Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact


An “improved” biomass cookstove in India. Source: GNESD Energy Access Knowledge Base

Today, The Washington Post published my story about the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves in its Sunday Outlook section. Clean cookstoves strike me as a classic example of a well-intentioned development intervention about which evidence of impact on a meaningful scale is lacking. I’m going to try to  draw a couple of lessons from my reporting but first, please take a look at the story.

Here’s how it begins:

About 3 billion of the world’s poorest people burn wood, charcoal or dung in smoky, open fires to cook their food and heat their homes. Millions die annually from lung and heart ailments caused by cooking with solid fuels, according to the World Health Organization.

With that in mind, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, launched a public-private partnership called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves in 2010. By creating a global market for “clean and efficient household cooking solutions,” the alliance would “save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and protect the environment.” Providing poor women with clean cookstoves, Clinton said at the annual gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, “could be as transformative as bed nets or even vaccines,” which have saved tens of millions of lives.

It hasn’t worked out that way, despite the best efforts of the alliance, which operates as a project of the U.N. Foundation in Washington.

The global alliance, in its five-year report, says it has helped drive more than 28 million clean cookstoves into the field. But clean is a nebulous term. The vast majority of those cookstoves–roughly 20 million–burn biomass (wood, dung, charcoal, agricultural waste) and don’t meet admittedly strict WHO health guidelines for indoor air emissions. They would be better described as “improved” or “efficient” than as “clean.” This distinction, alas, is sometimes blurred by the alliance. The uncomfortable truth is that it is extremely difficult to design, manufacture, distribute and sell truly clean cookstoves at a price that the world’s poorest people can afford.

Within the sector, there’s honest disagreement about improved biomass cookstoves. I find myself mildly troubled by the idea that government and foundation money is being used to subsidize and promote biomass cookstoves that don’t meet health guidelines. These are not devices that anyone of us would use. On the other hand, cooking over an “efficient” or “improved” biomass cookstove is inarguably better than doing so over a smoky, open fire, as the EPA’s Jacob Moss argued recently in a guest post. Other environmental health problems, like air and water pollution, have been solved incrementally, as he notes.

Many more challenges face the cookstove sector, not the least of which is a practice so common that there’s a term of art for it: stove stacking. What this means is that when a poor family obtains a new cookstove, they continue to cook over an open fire. Studies have found that “the exclusive use of new stove technologies in homes has been rare,” according to researchers Michael Johnson of the Berkeley Air Monitoring Group and Ranyee Chiang of the cookstove alliance. This isn’t surprising. How many cooking devices do you use? More than one, I’m certain.

Hillary Clinton, promoting cookstoves

Hillary Clinton, promoting cookstovesSo what are the takeaways from the cookstove story? First, . Know what you’re trying to do. Hillary Clinton got the global alliance off on the wrong foot by comparing cookstoves to proven, life-saving medical interventions like bed nets and vaccines, and then setting a goal of getting 100 million cookstoves into the field by 2020. In the argot of the NGO world, this is an , not an .

So what are the takeaways from the cookstove story? First, begin with the end in mind. Hillary Clinton got the global alliance off on the wrong foot by comparing cookstoves to proven, life-saving medical interventions like bed nets and vaccines, and then setting a goal of getting 100 million cookstoves (which may or may not improve health) into the field by 2020. In the argot of the NGO world, this is an output, not an outcome.

So what, exactly, are cookstoves supposed to do? When launching the alliance, Secretary Clinton told  corporate executives, government officials and nonprofit leaders:

Whether you’re passionate about health or the environment or sustainable development or women’s empowerment, this is a project for you, and we need you.

The EPA’s Jacob Moss got it exactly right when he told me:

The blessing and the curse of the issue is that it touches on so many things — climate, women, health, deforestation, job creation.

Even, today the global alliance pursues multiple goals. It says cookstove can “reduce deaths from smoke-related illnesses, mitigate climate change, and lower air pollution….[and] provide new sources of livelihoods for women while reducing the risk and drudgery of fuel collection, and can lower household expenditures on cooking fuel.”

