| Boiling Point No. 25 - August 1991 |
by Emma Crewe, Social Anthropologist, ITDG/ University of Edinburgh
The Story So Far
To understand why some agencies are withdrawing funding from stoves work, it is illuminating to consider the recent history of stove development. Work on improved stoves began in the south, specifically in India in the late 1940s, inspired by the goal of smoke removal. In 1953, Raju set an idealistic tone, calling upon people to remember that they were "working for emancipation of women. Do not forget the millions of your sisters in the bondage of criminally unhygienic kitchens". In the 1970s stove technology development was snapped up by the energy sector as a response to the oil crisis and a concern about deforestation. The "gap theory", as it became known, postulated that to deal with fuelwood demand outstripping supply, rural people in developing countries felled trees for fuel. The proposed solution to the "fuelwood crisis" was to increase supply through afforestation programmes and decrease demand through fuel-conserving biomass stoves. These national energy and forestry concerns were usually prioritised above the immediate interests of energy users at the household level.
The result was that where stoves did not match cooking practices, fuel use patterns, or users' preferences and required a large financial investment, sales and usage rates were low. By the late 1980s, doubts about arresting deforestation had set in at an international level. Stoves were fashionable with funders when it was thought that they could save trees, but lost the edge when perceived macro-level benefits gave way to consumer concerns. Even so, in some mature stove programmes house holders began to buy stoves in staggering numbers. By 1990 more than 100 million people in the south had bought an improved biomass stove (over 90% of them in China). The market penetration rates have now reached 50% in China, 20% in Kenya and 11% in Sri Lanka (Clarke 1990). For a new product, trying to replace an existing technology, the figures are impressive.
Presently, just as success stories begin to gather, the interest from within some agencies appears to be dwindling. As examples, the Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme (ESMAP) of the World Bank is in the process of winding down its household energy programme, and USAID has substantially reduced its contribution to the stove component of the Forestry Development Project in Nepal. One argument proposes that encouraging fuel-switching amongst urban households and the commercial sector should be a greater priority (World Bank 1990:6). But, while satisfying aspirations for fuel-switching is salutary where feasible, it is not a realistic prospect economically for most rural households in the South.
Are Stoves More Than Just A Consumer Product?
It has been argued that since stoves cannot save trees, they are, at best, merely a consumer product for kitchens. Apparently, they should be promoted, always on a commercial basis, as a way of generating income for small enterprises. Commercialization is perceived as the only sure route to one of the latest buzz concepts - sustainable development. If this is the case, then why should energy planners get involved in stove technology development at all? Indeed, if stoves are seen merely as consumer goods, or even luxury objects, then the most useful external assistance would be business and marketing advice. But of course, they are far from luxury items; they are the most essential tool used by the world's second largest occupational group - cooks.
For about half the world's cooks, stoves affect both the acquisition and use of biomass fuel. Firstly, more lime spent collecting fuel means less time available for other household work, which is often vital for the health and welfare of household members (ea. food preparation, growing and income-earning activities). Secondly, inhaling the pollutants from biomass combustion increases the risk of lung/eye diseases in cooks and acute respiratory diseases in children. Cooks are often also mothers who are plainly the most important agents in determining the state of health of the next gcncration. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the health and environmental benefits of reducing pollution may include an increase in women's well-being and productivity, lower morbidity in children and a decrease in the products of incomplete biomass combustion, which account for 1-3% of global warming (see Smith 1991). Ultimately, these factors affect the national economy.
Finally, even the assertion that 'stoves never save trees' is dubious. Headloading fuelwood to town and charcoal-making are undeniably causes of tree felling in many parts of Africa. Therefore, reducing consumption by the use of more efficient woodstoves probably does have some impact on the rate of deforestation. The perception that stoves have no macro-level or national impact is undoubtedly misguided on energy, health and environmental grounds. This narrow view of the bcncfits of stoves partly accounts for the prevailing disappointment with stove programmes. But the story is not complete.
