Cooking FuelFinding a reliable and clean source of cooking fuel in developing countries is a persistent obstacle for poor households. From using animal dung in East Asia to wood and charcoal in Africa, the simple process of cooking varies greatly in both safety and reliability across the world. Adverse health effects from household smoke have encouraged governments to provide affordable and cleaner options for cooking fuel.

Cooking Fuel in Developing Countries

The youngest and most vulnerable in the developing world are most likely to benefit from cleaner cooking fuels. Since indoor air pollution is most prevalent with the extremely poor — those living on less than $1 a day — providing cleaner options for cooking has disproportionately positive health effects for them.

Traditionally, coal and biomass have been the primary sources of cooking fuel in developing countries and have been particularly damaging in countries that lack access to other viable options. Unhealthy levels of air pollution in homes lead to premature deaths every year. The prime culprit is smoke from coal and wood in poorly ventilated kitchens.

Convenience Over Safety

Until recently, however, convenience has trumped health and environmental concerns. Despite recent efforts to modernize energy use in the developing world, the number of people reliant on solid fuels, such as wood, is expected to grow to 2.7 billion by 2030. Although the adverse health effects of indoor air pollution contribute to 2.6 million deaths per year, there has been major resistance from people accustomed to their traditional way of cooking.

Established types of cooking fuel in developing countries, if not healthy or environmentally friendly, are hard to usurp as the primary source for energy use.  Both India and Brazil have approached the problem through promoting liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) usage but from distinctly different angles.

LPG in India

For decades India has subsidized cleaner energy sources such as LPG as an incentive to transition homes from less healthy options, such as wood, charcoal and animal dung.

Although subsidies have been historically inefficient, India has made progress in providing affordable and clean fuel to households through a biometric identification system. Since 2016, India has provided 34 million households with stoves and a free cylinder of LPG.

India has focused on targeted, subsidized fuel for those needing the greatest assistance. In 2012, in response to increasing graft and black market activity, India initiated a Direct Benefit Transfer Scheme of LPG.  The subsidization program has only been possible due to access to individual bank accounts and biometric identifiers; which allows the government access to household’s income levels in order to better target various need requirements.

LPG in Brazil

Brazil, on the other hand, has focused on the market development of the LPG gas industry and promoting education to consumers. Specifically, the government’s approach to promoting efficient and healthy means of cooking has evolved into selling the public on the beneficial qualities of LPG. Rather than subsidized fuel or free LPG cylinders, Brazil has relied on educating Brazilian’s on the use of new stoves, as well as providing a free trial period.

To get accustomed to the new fuel, LPG cylinders and accompanying stoves were offered on a short-term, three-day trial. Once completed, households involved were allowed to either purchase the new cooking equipment or return it. The majority of consumers felt comfortable enough with the more modern cookware to transition to LPG usage. Direct experience with the product, instead of handouts, has been the impetus in Brazil for creating a market for cleaner cooking fuels and stoves.

Allowing poor households to see the benefits firsthand has directly created a demand for LPG. This approach of consumer development, rather than India’s direct cash transfer, could be replicated to provide cleaner cooking fuel in developing countries still reliant on wood, dung and charcoal.

The number of households who opt for cleaner and safer cooking fuel in developing countries will vary in approach. It depends on the level of poverty in the country and the policies the government, and the taxpayers, are willing to commit to.

Reducing deaths from indoor air pollution and providing a reliable source for cooking should be the ultimate policy goal of modernizing indoor fuel consumption. After all, making dinner in the developing world should not come at the price of smoke filled kitchens and declining health.

– Nathan Ghelli
Photo: Flickr