An Indian startup’s affordable, clean-burning stoves help clear the air pollution that kills millions per year, especially women
Lurking beneath its towering factories and refineries, one of India’s most dangerous killers hides in nearly every home: the simple cookstove.
Across the country, hundreds of millions of mud furnaces and open fire pits fill kitchens with smoke and noxious carbon monoxide and black carbon fumes, adding to vast oceans of smog that, breath by breath, kill more people per year than malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis combined.
Air pollution from cooking fires is a major problem throughout the Global South. But of the 2.9 billion people that rely on solid biomass for cooking, India alone has 830 million, more than half its population, according to the UN. And of the 4.3 million premature deaths they cause, 1.2 million die in India.
Women, forced to toil for countless hours over the stove, are the most at risk.
“Since clean cooking is a gender issue, it has largely remained unaddressed by policymakers,” explains Neha Juneja, co-founder of Indian clean cooking enterprise Greenway Grameen Infra.
For the past nine years, Greenway has sought to provide modern, clean-burning equipment to a country in which nearly a billion people have no choice but to slowly poison their own air. So far, the social enterprise has a customer base of 100 million in India and, more recently, eastern and southern Africa.
Land of fire and smoke
Juneja’s journey began in 2011 when she traveled across India to understand the cooking habits of rural households and observe various cooking styles. She found that the impacts of traditional biomass stoves went beyond mere air quality. For starters, they have a long term environmental impact; up to 25% of global black carbon emissions come from household cooking, and 60-80% in many Asian and African countries.
Worse, they have an impact on gender equality. According to a recent assessment by the World Bank Group, women and children — who spend the most time at home — are at a much higher risk from household air pollution exposure. In India, more than 100,000 children die every year from acute lower respiratory infections caused by the burning of solid fuels.
“Since clean cooking is a gendered issue, it has largely remained unaddressed by policy makers”
But what if, thought Juneja, you could replace every traditional stove with a burner that served the needs of a household without the fumes? What if these devices were compact, affordable, and even cut down the countless hours drudgery faced by women? women wasted fussing over their fires?
“We followed a bottom-up approach in designing our products by working directly with women in underserved communities. The result was a cleaner stove that ticked the boxes that mattered the most to them: fuel and time efficiency.”
With a round of funding of $2.5 million from New York impact investment firm Acumen and Asha Impact in India, Greenway Grameen Infra gave its answer: The Greenway Smart Stove. The sleek, metallic burner is less than a foot tall; it still uses traditional fuels, but far more efficiently, cutting down on fuel costs by 65% and emitting 70% less smoke, the company claims.
Greenway products also have a strong impact on climate change. Juneja says Greenway stoves reduce CO2 emissions by more than two tonnes per household.
The economic recipe
The problem of smoke from traditional cookstoves is not new to the Indian government, which has taken several steps to address the issue, including the 2016 Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), a scheme to distribute 50 million liquid natural gas connections to families living below the poverty line, and incentives for new innovations in solar-powered cooking.
Despite these advancements, why have cooking methods in India remained archaic?
“The push towards renewables has not had any impact on the clean cooking sector in India,” explains Abhishek Saxena, a research fellow of the Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water. He says although PMUY helped raise awareness of clean cooking options, many beneficiaries of the scheme have found using gas too expensive even with the government subsidies, and many switched back to traditional firewood and other biomass fuels, which are relatively cheap to procure, if not free.
“The push towards renewables has not had any impact on the clean cooking sector in India”
Meanwhile, industry data suggests that PMUY actually hurt sales of efficient biogas and biomass cookstoves, which are still not widely available on the market. Many people aren’t even aware of their existence or assume they will be too expensive to afford. “Among those who have used these cookstoves, many have discontinued their usage because of inadequate after-sales support,” Saxena adds.
Greenway’s main selling point is simply that its stoves save money on fuel. However, at a price of $35 per unit, the initial cost of a Greenway stove could be hard on the monthly budgets of its target audience. Thus, Greenway is partnering with rural microfinance institutions and women self-help groups to make it possible for households to procure Greenway products either through installments or on credit.
Funding for clean cooking
International financial aid for renewable energy, the kind that could help a poor household buy a Greenway stove, exists…in theory. The real challenge is channeling this money to the projects and people that need it most.
The UN SDG report for 2020 has introduced a new metric: international financial flows to developing countries in support of clean and renewable energy, i.e. how much funding is actually reaching needy communities. While the total flows have doubled since 2010, the report states that only 12% reached the least-developed countries, which are the furthest from achieving the various SDG targets.
“Clean cooking as a sector is often overlooked by investors with the industry receiving only a fraction of the funding that it should be getting,” Juneja says.
In the absence of adequate financial support, manufacturers have been unable to strengthen their operations.
In the absence of adequate financial support, manufacturers have been unable to strengthen their operations. This results in low awareness of the products and their benefits to the end user, which has kept improved cookstoves from penetrating the market.
The question of funding also creates barriers for newcomers to India’s clean cooking industry. The low representation has kept the industry fragmented, giving it practically no leverage for influencing favorable policy action. “In policy-making, clean cookstoves are clubbed under the kitchen appliances category and therefore attract higher GST,” Juneja continues. “Had our products been in the category of renewable energy solutions, it would have gone a long way in helping the industry grow.”
Nitisha Agrawal, founder, and director of the Smokeless Cookstove Foundation, argues that manufacturers need to adapt their communication strategies to the cultural nuances of each region.
“Since women have been cooking on rudimentary stoves for generations, they view traditional cooking as a part of their heritage that they do not wish to deviate from,” she says. “One key reason for the low adoption of improved cooking methods relates to behavioral change. The clean cooking context is interlinked with factors like sustenance, health and livelihood, and therefore changing their way of life through new cooking methods is not seen as a priority among the communities.”
Juneja agrees. She says Greenway has over the years significantly modified its promotional messaging, moving from a “health” focus to that of “overall well-being of women and families.”
Greenway’s global vision
While Greenway continues to grow from strength to strength in India, its future plans include expansion into sub-Saharan Africa and improvement in their data analysis mechanisms.
“Women view traditional cooking as a part of their heritage that they do not wish to deviate from”
“Currently, the African region comprises 10% of our market,” Juneja says. “We wish to expand that by entering countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which require clean cooking solutions even more than India does. We are also developing a system for collecting data on the emissions reduction from the usage of our stoves, which would help us get a clearer picture on their impact on climate change mitigation. We plan to use this data to attract funding through non-charity sources like carbon offsets.”
But she says advancements in clean cooking requires urgent action from all sides: governments, development banks, and the public and private sectors. Not only would this enable greater product innovation and effective solutions for poor households, but it will also address the issue of affordability which has traditionally limited the adoption of improved cookstoves.
Working together, we may finally be able to clear the air.