“Each time [the local workers] visit, we gain strength from that. To refill [LPG cylinders]. To continue on,” says Bibi Matunda (or Grandma Fruit as the old woman is kindly nicknamed) at a focus group with a few other families in the Community Technology Worker Pilot Program. In Tanzania, where our research is based, 96% of the population  relies on “unclean” fuels, and the effects of biomass burning and indoor air pollution contributes to 20,000 deaths . Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) is one of the truly clean cooking fuels based on emission criteria set by the World Health Organization (WHO). Although LPG is a fossil fuel, there is a net climate benefit to a large-scale switch to LPG for household fuel due to increased efficiency, as well as the benefit of transitioning away from the methane emissions caused by wood burning. Despite a wave of many African countries setting goals for increased or exclusive LPG use, LPG programs face common barriers to adoption of the clean fuel, which include a lack of education/need for household training, household safety concerns and the prohibitive cost.
We looked for analogies in other sustainable development fields that overcame barriers in behavior change and the need for community transitions. Specifically, we turned to the literature on Community Health Workers – local individuals who link their underserved communities to health systems.
Despite the existence of established and proven interventions to improve community health, local health systems are too fragmented to scale up these interventions. This weak infrastructure, combined with the shortage of over 4 million health care professionals and the high cost of training doctors, presented a need for a local worker to fill this health care void. A Community Health Worker (CHW) was implemented at the village level to provide individual care that was effective, culturally appropriate, and economical. The WHO defines CHWs as “members of the communities where they work, should be selected by the communities, should be answerable to the communities for their activities, should be supported by the health system, but not necessarily a part of the organization, and have shorter training than professional workers” . The public health community has overwhelmingly demonstrated that CHWs can increase community development and access to health services. We therefore decided to investigate whether a similar model – a Community Technology Worker (CTW) – could be introduced to aid in the adoption of clean stoves.
This work was piloted in Shirati, Tanzania, a town of ~50,000 on the edge of Lake Victoria, near the Kenyan border. Kubwana and Michire are two sub-villages in Shirati. Kubwana is a larger, electrified trading area with the regional hospital, small shops, and unofficial vendors selling vegetables, fruit, and charcoal. Michire is closer to the lake and has a smaller trading post without grid electrification – some shops have a single solar panel. A local NGO, ReachShirati, helped identify trusted community members, Mary from Michire and Nayome from Kubwana, to each start with 15 households. The local LPG company, Mihan Gas, was brought in to provide a day long safety training to supplement the manuals and explanations we provided on the LPG stove. The women then taught the families how to use the gas stove and provided educational and safety pamphlets in the native language that were supplemented with pictorial content for those who cannot read. They promised to always be available for questions or concerns. Mary and Nayome would check-in weekly with the households to conduct a short survey to gauge fuel use, but more importantly, they continue to provide support and encouragement to the families. After a year of surveys and rounds of interviews, the results show that roughly 80% of families report sustained, regular refilling of LPG cylinders. This is a relatively high rate of adoption compared to other LPG and improved biomass cookstove interventions.
A CTW does not remove all barriers to gas adoption. Economic difficulties and cooking materials stand in the way of full adoption. However, these results do suggest that a CTW does mitigate many of the obstacles through education and maintenance support.
To further bolster the effectiveness of the CTW model and encourage families to refill their LPG cylinder, we are continuing to conceptualize with other disciplines, specifically economics and microfinance. The research is attempting to expand and offer households an opportunity to opt into a savings bank option to promote accountability and a formal financial mechanism.
Our work is not the only clean cooking initiative to reach across disciplines and innovate to reach the world’s poor. There are many prominent ventures on the horizon in clean cooking, such as pay-as-you-cook SmartGas from Envirofit and Inyeryeri’s firewood pellet stove – one of the few biomass stoves to meet the Tier 4 Emission Criteria set by the WHO. These enterprises are combining disciplines with IT & computer science, mechanical engineering, and economics. This cross-disciplinary work is crucial to attack the most pressing environmental and global health issues. As we face a warming climate and growing health implications from the burning of biomass, it is all the more important for the sustainable development community to work together and lean on new ideas and identify proven bright spots, even those from different disciplines. We cannot look for solutions in silos; rather, we must reach out across disciplines and topics to achieve a sustainable future.
We must not forget to incorporate the most important aspect from both CHWs and CTWs – the human contact of local outreach. In theory, reach and scale are easily and quickly attainable even without physical visiting. However, even companies like Envirofit, who pursue large-scale cookstove deployment mostly through IT-based communication, admit that “while investing in training resources increases costs, it also increases adoption”.
The advantage of this model for cooking over an IT-based solution (i.e. text message education or reminders) is the flexibility and resilience inherent to a human-led initiative. Human workers can respond and adapt to the specific issues of the household and provide helpful advice; an automated text message is easily ignored and cannot adapt to specific circumstances. Households are more likely to adopt improved stoves if they have had prior exposure to a trusted individual or organization promoting the product. Additionally, these local trainers could be utilized to solve other community problems, such as water and sanitation technology or mini-grids. An interdisciplinary solution can be employed to solve a multitude of disciplinary problems.
The focus group reiterated the importance of community between the CTW and the households. For example, one woman said, “we have become friends, we greet each other, you find out what the problem is and you help. If there is a problem, we find a solution.” As the women of Shirati support each other within this program, so should the fields in sustainable development. Beyond an expanded study that couples this model with a savings bank as mentioned above, this work could become a strong private-public partnership. Mirroring the CHWs in Tanzania, LPG companies could coordinate their village LPG dealers with local governments to adopt this model, empower their communities from within, and work towards clean fuel adoption for decades to come. Community-based outreach and interdisciplinary solutions are invaluable in the effort to provide access and ensure adoption of clean energy for cooking and beyond.
Sources Clean Cooking Alliance, “Tanzania,” 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.cleancookingalliance.org/country-profiles/41-tanzania.html. [Accessed: 30-Oct-2019].  G. Health, “Community and Formal Health System Support for Enhanced Community Health Worker Performance A U.S. Government Evidence Summit FINAL REPORT Content,” 2012.  Envirofit, “COOKING IN ONE MILLION KITCHENS: Lessons Learned in Scaling a Clean Cookstove Business,” 2015.