Stoves for developing countries

If you blow the right way at a fire, the flames will burn cleaner and more efficiently. It’s a simple concept, but one that a Brooklyn startup is using to address and overcome one of the biggest challenges to health in developing countries.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over three billion people globally use open fires, otherwise known as stoves, that burn coal, dung or wood. Doing so, results in exposure to carcinogens such as carbon monoxide, particulates and other pollutants.

Figures show that four million people die annually from cooking on an open fire from lung cancer, pneumonia and other respiratory and heart diseases.

Scientists at BioLite, a five-year-old startup, have launched pilot programs to sell cheap, safer stoves for developing countries including Ghana, northeastern India, and southern Uganda.

The cylindrical product burns twigs and wood, which leads to 90 percent fewer particulate emissions being released into the air. The stove also creates the same amount of heat with 60 percent less wood and only costs $50.

The stove includes a small fan, which funnels air into the stove to make sure the fire gets enough oxygen. By doing so, the flames burn hot, but in a cleaner way. There are also heat panels on the side, which are used to convert some of the heat into electricity.

By targeting rural areas where people are more likely to rely on burning wood as fuel, the company is hoping to address issues such as women’s empowerment and overall health. Because women in rural parts of developing countries are often the ones doing the cooking, reducing emissions can help to improve their health.

The difficult part of the process, however, is delivery. The areas of a country where the stoves can have the biggest impact are often some of the hardest regions to reach. To ensure successful distribution, BioLite implemented a model that assigns an agent to every village. Each agent will go door-to-door, demonstrating to villagers how to work the stove.

To date, the company has sold 4,000-5,000 stoves in India, and scientists hope to sell one million around the world in the next four years. According to BioLite’s website, the stove has helped to produce almost 14 million watt-hours of electricity, avoid over 15,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and allow more than 29,000 people to breathe cleaner air.

Matt Wotus

Sources: BioLite, InsideClimate News, World Health Organization

Photo: Flickr

The Poverty Action Lab (PAL), a research organization from MIT, carried out a project that implemented new, environmentally friendly cookstoves for 2,600 households in Orissa, India. Each household contributed a small amount of money to pay for the building of the stove and was given training on its proper use and maintenance. Although the initial take up of the technology was high, families were only cooking 1.8 meals a week on the new stove three years after its implementation. Most had reverted to using their old cookstoves, commonly called chulas.

Indoor air pollution caused by chulas is the second largest health risk in developing countries, after unclean water. Over 70% of all households in India use them. Chulas burn cheap fuels such as firewood, coal or cow manure and create particle matter concentrations of 20,000 micrograms per cubic meter; the recommended limit is just 50. For the people who are around them — mainly women and young children — it is like smoking several packs of cigarettes a day. They cause 2 million deaths in India annually.

The new cookstoves were promoted as a cleaner alternative to traditional stoves that would save families from mental hardship and health expenditures. They would also make them more productive, as adults and children would miss fewer days of work and school. Finally, the stoves were advertised as being more cost-effective as they used less fuel and more time-effective because they decreased cooking times.

Medical checkups three years into the PAL study showed that because they were rarely used, introducing these stoves to poor households even at a very low cost did nothing to change health effects. High levels of blood pressure, a tendency to develop coughs and poor infant health remained the same. People showed the same risks of developing lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases.

In addition to causing health problems, chulas cause environmental damage. Worldwide, three billion people use them, or four out of every ten people. They collectively release 6 billion kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere. That is triple the amount of the daily emissions from all private cars in the United States.

The main issue that seems to have stopped people from using their new stoves was that they required a lot more maintenance, and their unfamiliarity with the technology was an impediment to carrying out repairs. Households reported that they spent hours getting their stoves fixed and cleaning newly added chimneys. Their old way of cooking was easy to use and never broke. Moreover, it was familiar, so people were more inclined to revert back to it when their new stoves exhibited problems.

While the new cookstoves perform well in laboratories and have the potential to drastically decrease health and environmental effects, their effectiveness depends on them actually being used. India launched a National Biomass Cookstove Initiative (NCBI) in 2010 and plans to install 2.5 million cookstoves by 2017. Moreover, Hillary Clinton helped start the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), which aims to install 100 million cookstoves by 2020. Both the NCBI and GACC would do well to conduct long-term studies before spending millions of dollars in initiatives that have little to no impact.

– Radhika Singh

Sources: National Geographic, The Washington Post, Poverty Action Lab 1, Poverty Action Lab 2, Boston Globe, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves
Photo: The Washington Post