Patience and Respect
Recent planned development, in general, has been characterized by a tremendous impatience for easily visible results and a rapid turnover of fashions. The altitude towards energy is exemplary. This impatience and the way that international agencies are organised have encouraged massive scale power generation programmes, with less attention given to energy end-use. It is assumed that expensive programmes will have greater national impact at a faster rate. Spending the same amount on several cheaper programmes generally requires more time, staff and organization. Ironically, stove development is an example of such awkwardly cheap programmes. A $2 billion, off the shelf power plant can be constructed relatively easily with a small team. Spending the same amount on stoves would require seeing up over 500 national projects, gigantic numbers of staff, fantastic administration and waiting for gradual results. Consequently the total amount ever spent on stoves is relatively small at less than $100 million. Contrast this with $3.X billion for World Bank loans in the energy sector in 1990 alone! Yet the total population using biomass fuel may be over a billion.
Assumptions about cost and scale explain a part of the attitude towards the household level. More is revealed when you consider who is involved in household energy. Most of the biofuel providers and users are part of a group which has been ignored by governments, development agencies and other agents of change. The overwhelming majority arc rural, women, relatively poor, unwaged and part of the "informal sector". Estimates of their number have varied from 400-800 million - a substantial proportion of the world's population. Still, as development planning becomes more centralized, rural women's conccrns become more invisible and marginalised. Even in urban settings, the kitchen and its technology, which has always been controlled by women, has been neglected by housing planners and architects (Nystrom 1991).
Understanding the Impact of Stoves
Galbraith once wrote: 'one of the generally amiable idiosyncrasies of man is his ability to expend a great deal of effort without much inquiring as to the end result'. It may be amiable, but it makes the task of resource allocation much trickier. Even small stove programmes, with limited resources, should carry out basic monitoring of achievements against objectives. However, monitoring and evaluation (M&E) has been perceived as a low priority even within larger stoves programmes. GTZ, FWD and ITDG are currently co-ordinating a project which includes field-testing M&E techniques in 10 projects. It is hoped that by producing and testing a step-by-step M&E guide and offering training in M&E, projects will enhance their capacity to inquire into the end result of their work. In addition to this, national research institutes could usefully take an even broader perspective on evaluation and consider the potential impact of different household energy improvements on different groups.
Closer Cross-sector Cooperation
In an ideal world, the different sectors - energy, forestry, agriculture, health and women in development (WID) would combine their resources and cooperate to improve conditions for energy providers and users at the household level. While possible nationally, at an international level that is logistically a tall order. A more realistic expectation would be to accept that stoves are primarily concerned with the provision and use of energy, but that support and advice are required at various entry-points. The involvement of the health sector could be more actively encouraged, to ensure that designers of stove technology and kitchens respect the need for a clean environment as much as fuel conservation. Drawing national women's organizations and WID departments of international agencies further into this area could enhance attempts to understand more about the impact of stoves on women's access to resources and also speed up the process of incorporating women into the R&D, production, distribution and evaluation of stoves at all levels.
Resources - People, Information and Money
In the south, this surprisingly intricate field is in need of talented, motivated and committed people - researchers, extension workers, planners, designers. They, in turn, require support, funds and above all, information. Since the north has a disproportionate share of these resources, channelling them southwards is a necessary, if temporary, strategy. Even now, it is not enormous quantities of funding and experts that are needed from the north to solve energy-related problems in the south. It is timely financial support, given with respect for the recipient's autonomy and quality and relevant information and training, which are the most valuable forms of assistance. Evidence of good results should be the guiding principle.
Papers from an informal consultation on Indoor Air Pollution for Biomass Fuel, 5-8 June, 1991, organised by the World Health Organisation (PEP/EHE):
K Clarke (1990) Cookstove Dissemination: A Lost Opportunity ITDG, UK
World Bank (1990) 'The Urban Edge - Issues L Innovations" Vol14, No. 4, USA
M Nystrom (1991) Contribution of Improved Kitchens/Cooking Areas, Lund Centre for Habitat Studies, Sweden
K Smith (1991) Biomass Cookstoves in Global Perspective: Energy, Health and Global Warming, East-West Centre, Hawaii.