ate social and envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions. For exam­ple, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how the use of bio­mass improved cook­stove (ICS), or any clean cook­ing energy solu­tions, could be effec­tive in enhanc­ing health and gen­eral well­be­ing of the res­i­dents of Kib­era, under the cur­rent envi­ron­men­tal and hous­ing con­di­tions. Over­all, these exam­ples demon­strate that technological-​​only focused energy access solu­tions and sim­plis­tic devel­op­ment approaches are unfit for address­ing the ever-​​evolving energy and other com­plex global challenges.


Grace Mbungu is a junior fel­low at the Insti­tute for Advanced Sus­tain­abil­ity Stud­ies (IASS) in Pots­dam, and a Ph.D. can­di­date at the Uni­ver­sity of Stuttgart in Ger­many. Her research focus is on the social dimen­sions of energy access and tran­si­tions in devel­op­ing coun­try contexts.

Daniel Kam­men is a pro­fes­sor and Chair of the Energy and Resources Group at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, where he is also a pro­fes­sor in the Gold­man School of Pub­lic Pol­icy, as well as in the Depart­ment of Nuclear Engi­neer­ing. Kam­men is the Found­ing Direc­tor of the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory (http://​rael​.berke​ley​.edu). Kam­men has served as the Chief Tech­ni­cal Spe­cial­ist for the World Bank for Renew­able Energy and Energy Effi­ciency, and as Sci­ence Envoy for the United States Depart­ment of State. He is a con­tribut­ing part­ner to The Beam.

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