A woman cooking food using improved cookstoves [Image credits: Udaipur Urja Initiatives]
In India, it is estimated that about 90% of rural households cook food using biomass fuel such as firewood, animal dung, and crop residues. Women here spend roughly 5–8 hours in a week collecting those fuels and also suffer from the hazardous smoke emanating from these fuels. The push to adapt to LPG, a cleaner fuel, seems to have been not-so-successful in rural areas, as rural households often resort to using biomass fuels that are easily available. Hence, improved cookstoves, which are designed to use less biomass fuel and reduce smoke emissions, act as an intermediate solution for clean cooking as it uses freely-accessible biomass fuel. But how effective are they?
A recent study, published in the journal Energy for Sustainable Development, evaluates the adoption and impact of improved cookstoves in the villages of Udaipur district, Rajasthan. While the benefits of these stoves were proven under laboratory conditions, the study demonstrates for the first time their real-world utility. It was the result of a six-year-long collaborative effort between Duke University, US, Indian Institute of Management Udaipur and Seva Mandir, a local non-governmental organisation in Udaipur.
Udaipur Urja Initiatives Producer Co. Ltd., a Udaipur-based company, started promoting improved cookstoves in the studied villages, where it sold two cookstoves per household at a subsidized rate of ₹ 500, while the market rate was around ₹ 4000.
The researchers conducted surveys with 600 households in 40 villages in Rajasthan before and after providing them with improved cookstoves. They gathered data on the socio-economic conditions, demographics, awareness of cookstoves, environmental and health risks associated with biomass fuel consumption, cooking behaviours, and time spent on fuel collection and cooking by the primary cook in the households.
The study found that the majority of households in these villages were from marginalized communities and about 4 in 5 among these were below the poverty line. Most of them recognised that traditional stoves emitted more smoke, and were difficult and laborious to cook with. Before purchasing the improved cookstoves, the households spent 4–5 hours a day on cooking, fuel collection and fuel preparation. However, the use of better cookstoves saved 30–45 min a day for the primary cook in the house.
At the end of 2017, after four years of the beginning of the study, the researchers observed a significant decrease in dung consumption in these villages. However, the use of firewood did not decrease significantly, although the villagers with improved stoves consumed less firewood.
A significant reason for promoting improved cookstoves is to improve the respiratory health of rural communities, especially women. However, the current study found no evidence of such improvements in households that used improved cookstoves. Thus, these cookstoves can deliver welfare-related benefits but they are not sufficient to improve the respiratory health.
“It is now well known that simple biomass improved cookstoves are unlikely to provide substantial health improvements. But they deliver other benefits, which are often more salient to rural households such as time and fuel savings, and convenience,” says Marc A. Jeuland, who led the study. He is an associate professor at Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University.
“Perhaps the people did not self-report much improvement in health because of the short time of evaluation,”, says Virgilio E Failoc-Rojas, a professor at the Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola in Peru, who was not a part of the study. He had conducted a similar study earlier in Peru and found that 9 in 10 people reported improvement in their health. “Since the diseases caused by the use of biomass are chronic, it would be good to evaluate the health benefits in 2 to 5 years to know if any of these measurements changed or remained the same over time," he suggests.
With the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which aimed to distribute LPG connections to below-poverty households, launching in 2016, the findings of this study were impacted. “The parallel roll-out of the Ujwala program facilitated LPG adoption and might have dampened the impact of biomass cookstoves,” admits Marc. Then, there was demonetization too. “Demonetization likely had modest impacts on stove adoption in the late phase given the highly discounted stove price. However, it may have dampened LPG usage somewhat,” opines Marc.
The findings of the study have some policy-level implications too. Rural households perceive LPG and induction stoves as expensive alternatives. Hence, if improved cookstoves were backed by a greater subsidy, it might become the prevailing technology in the villages, say the authors.
“I think it is clear that subsidies are needed to reach high adoption and penetration of these types of technologies, as the rural poor are very price sensitive. Technologies must also be appropriate for the local setting and responsive to the user preferences,” shares Marc. “Finding effective ways to deliver subsidies for the technologies that people want and the awareness-raising programs are critical,” he concludes.