A few weeks ago, newspapers around the country reported on an issue that hardly ever makes its way to the forefront of public consciousness: clean cookstoves for the poor. Several popular blogs ran reprints of the newspaper articles, most of them featuring reader comments that were unapologetically and almost uniformly vilifying in their condemnation of what many see as the government’s latest display of ineptitude and wastefulness. The crux of the story is that the Federal Executive Council suddenly announced plans to import clean cookstove components and ‘wonderbags’ for free distribution to ‘poor rural women’ with the colossal sum of N9.2 billion – and this is for the first phase alone. By the time the ‘aggressive’ scheme winds up five years from now, the project is expected to have spent tens of billions more procuring a total of 20 million cookstoves for poor households nationwide.
Notwithstanding the public sentiments alleging subterfuge and foul play, it is indeed the case that the poor rural women targeted by the scheme often cook over basic wood stoves that endanger their health and that of their families as well as pollute their immediate environment. There are other accompanying hazards: firewood fetching mostly falls to women and girls, exerting a physical toll on them and often narrowing their chances for self-improvement by encroaching on their productive and schooling time. The subject of cookstoves is an important one, even if it is one that seems inconsequential – or as one commentator put it, ‘non-essential’ – to people in certain classes. Clean cookstoves (which are not to be confused with kerosene stoves, as many commentators seem to have done), deployed under the right conditions, can help to address some of the social and environmental ills highlighted above. At about N12,000 per unit, the stoves procured by the FEC are probably higher-grade varieties that can deliver substantial firewood savings and/or smoke reductions to users. Nonetheless, there are many as-yet unresolved issues surrounding clean cookstove acquisition and use that have historically rendered their potential benefits elusive.
One such issue is a longstanding dilemma on the global cookstoves scene over the merits of distributing stoves freely or at subsidised rates to poor people versus offering them at full price on the open market, just like most other commodities. Over the past ten or so years, the global cookstoves community has been leaning more and more toward the open market approach, following a plethora of free/subsidised cookstove programmes that were widely regarded as disasters. One of the most widely criticised stove subsidy debacles is a national scheme launched by the Indian government a good three decades ago, in which nearly 30 million stoves were distributed over a twenty-year period with subsidy rates as high as 75% for the poorest households.
The premise of the current FEC project ‘to engender [a] clean cooking culture’ in cookstove recipients echoes that of the discredited Indian project to stimulate long-term demand for clean cooking solutions among the rural poor. The Indian example, however, delivered a striking lesson: people who got the heavily subsidised stoves were not willing to replace them at full market price when they broke down after a few years. No clean cooking culture engendered there, alas. While examples like this do not automatically signal a triumph of the increasingly favoured market approach, they do highlight the failure of even well-meaning promoters to identify the base conditions for the success of cookstove initiatives.
Rather confusingly, the FEC project looks set to flout the important lessons that have been demonstrated several times over by cookstove programmes around the world. Experience has shown that such programmes need to take their inspiration from the social, cultural and economic realities of poor people to have a chance at succeeding. This requires promoters to ask and answer some fundamental questions before going into poor communities: Why do people use the stoves they do now? Do they see any reason to change these stoves? If yes, what would they like a new stove to do for them? How would they get the fuel to power the stoves? How does the cost of running the new stoves compare with current costs, and how would this impact their willingness to switch?
Further, how compatible are the new stoves with the food types, cooking patterns, and broader lifestyles of users? (As one Facebook commenter pointed out, albeit jokingly, the slow-cooking function of the wonderbag may overshadow its energy-saving properties in households where people need to eat breakfast early before going out for the day.) What about maintenance and repair, particularly for those in remote areas? Crucially, as in the Indian case, when the stoves invariably get spoilt beyond repair and need to be replaced – what then? Will poor rural women be willing or able to replace the stoves themselves, or does the project intend to keep supplying the stoves infinitely? It should be noted that many of these questions would apply even if the stoves were to be mass-produced locally and sold on the open market, as some commentators have suggested.
One of the most interesting themes to emerge from media reports of the FEC scheme and the barrage of comments on them is that many people say they don’t need cleaner cookstoves, or at least that they don’t need government to hand such stoves to them freely. While this general reaction partly reflects societal attitudes that relegate stoves to the domain of women in the home, it brings to the fore some of the things that citizens (including poor rural women) believe are vastly more fundamental to their well-being: better nutrition, affordable and accessible cooking fuels, improved infrastructure, security, healthcare, jobs for young people, and access to credit for small business owners. The overall message here is consistent with what I’ve found in my own research on energy poverty, that clean cookstoves do not feature prominently on the priority lists of many poor people.
If this is the case, how does a project like the FEC scheme, detached as it is from the everyday experiences and expectations of the poor rural women it purports to be so concerned about, hope to establish and sustain the clean cooking culture it is so lavishly trying to promote? Part of the answer lies in the kind of research that my centre at the University of Ibadan and a few other African universities are currently collaborating on, with leadership provided by the University of Nottingham. Our research is asking precisely the sorts of questions raised above in other African contexts, in a bid to identify barriers to the use of clean cookstoves and possibly arrive at strategies for addressing some of those barriers. It is slow-going, painstaking work, but it offers the best chance of eventually making any real impact on those who stand to benefit the most from using clean cookstoves on a sustainable basis. Perhaps the FEC could borrow a leaf from this?
Dr. Temilade Sesan is an associate lecturer in renewable energy policy at the Centre for Petroleum, Energy Economics and Law, University of Ibadan.