Stupid Stoves: Why Rebranding Won’t Solve the Clean Cooking Alliance’s Problems
I found NextBillion’s recent interview with Clean Cooking Alliance CEO Dymphna van der Lans both exciting and disappointing. I have been critical of the Alliance and have considered it a failure for a long time – impressions based largely on my own experience working with poor customers. Ten years ago, I quit a university career teaching political science to found Warm Heart, a grassroots community development organization serving the rural poor of northern Thailand. Over the past decade, I have become deeply engaged in climate change and sustainable agriculture from the perspective of the billions of people globally who still live on less than $10 per day. I design and deploy extremely low-cost technology for the 2.5 billion small farmers who live at the rural fringe of the developing world. So I know something about the challenges the clean cookstove industry is facing in reaching these customers profitably.
In the interview, van der Lans does an excellent job of laying out a new vision for the Alliance while at the same time failing to address some of the big issues that have hampered the effort from the start. Though some of these points reflect long-standing critiques of the Alliance, as the organization continues its efforts to rebrand, refocus and recapitalize, I believe it is more important than ever to articulate and address them.
The Trouble with the Stoves
The Alliance has touched off a dizzying amount of innovation in stove design that has had two consequences. It has resulted in a profusion of competing but largely identical stoves without any process of differentiation. And it has produced a lot of stupid stoves.
Let me offer two simple examples. First, the most common announcement of a new stove is a promotional video, often showing a group of smiling women gathered around a rather tall, cylindrical metal object that looks decidedly unstable. Yet the women in the villages where my organization works see such videos and then squat down, hold their arms in the air and ask “How long can I cook like this?” They then point to toddlers crawling around on the floor and ask, “Do you want me to boil rice water on that with my babies nearby?”
Second, when one of our female interns ran stove acceptance focus groups in our villages, the women told her, “Oh, we know all about bad smoke, but smoke is the only thing that keeps the mosquitos away. We have a choice: die now from disease, or later from smoke. We think later is better.”
This observation has broad implications. The women also tend to comment wryly that no one is likely to provide them with mosquito screens any time soon. Sadly, this is true. In the absence of coordinated efforts to address basic housing or disease control, smoke will likely remain a better friend than any low-smoke technology. Reducing deaths from indoor smoke makes sense only if the burden of morbidity and mortality is not simply shifted sideways. The aim must be longer, better lives, not just the reduction in a particular cause of death.
Perfection vs. ‘Good Enough’
The emphasis on perfecting stove design to maximize cleanliness has completely overshadowed the problem of getting stoves to people. The most recent stoves may be marginally better than the stoves of two years ago, but can they supplant the bucket stoves most women in the developing world use today? Cast from cement in the tin can equivalent of a bucket, these stoves are easily made, ubiquitous and cheap. Even in high-cost Thailand, one bucket stove costs just a dollar in any shop or market. The question, therefore, is whether any clean stove can be manufactured easily and cheaply enough to be as widely available. Who cares about marginal improvements in cleanliness if no one uses the stoves?
When is there going to be a set of standards – similar to the many that measure cleanliness of burn – that differentiates stoves by manufacturability, favoring those that are designed to scale? The normal process for any product, regardless of the industry, is to start rather shaky – even on key components – and then improve with future releases (which is why you never buy Microsoft products until they have been out for at least a year). Instead of obsessing over efficiency and emissions standards, here’s a better approach: Create a stove that’s easy and cheap to manufacture. Get it into the hands of one hundred million women. Then ask them, “What could we do better?” I guarantee you; few of the answers will have anything to do with cleanliness of burn.
Changing Entrenched Organizational and Customer Behaviors
Ironically, recipients generally do like the stoves they get through the current system of small-scale, NGO-driven distribution that the Alliance seems to specialize in – but so what? They would never and could never buy one – not only because they cannot afford them, but because the marginal improvement in cooking quality and quality of life does not merit the extra cost (and because you cannot buy the things anywhere).
Is there a solution to this problem? Perhaps: But it would require a drastic departure from the Alliance’s current approach, which puts too much focus on small-scale, piecemeal distributions rather than investments in large-scale, cost-lowering manufacturing. To be fair, the Alliance understands this problem. When it launched in 2010, its target was to get clean cookstoves into 100 million households by stimulating investment in stove manufacturing and aggressive marketing. Today, the website promises exactly the same thing. We can only hope that the new management team can deliver on long unfulfilled promises.
What I see missing is an applied business approach to acquiring customers. When Procter & Gamble rolls out a new toothpaste, for example, they focus group it to death. Yet apart from Warm Heart’s village cookstove focus groups, I have not personally heard of systematic efforts to focus group women about cookstove-related questions such as:
- What do you like/not like about this stove compared to your current stoves?
- Would you replace one or more of your current stoves with this stove? (Women generally keep three to five stoves in their kitchen.)
- How much would you pay for this stove?
- How much does reduced smoke influence your decision for/against buying this stove?
