And yet, cookstove companies have held on. Despite meagre sales; despite long-term losses; despite a steady drumbeat of scientific studies showing their products don’t protect the poor from the worst effects of indoor air pollution.


Out of the frying pan

Since the 1950s, engineers have made a number of advanced biomass cookstoves. Indian women have rejected most of them.

That did not dissuade oil major Shell Group, which, in 2000, set up an independent UK-based philanthropic foundation to right wrongs related to energy and poverty. The Shell Foundation.

Two years after its inception, Shell Foundation launched project “Breathing Space”. It would spend $50 million to distribute 20 million advanced cookstoves by 2012. But it wouldn’t simply give away stoves. Instead, it would create a marketplace for businesses to sell to women.

In 2010, Shell Foundation, the US government and the UN Foundation—a philanthropy that supports UN activities— launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC) at the Clinton Global Initiative, inaugurated by the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They wanted to raise $1 billion to distribute 100 million cookstoves by 2020. And just like Breathing Space, they would look for a market-oriented solution.

“They had this focus on small business development, like somehow indoor air pollution is going to be solved by guys selling stoves in village shops,” Smith of Berkeley said. “So, they worked a lot on developing the industry.”

GACC preferred improved cookstoves for their fuel efficiency—less wood gets burned compared to open fires. Additionally, there’s less black carbon, a component of soot that is a potent short-lived greenhouse gas. Companies could earn an alternate stream of revenue by selling carbon credits to industry.

GACC did not promote LPG stoves in the early days.

“Fossil-based fuels were frowned upon as they’re not great for the climate,” said Fiona Lambe, a research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute. “So they were left out of the picture, even though some studies came out showing that even if everybody using a traditional stove suddenly switched to an LPG stove, the global warming impact would be negligible.”

There were other problems with the initiative, Smith of Berkeley said. The alliance did not define what a clean cookstove is in the early days because, back then, no one knew.

The World Health Organisation only came up with indoor air pollution guidelines in 2014, and using that metric, most biomass stoves failed to protect health.

GACC did not respond to The Ken’s request for comment by the time of publishing.


Into the fire

As cookstove projects dragged on, the evidence against their benefits mounted.

In 2012, scientists published a study that tracked an improved cookstove project in Odisha for four years and found that use had declined over time. By the third year, women cooked less than two meals a week on the stove. Their lung health did not improve.

In 2016, scientists working in rural Malawi found that the cleanest improved cookstove did not cut pneumonia incidence in kids under five. They also broke down repeatedly. Other studies have come to similar conclusions. Some cookstove companies that The Ken spoke to said they no longer make claims about health benefits, given these results.

When Sailesh Rao, the founder of Climate Healers, a non-profit cookstove venture, went to the Mewar region of Rajasthan, he found that villagers were not using improved stoves donated by non-profits. The women said the flames were narrow, burning rotis in the middle and leaving the sides uncooked. They also broke down within six months.

When the United Nations gave away $50 advanced cookstoves—very clean, top-end ones—in its refugee camps globally, the refugees sold it to buy chicken and beer, said Fabio Parigi, executive director of Sustainable Grill, an Italian cookstove company.

Charity begins at home

By the time these studies hit headlines, foundations had already poured millions into the cookstove sector.

“There are a lot of people who have money at stake in this business,” Rao said. “All of them are going to lose out, that’s the problem they face. There are non-profits, who’ve [each] employed 10 to 15 people, working on this, there are also for-profit companies who are making [cookstoves].”

To understand the scale of the interventions, consider Envirofit. An American for-profit B-Corp social enterprise, it is the most successful cookstove company today and has benefited immensely from philanthropic largesse and impact investments.