Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

Boiling tea with a Project Gaia cookstove in Kenya

Boiling tea with a Project Gaia cookstove in Kenya

No one is getting rich making cookstoves for the poor, least of all Harry Stokes. Stokes is the unpaid executive director of a small nonprofit called Project Gaia, which has been trying since the late 1990s to get cookstoves that burn ethanol or methanol into the hands of some of the estimated 3 billion people on earth who still cook over open fires using biomass–wood, charcoal, agricultural waste or dung.

Cooking over smoky, open fires generates household air pollution which is responsible for an estimated 4.3 million premature deaths a year, more than HIV/AIDs or diarrhea. These deaths are preventable. No one dies from cooking in rich countries.

Based in Gettysburg, Pa., with operations in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, Madagascar and partnerships in several other countries, including Haiti, Project Gaia has made modest progress in the last 15 years, notably in Ethiopia, where it supplies cookstoves and ethanol fuel to about 7,000 households in three refugee camps, an effort supported by the UN. Its other projects are small as well, no more than a few thousand stoves in each country, at least for now.

“We are on the cusp of scaling up in Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, South Africa, and Nigeria,” Stokes told me the other day, when we met over coffee. “The technology is tried and true.”

Stokes is an optimist. You have to be to work in the cookstove sector. People have been trying for decades to invent, produce, market, sell or give away cookstoves that the world’s poor women want to use. They have met with more failure than success. Changing behavior is hard; women have been cooking over open fires for generations. Kirk Smith, a professor of environmental health at Berkeley and the world’s leading public-health researcher on cookstoves, told me recently that more people are cooking over open fires today than ever, because population growth has outpaced efforts to get cookstoves adopted. Making cookstoves to burn biomass cleanly has been an especially vexing challenge.

As journalist Meera Subramanian writes in A River Runs Again, a new book about India and the environment with a long chapter about cookstoves: “No one has yet created a biomass stove that is truly harmless to human and planetary health and affordable and desirable to the families that need them most.”

I’ve been reporting on the cookstove sector, while preparing an article for publication (soon, I hope) on the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership launched by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010. It’s a fascinating sector, populated by smart, dedicated people. I’ve met with Radha Muthiah, the CEO of the alliance and Jacob Moss, an estimable and mostly-unsung career civil servant who helped to create the alliance. I’ve spoken by phone with Kirk Smith; Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation; Ron Bills, who leads a fast-growing Colorado-based cookstove manufacturer called Envirofit; Eric Reynolds, who runs Inyenyeri a cookstove startup in Rwanda; Dean Still, executive director of the Aprovecho Research Center; and Elisa Derby of Winrock International, who has worked on cookstoves for more than a decade. And I’ve come away with as many questions as answers:

What is a clean cookstove?

Hard to say. The global alliance has pushed hard for much-needed international standards–think of them as Energy Star ratings for cookstoves–but they are a few years away. Without them, donors or consumers can’t know for sure which cookstoves will prevent indoor emissions or other forms of pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. (Lots of people, including Harry Stokes, want to finance cookstoves with carbon credits.) In the meantime, the World Health Organization has released its own guidelines which some say are strict. For now, they’re all we’ve got.

And here’s the thing: No biomass cookstove currently on the market, at least none that has reached meaningful scale, meets those WHO standards. Only cookstoves that use electricity or burn LPG (liquified petroleum gas), ethanol, methanol or biogas meet the standards.

Harry Stokes

Harry Stokes

That’s one reason why I wanted to meet Harry Stokes. He’s a small player in the cookstove world, but his ethanol-burning stoves, if properly used, protect people’s health. Bigger manufacturers of cookstoves that use solid fuels can’t say that.

“The great thing about the alcohols, they love to burn,” Stokes says. “They burn as cleanly as natural gas, but when made from plant materials, they are recycling carbon.” Project Gaia for the most part uses stoves that meet WHO guidelines designed by a Swedish company now known as CleanCook.

Why support biomass cookstoves, then?

Some say we shouldn’t. Kirk Smith, whose focus is public health, says that instead of trying to make available fuels (wood, charcoal, dung) cleaner, we should be trying to make cleaner fuels (electricity, LPG, ethanol) available. That is, let’s focus on fuels, not stoves. Harry Stokes put it to me this way in an email:

We think development and funding priorities for stoves should have shifted long ago—perhaps a decade ago—to bringing on clean fuels for cooking in Africa, in place of wood and charcoal.  After all, we as Americans made that shift in the U.S. from solid fuels to clean fuels—between the years of 1900 and 1950 (not so long ago, really). The same transition was made in Europe. Why should it not also be made in Africa?

Is it that we here in the West think Africans should be cooking with wood? I think we need to do some soul searching on how we set our development priorities and what we project onto others about what they “need.”

