For 3 billion of the world’s people, cooking can be downright dangerous, according to the World Health Organization: Four million premature deaths a year, primarily of women and children, are blamed on exposure to toxic smoke from cooking fires and rudimentary stoves that burn wood, coal and “biomass” — stuff like animal dung and crop waste.
Various types of cancer, low birth weights for babies and even cardiovascular disease have all been linked to the indoor pollution caused by cooking over open fires or leaky stoves. Then there’s the increased risk of burns; 307,000 of the 330,000 people who die from burn injuries each year are from developing countries, according to ReSurge International, which provides reconstructive surgery for the poor around the globe.
Muthiah described to me the typical day of a woman in rural Kenya or India: The woman will rise as early as 4 a.m. so she can collect fuel — be it wood or animal or crop waste — “anything they can burn.” Because of deforestation, women sometimes have to walk for several hours to pick up enough wood, putting themselves at risk for animal attacks and other violence.
A daughter might come along to help, missing out on school. They may carry up to 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of fuel on their heads or in baskets.
Women often struggle with this chore three or four times a week, Muthiah said, because cooking over an open fire or with rudimentary stoves is such an inefficient use of fuel.
“It’s a real timesink for women,” she said, taking up one-third to one-half of a woman’s 24-hour day.
For the urban women in developing nations, the issue is economic. They can afford to buy only small quantities of fuel at a time, making it more expensive, Muthiah said, as they spend up to 40 percent of their daily household income on fuel.
More efficient stoves requiring less fuel would save time and money for rural and urban women. That savings of time gives them the opportunity to pursue other activities, whether it’s walking with their children to school or earning a livelihood — empowering women to take charge of their lives.
This is a big week for the alliance, what with the Clinton Global Initiative 10th Annual Meeting and the United Nations Climate Summit 2014 in New York. In November, the alliance holds the first Cookstoves Future Summit: Fueling Markets, Catalyzing Action, Changing Lives in New York. The invitation-only summit will be co-chaired by Clinton, who’s the honorary chair of the Alliance Leadership Council.
The strategy of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves differs from previous efforts to simply donate cookstoves to families around the world without a good idea of their needs and sometimes without providing education, training or service.
Instead, the alliance focuses on creating a global market for clean cookstoves and clean fuels. “The consumer needs to be involved,” Muthiah pointed out. “We need to view the user as a consumer and understand what attributes [of stoves and fuels] are valuable,” rather than seeing the end user as “a passive beneficiary.”
So the alliance has partnered with public, private and nonprofit interests to work on every facet of creating that market, including the design, manufacturing, assembly, distribution, sales and even after-sales service. In many cases, that manufacturing and assembly are done locally, Muthiah said.
It’s not “a one-size-fits-all solution.” Latin American women often stand while cooking and want a large top burner to cook multiple tortillas and a pot of beans, while African women sit down and need a simmer button for long-term cooking, Muthiah said, requiring different types of stoves.
In the southern state of Kerala in India, 97 percent of homes have some access to electricity, so they can move directly to stoves using electricity, while rural villages elsewhere in India do not and need stoves powered by other sources of cleaner fuel such as liquified petroleum gas, ethanol, solar and biogas.
The alliance has also worked with the International Organization for Standards to develop a rating system for cookstoves, measuring four performance indicators: fuel use, total emissions, indoor emissions and safety.
Most families are not aware of the hazards or health implications from their cooking methods, Muthiah said. They don’t realize the possible link between how they cook food and their baby’s low birth weight or their child’s pneumonia.
“Awareness is so important,” Muthiah said. “It’s more than half the battle.”
But it’s also a process of changing behavior. “We have to show them they can [still] cook the same meals as their mothers and grandmothers cooked” on new stoves, she said.
But once women see the statistics and the stories, “they get it,” Muthiah said. “Women are practical all over the world.” They want to figure out how to get a decent cookstove. Some go for the cheaper model they can buy outright, while others look at financing plans.
The cost for these safer and more efficient stoves can range from $15 to $150, depending on factors such as fuel type and durability. Some women become marketing and sales agents, turning the cookstove into an income generator.
The goal for the alliance is to switch 100 million households to cleaner stoves by the year 2020. It’s a triple win, Muthiah points out, for health, for the environment and for women’s empowerment.
“We’re trying to put this issue on the front burner,” she told me. “In this day and age, women should not be cooking this way.”