Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

feature_indoor_cookstove_main2-760x378It would appear, at first glance, to be a simple problem to solve: An estimated 3 billion of the world’s poorest people cook their meals over open fires–fires that make them sick, pollute the air and generate carbon emissions. Providing those people with efficient cookstoves improves their lives and the health of the planet. But that’s easier said than done. The cookstove sector is quite literally littered with past failures.

That’s because designing and building an efficient and durable cookstove that people want to use, at a price they can afford, is incredibly challenging. Combustion technology is more complex than you’d imagine. Changing people’s behavior around cooking is probably even harder. Eating is personal. Numerous efforts by governments and nonprofits to push cookstoves into the market have failed.

I’ve been reporting on cookstoves, on and off, for a year or so, and took another crack at it this week with a story for Ensia, an environmental website. This time, I looked at three for-profit cookstove companies that have attracted outside investment: Envirofit, BURN and Biolite. None is yet a demonstrated success, but the possibility that markets could get many millions of cookstoves out to those who need them is exciting.

Of course, there are all kinds of “markets.”  Envirofit, the industry leader in terms of sales, has sold lots of cookstoves in bulk to governments and NGOs; it’s not clear how many are actually being used by their end customers, although their institutional buyers tell me that the cookstoves are popular. Many of Envirofit’s sales have been subsidized by carbon credits, which aren’t worth much these days, and the company got a head start on its competitors because it was given $15 million in support from the Shell Foundation. So we don’t know whether Envirofit can continue to grow.

Questions loom about BURN and Biolite as well. BURN’s sales have been concentrated in east Africa, so we don’t know whether its product will appeal elsewhere. Biolite has a clever business model–its stoves are sold into the recreational market, as well as to the global poor–but its stoves are expensive. Too expensive, some critics say.

Meantime, none of these cookstoves, which burn wood or charcoal, are truly clean; they release tiny particles of soot which cause respiratory ailments and fail to meet the World Health Organization’s strict standards. But they are far better than open fires, and they deliver economic as well as health and environmental benefits. In fact, the companies say, people buy them because they burn fuel more efficiently and save their customers money. Saving poor people money is no small thing.

So I see reason for optimism, and I hope Envirofit, Burn and Biolite continue to grow. As Michael Tsan, a cookstove expert at Dalberg Global Development Advisors, told me: “We’ve been grinding away at this problem for 40 years, but things are moving. I don’t think it’s hopeless.”

You can read my story here.


One thought on “Cookstoves, again

  1. adam says:

    Marc, I think there is reason for optimism too. Thanks for continuing to cover the topic.


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