Project Gaia sources ethanol locally to create an affordable fuel supply for its stoves. It currently uses ethanol made from molasses waste in Ethiopia, and Stokes told me that natural gas, which is being flared widely in Nigeria, can be easily and economically turned into methanol. In Haiti, Project Gaia’s partner Novogaz uses ethanol from POET, a US producer, until a local source, sugar cane and other feedstocks, can be developed.

The alliance’s Radha Muthiah says cooking shouldn’t kill and expresses a preference for clean fuels.

But she and others say that the poorest people in the world can’t be provided with ethanol, LPG or electricity anytime soon.  A World Bank report says that

most studies indicate households will depend on biomass energy or solid fuels for decades to come. The reason is that LPG and other petroleum fuels are affordable only with higher incomes.

So, the argument goes, providing people with an “improved” or “efficient” cookstove — which uses less biomass and produces less pollution — is preferable to doing nothing, even if the health benefits are marginal. Improved stoves can help reduce outdoor air pollution, and they can save users’ time and money.

Besides that, there’s no way that the global alliance can meet its goal of “100 x 20” — getting 100 million cookstoves into the market by 2020 — without supporting tens of millions of sub-optimal cookstoves.

Why the 100-million cookstove goal, then?

The “100 x 20” goal was set by Hillary Clinton and her advisors when the global alliance was formed. Big, bold goals are good for fundraising, if nothing else, and in theory they keep people focused.

But focused on what? Given what we know now about the health impacts of biomass stoves, this may not be the right goal. Harry Stokes is a strong supporter of the alliance–it provided Project Gaia’s partner in Haiti with a $150,000 grant–but he wonders about the goal, asking: “Why exactly are we ahead with 100 million more wood burning stoves in the world?

“It’s an output metric and not an impact metric,” says Kevin Starr of Mulago, who wrote a pointed 2014 essay about cookstoves called Getting Beyond Hype in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. “They aren’t clear on what they want to accomplish.” 

The name — Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves — is also problematic. A predecessor effort at EPA was called the Partnership for Clean Indoor Air. “Clean Indoor Air” is an unambiguous good. “Clean Cookstoves,” not so much, if they aren’t truly clean.

In fairness, the alliance’s website, strategy and position papers all talk about clean fuels as well as well cookstoves. But the real goal should be healthier families. Other benefits–a cleaner environment, more empowered women–will likely follow.

After all, if the goal is to eliminate the household air pollution and the environmental problems caused by burning solid fuels, maybe the answer isn’t cookstoves at all. Donors might have more impact by promoting nuclear power plants, natural gas pipelines, liquid fuels like ethanol or even coal plants to bring clean cooking to the global south. 

Can markets solve the problem? Should they?

About this question, the global alliance is unambiguous. Its mission is to “save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and protect the environment by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions.” [Emphasis added.] Harry Stokes, too, says Project Gaia wants to lay the groundwork for functioning markets in ethanol and methanol stoves and fuels, and then get out of the way. My own bias favors regulated markets over government solutions.

But there hasn’t been a great deal of market “pull” for cookstoves. A handful of companies, including Envirofit and an Indian firm called Greenway Appliances, have sold close to 1 million stoves apiece, but an estimated 3 billion people cook over open fires. It seems fair to say that cookstoves, so far, appeal more to western development experts than they do to poor women. Contrast that with cellphones. It’s an imperfect comparison, for a bunch of reasons, but cellphones spread rapidly through the global south, without the benefit of a “global alliance.”

If we regard household air pollution as a primarily public health problem, it may be the job of governments, foundations and nonprofits to solve it. We don’t expect markets to eradicate polio or prevent malaria.

What’s encouraging is that more money and brainpower than ever are aimed at solving the myriad problems caused by cooking over smoky, open fires. The alliance is commissioning valuable research, as well as pushing cookstoves into the market. People like Harry Stokes, who have been trying to hack the problem for years, feel a wind at their backs. Stokes, 67, is carrying out work begun by his late father, who started Project Gaia. He feels a responsibility to his father’s legacy. What also keeps him going, he told me, is “the conviction that we’re on the right path.”

That said, there’s no one path to solving the myriad of problems caused by cooking over open fires. To find the right solutions, everyone in the sector needs be clear about what problem, exactly, they are trying to solve and how they intend to measure their impact.

UPDATE: Jacob Moss, a longtime EPA executive who has worked on cookstoves for many years, sent me an email in response to this that I have posted here. Definitely worth a look.

4 thoughts on “In search of 100 million (truly?) clean cookstoves

  1. John Angelico says:

    Caution: methanol ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanol) is highly toxic to humans, and should not be used as a fuel anywhere – least of all in third-world countries. Much better to use methylated spirits also known as denatured alcohol (ethanol with some methanol to make it unfit for human consumption see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methylated_Spirit).

    Ethanol (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethanol) has a higher energy density in any case

    Even less toxic is white spirit/stoddard solvent/turpentine substitute (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_spirit) which has been used as a fuel for small “spirit stoves” for a long time.

    Like

  2. Warren Goldstein says:

    very, very nice piece.

    Like

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