The trouble is, these goals aren’t necessarily aligned. A company promoting a biomass cookstoves that will be financed with carbon credits — a practice promoted by the alliance  — may deliver help curb climate change but deliver limited health benefits. An electric cookstove, even if powered by a coal plant, eliminates indoor air pollution, but makes climate change worse. Local manufacturing creates jobs, but may add costs.

Second, evidence matters. After five years of work by the alliance, which followed decades of efforts to push cookstoves into the field by governments, nonprofits and companies, there’s little evidence — perhaps none— that clean cookstoves are solving the problems they are designed to solve, at any meaningful scale. That doesn’t mean they won’t. But if you don’t have a clear-cut, time-based, goals, there’s no way to track and measure your success.

A final point. A PR person at the global alliance was displeased (to put it mildly) by my story. This, despite the fact that I wrote (and believe) that “the alliance has accomplished a great deal” despite a small staff and modest budget. Its work promoting international standards for cookstoves is vital. And its research may uncover answers to the stubbornly difficult questions about cookstoves that have plagued the sector for years.

I’m going to post in the comments an email or two that I got in response to the Post story. I’d like to know what you think and, as always, please send me ideas for future stories, about this sector or others.

5 thoughts on “If “clean” cookstoves are the answer, what’s the question?

  1. luni says:

    Marc, in your next article, do please note that the 1+ billion automobiles and trucks on the planet are also emitting fumes, and that despite millions of dollars in subsidies by the US government, Norway, and others, we’re not all driving Teslas.

    Change takes time.

    Look at the states coming out of the Global Alliance, and you’ll see that millions of stoves are being sold. Those customers are not stupid. They are lowering the amount of smoke in their homes, halving the amount of fuel they burn, saving money, breathing easier, and making progress toward perfecting, one household at a time.

    And most exciting, companies like BURN, Obamastove, and others are selling stoves, unsubsidized, earning profits, and on a sustainable path to grow from profits, to get beyond the limited funds available through the Global Alliance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Conor Fox says:

    Thanks Marc,

    I am writing to you from Malawi where I work with that has reached over 150,000 households in Malawi since 2008 and Rwanda since 2012 using a commercial approach. We work with social enterprises and NGOs in promoting the adoption and sustained use of locally made clay stoves that cost approximately $2 and have created jobs for over 2,000 people, mainly women.

    In Malawi, since 2013 the stoves are accessible through nationwide retail outlets and filling stations in every one of the country’s 28 districts. The stove reduces carbon monoxide and PM 2.5 by approximately 45%; reduces wood consumption by more than 1 tonne of firewood per year and saves households numerous hours of drudgery sourcing fuel every week.

    We do not profess that the main stove we promote is clean, but rather CLEANER:

    Convenient and acceptable (e.g. portability is a local preference in Malawi)
    Less smoky (reduction of 45% of Pm 2.5 and CO compared to 3 stone fire)
    Efficient >25% thermal efficiency (tested by CREEC, Uganda and Aprovecho, US)
    Affordable and accessible
    Easy to use and aesthetic
    Robust and durable – many stoves lasting more than 4 years (we have been had 4 successful issuances of verified emission reductions by UN accredited auditors for the Gold Standard Foundation)

    In Malawi only 2% of the population predominantly cook with electricity and liquid fuels are largely unavailable. Firewood is the main fuel used in rural areas (85% of population), while many in urban areas use inefficiently produced charcoal.

    Suggestions that we should wait for electricity, gas or zero-smoke solid biomass stoves to become available in Malawi is akin to inaction and doesn’t do anything to help the welfare and health of the 98%.

    CLEANER cooking is not only enabled through sustained adoption of improved cook stoves, but also more efficient use of sustainably produced solid fuels, efficient cooking practices, and proper ventilation in the cooking place.

    We invite you to come to Malawi to see how health, safety, livelihoods are impacted by a $2 stove that has been designed and developed In Malawi since the late 1990s.