P&G only goes ahead with a new product when it is convinced that it will be a winner. Then it works the production side to make sure that the new product is as cheap and easy to manufacture as possible. Then it floods the market with advertising even before it releases the toothpaste. Then it puts the stuff in every store on every corner, everywhere. Is this approach expensive? You bet. But it works. Why should we think that a similar up-front investment isn’t necessary, when the goal is to get people to buy a hugely more expensive version of something they have used for generations, and can buy everywhere for almost nothing?
Finding the Right Fuel
Skip consideration of stuff like biogas that may someday happen on a large scale, but isn’t going to take the fringe by storm. Here’s the big problem with most stoves: They depend on wood. Yet wood is a non-starter in many places where people, often girls, have to walk more than an hour each way to collect it. What’s available everywhere, however, is lots of crop waste – billions of tons of crop waste. Some if this can be fed to stoves (e.g., millet, corn, guinea corn and cotton stalks). But most is pretty low-density stuff that’s hard to put into a stove, like hay, straw and leaves.
So what to do? I am biased, as my organization focuses on promoting this approach – but why not try biochar, a carbon negative “super charcoal” made by heating biomass (like crop waste) in the absence of oxygen? Crop waste burning is largely unknown in the developed world, but farmers in the developing world burn billions of tons of it annually. This generates not just CO2 (which is largely carbon neutral, as that carbon was initially absorbed by the plants) but also methane and nitrogen oxides – greenhouse gases that can be even worse for the environment than CO2. Using this waste to make biochar cuts emissions of these climate change gasses and airborne particles, while also generating enthusiasm among small farmers because it tangibly improves their quality of life at little cost.
Biochar charcoal for cooking is an imperfect substitute for cooking with a clean stove because when burned it still releases carbon monoxide, which the very best clean stoves do not. But in a world in which clean cookstoves are not available because they do not appeal to consumers, biochar charcoal may be a very good and readily available partial solution. After all, biochar briquettes eliminate the tiny particulates that are the primary killer in traditional indoor cooking. And what makes biochar briquettes even more appealing is that the production of biochar charcoal and the resulting robust market for biochar briquettes generate incentives for farmers to convert their crop waste to biochar, rather than burning it. This helps eliminate the nasty consequences of crop waste fires.
Farmers who are skeptical of clean stoves often like biochar because the production process and equipment are simple, cheap, and easy to acquire and use. Beyond the global benefits of making biochar (which don’t interest poor farmers at all), homemade biochar can be used in fields as a soil amendment that also decontaminates soil. (Truly poor farmers at the fringe lack access to fertilizers – indeed, any agricultural extension – and often farm lands highly polluted by, for example, landfill leachates or mine wastes.)
Apropos of the Alliance specifically, biochar is also a great cooking fuel. It lights more easily, burns hotter and longer than wood or charcoal, and neither smokes nor smells. In fact, biochar briquettes provide every benefit provided by the best clean stoves, except that they still emit carbon monoxide. The biochar production process eliminates the other greenhouse gases, tars and aromatics that make wood and charcoal smoke such a noxious mix. And the great advantage of biochar briquettes is that people understand them as a product: Like wood or charcoal, they can be used in a $1 bucket stove or even in a traditional “three stones” cooking set-up. People prefer charcoal to wood and charcoal briquettes to lump charcoal. And once they’re familiar with biochar briquettes, people prefer them to charcoal briquettes and buy them as fast as they can be made. Product familiarity, comparable cost and ready availability drive rapid, widespread acceptance. None of these characteristics apply to clean cookstoves – nor is this likely to change anytime soon, unless someone solves the problem of how to make clean stoves affordable to customers, profitable to suppliers, and available everywhere.
Overselling a Flawed Approach
I’m sorry to sound so negative about clean cookstoves’ prospects, but I have waited almost a decade to see the industry gain traction. Yet despite an investment that makes me as a small-scale biochar guy green with envy, along with more than eight years of big-time hype and exposure, where is the Clean Cooking Alliance now? Getting rebranded and starting over!
As for the Alliance’s goal of bringing $4 billion a year in investments into the clean cookstove space, as articulated in van der Lans’ interview: All I can say is, wow. More power to you if you can. I work on a solution for which there is literally no money at all. Funding for village-scale biochar production units and local brokers is non-existent. When I think of what $4 billion a year would mean to our work, I’m speechless – a feeling familiar, I’m sure, to other promising but under-funded alternative energy sectors without the Alliance’s clout and connections. I’m also terrified, since now this hegemonic “super-organization” is about to soak up all the attention and funding alternative energy is likely to get, leaving all the smaller organizations that have been innovating on a shoestring without hope of future funding if they can prototype.
However, if all this money is found (and certainly van der Lans’ credentials suggest that she knows how to tap investors), let’s hope that it is invested not in the Alliance, but in clean cookstove ventures that manufacture, distribute and sell stoves where they are needed. Nearly 10 years on, there are still 3 billion people at risk from breathing indoor smoke. They can’t afford 10 more years of the same failed approach. It is time for the Alliance to put their money behind whoever can take a stove – any stove – to scale. If people can buy a Coke at the most isolated border post in northern Niger (as I have), then with $4 billion a year, the Alliance ought to be able to find a way for poor customers to buy a clean cookstove at the Monday market (I still cannot).
Photo credit: United States Mission Geneva, via Flickr.