Kiva Innovations: Julia Roberts, cookstoves and health in the developing world

Cooking dinner can be a dangerous business (in my household, more so for the diners than for the cook). But for poor people around the world, flavor is the least of their concerns. 
The World Health Organization (WHO) lists indoor air pollution from household cooking as the leading environmental cause of death in the world. It contributes to over 2 million deaths annually -- more than are caused by malaria. And poor households that burn biomass (wood, charcoal, dung or crop residues) as fuel for heating and cooking are impacted the most.
The smoke that fills homes is thick with carcinogens equivalent to smoking 400 cigarettes. Women and children living in poverty are at the highest risk for illness because they are constantly exposed to fumes. The burden of gathering fuel also falls to women and girls, squandering daylight hours that could be used for studying or earning income.
Cooking fires also emit short-lived greenhouse gases and aerosols such as methane, carbon monoxide and black carbon. Unregulated harvesting of biomass contributes to deforestation and increased carbon dioxide emissions. All lead to climate change.
This cycle accelerates as population growth demands more from strained resources, and unaccountable supply chains spring into action to fill the market. The situation is urgent indeed. 
Madam Secretary, please stand up…
In 2010, this issue reached the desk of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. By September, her office had created the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership led by the United Nations Foundation. They even convinced actress Julia Roberts to be the global ambassador. 
The ambitious campaign “100 by 20” aims to get 100 million homes to adopt clean cookstoves by 2020. The alliance seeks to mobilize high-level donors and national governments to make a financial commitment to reaching large-scale adoption of clean cooking technologies. This requires sustained intervention to address market failures in fuel cost and distribution, and to raise awareness at the household and international levels to support innovation. 
This is all well and good. But what technology are they promoting and does it work? 

Photo by Kiva Fellow Diana Biggs.
Up in smoke
Clean cookstoves, like the one above, are affordable and easy to use. Numerous models exist with varying degrees of potential for health and environmental impact. Technologies range from rocket and plancha cookstoves -- which enclose biomass flames to reduce smoke -- to solar stoves with free “fuel” and zero emissions. Clean cookstoves use fuels, equipment and practices that mitigate the health and environmental impacts of traditional cooking methods. At least that’s what we’ve been led to believe...

In April of this year, Washington Post and New York Times articles confronted the evidence head on. Citing a randomized impact study on clean cookstove use in India, the articles claimed that politics were effectively taking precedence over science -- insert your own sarcastic moan here. A deluge of blog posts followed the article, experts were stratified and opposition against the Alliance was firmly assembled.

The study was undertaken by three professors from MIT and Harvard and followed 2,651 households in 44 villages in Orissa, India. By the end of the four-year study, families that had paid $0.75 for their stoves were rarely using them. Without continued support, households had let their stoves fall into disrepair, ignoring cracks that were allowing fumes to escape from the chimney. When they did use the stove, many used them improperly, often leaving one of the two burner plates open while cooking, allowing smoke to fill their home. Air quality barely improved. Changes in health were imperceptible. 
And the debate simmers
Suffice it to say, the press reaction to the study staggered clean energy advocates. Yet, over the last few months, impassioned arguments have ebbed, and nuanced discussions have emerged about the future of clean cookstoves. And still the urgency of the threat has not abated. So it is up to the Alliance, national governments and nonprofits to understand the effects of these findings and adjust their policies accordingly.
In my blog last week on sanitation finance, I discussed the challenges governments have faced trying to improve sanitation in areas where open defecation is prevalent. I looked at why people regularly chose to act in ways that directly threatened the health of their families. In this field, years of behavioral research and experimentation have culminated in community-led total sanitation initiatives. By combining hardware (latrine construction and maintenance) with software (hygiene education and community support infrastructure) a number of villages have experienced transformative changes in health and wellbeing. It’s a compelling model for the clean cookstove camp to consider. 
At Kiva, we are looking for partners that offer innovative solutions to the complex environmental and public health challenges posed by traditional cooking methods. Recently, we have partnered with an organization in Burkina Faso to help deliver clean cooking products to women in rural areas. 
The project links women who want to improve their stoves to community-based programs that are looking to help. This includes microfinance institutions that have developed and marketed specific cookstove savings and loan products as well as nonprofits eager to provide technical training for operation and maintenance. We view these types of comprehensive, sustainable projects as the clearest way forward. 

A fire has been lit
The clean cookstove controversy is positive because it has forced decision makers out of their labs to consider the importance of real world solutions. Demand must be created for products or they simply will not be purchased. If they are subsidized, they go unused. Still, the risks of inaction are too great. The fire has been lit. It is up to all of us to help guide the flame toward a positive end. 
Ian Matthews is an intern on Kiva’s Strategic Initiatives team, looking for new partners and loan products to extend opportunities and access to even more people around the world. Ian has an MSc in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and has previously done field work in Honduras. Send him your feedback on this blog series at
This is part of a larger series on Kiva’s strategic initiatives and innovative loan products, which are designed to expand opportunities for more borrowers. Kiva is excited to partner with companies and organizations innovating to support communities cook and heat their homes safely. 

About the author

Ian Matthews

Ian Matthews is an intern on Kiva’s Strategic Initiatives team, looking for new partners and loan products to extend opportunities and access to even more people around the world. Ian has an MSc in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and has previously done field work in Honduras.