    Kind regards,

    Conor Fox,


  3. Hello Marc,

    I think your article was a fine piece of journalism, and I think that you are to be commended for drawing attention to the issue, and for approaching the subject with thoughtfulness and good research. Cookstoves can be an opaque sector for the uninitiated.

    But, in the paragraph where you dismiss biomass stoves AS A WHOLE, you might have done well to get the voice of a biomass cookstove entrepreneur or engineer with a cookstove that does pass muster–and there are a few. I am with InStove ( and In the case of our biomass cookstove, even though we’re a small outfit, it is well-known by those in the sector (and verifiable by public, third-party testing results both from the lab and the field) that our stove is actually cleaner-burning that LPG–even though it uses biomass. This can be confirmed by a comparison between our stove’s test results, and all other stove test results on the Global Alliance Clean Cooking Catalog ( –an important tool for comparative purposes (and one that you did not mention in your piece, although you did credit the important work of the GACC in promoting international cookstove standards).

    I understand that you chose to use the WHO standards for measuring clean cookstoves, rather than the ISO/IWA promoted by the GACC. I understand that your primary concern was health, and that some sources must have shared their strong opinions of how fuel type impacts health. However, when you stated that “only 8.2 million (stoves) — the ones that run on electricity or burn liquid fuels including liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), ethanol and biogas — meet the health guidelines for indoor emissions set by the WHO.” This statement was not categorically true: our stoves–over 1100 of which have been deployed–run on biomass and do meet these guidelines. (A claim which your source Jim Jetter would be able to confirm–his team at the EPA have tested our stove.)

    I have published my own open letter to the Editor in response to your story, on Linkedin ( I hope that it begins a discussion that improves accountability in the sector. There is no shortage of mediocre stoves (and stove projects) sucking funding away from good ones. However, it is important to me that you know that not all biomass stoves are failures, and that some are saving lives, trees, money, and lungs–and are not just for use in the developing world.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Marc Gunther says:

    This is from Prof. Dr. Jorg Peters, a German academic who researches climate change in developing countries:

    I have just come across your interesting opinion note in the Washington Post on simple improved cookstoves. It is a nice article and contains many true aspects. I wouldn’t share the tendency it conveys, though. In fact, these “cheap stoves” are the right first step to go. What is true is that one (and GACC et al.) should not pretend these very simple stoves are in fact clean. But even if the only save, say, 30% of firewood or charcoal under day-to-day conditions (and not just in the lab), this is an immense improvement for people’s lives and the environment – although it might not help to bring down respiratory diseases. Kirk Smith is right, but he is only focusing on the health aspect in much of his work. Note that there are many other problems associated with biomass usage for cooking.

    Also, Rema Hanna’s study in India is good, but it is just one study on one stove in one country. The results have been overstressed in the press (see a note on this in the attachment). We have done extensive research on that matter in Africa (Senegal, Burkina Faso, Rwanda) and have much more optimistic results. Please find one of our papers attached. (Cheap) improved cookstoves are not a simple panacea, their distribution is associated with many challenges. But the “up in smoke” nuance conveyed in your article is not true, I believe. Or it is only true if you concentrate on health aspects and ignore the others. Eric Reynolds is doing an extraordinary, almost crazy job in Rwanda and I am crossing my fingers for him to succeed. But his “unethical” statement in your article is, well, almost unethical. “The poor” have many more problems to solve in their daily lives than what WHO identifies as their major problem. I would love to see Eric’s gasifier stove conquer the African continent, but there are strings attached, it is expensive and his business model is smart, but difficult. In the meantime, improving the dissemination of stoves that cost derisory 5 or 10 Dollar but that prove to save loads of firewood (and thus time, money, forest degradation, black carbon emissions…) is not unethical


    1. I agree with Professor Peters points. We should “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” as the saying goes. A purist stance that defines only 100% smokeless stoves as an ethical, worthy intervention, ignores the needs and priorities of the stove users themselves. Changing cooking practices is a more complex endeavor than providing vaccines for a disease; we need to work on realistic, context-specific solutions, shaped in partnership with the communities involved. Of course, 100% CLEAN stoves for all is the ultimate goal, but there are many gains to be made along the way.


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