Wednesday, February 24, 2016


I am currently on assignment in Nepal, trying to understand the challenges and opportunities of clean cooking energy sector there. It is also giving me insights into the evolution of the sector in India. 

An array of traditional mud stoves for cooking offerings at a temple in rural Nepal

Clean cooking technologies ideally include everything from LPG and induction stoves to smokeless (as defined by emission standards of each country) wood/biomass fueled stoves. The idea here is that if cooking is happening without causing pollution, it is a healthier environment for the cook and other residents. This is desirable for everyone, but unfortunately most clean cooking solutions are beyond the means of the poor in developing countries. For decades, focused efforts have been carried out in almost all developing countries to change this situation. These efforts have been propped up by governments as well as national and international donor agencies in each country. Unfortunately, in spite of this, billions of people across the world continue to cook on smoky biomass fires. 

In India, from early 1980s to 2000s the Government of India conducted the national programme on improved chulha. Under this programme millions of improved mud/cement stoves with chimney were distributed free of cost to rural poor households. These type of stoves while continuing to consume the same wood or biomass fuels as traditional stoves, reduce fuel consumption. In addition, they firstly produce less smoke than traditional stoves, and secondly remove the smoke from the kitchen through the chimney. The stoves used to be constructed by local rural 'self employed workers'. These people were either unemployed youth, or self help group member women, or traditional potters, masons, etc. The activity of installing the stoves as per the direction of the district administration every year, earned them a small amount of money. 

In 2002 the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy stopped funding this programme. With the exception of a couple of states, most state governments also therefore stopped implementing it. This was also the time when across the world 'commercalisation' became the mantra for the improved cook stove sector. Everyone started citing example of the improved cook stove programme in China which had focused on creating improved stove manufacturing enterprises rather than distributing improved cook stoves for free. In India, with the sudden and total withdrawal of the government, a vacuum was created. In this vacuum arose Samuchit Enviro Tech, which became the first company in India to attempt selling improved cook stoves as a consumer product to rural households. Other players were also attracted to this market, and over the years several giants have grown in this sector, although we at Samuchit have evolved in directions different from our original objective. But looking at the overall ecosystem today, one can say that the sector of household improved cook stoves is now commercialised in India.

However, what has this really achieved? Does this mean that potential end users are flocking to some shops to buy improved cook stoves? Unfortunately the answer is no. 

In the government programme nobody asked the user what she wanted and needed. At this point too, nobody is asking the user this question. 

In the government programme the targeted end user (the woman who is cooking all the meals for her family exclusively on fire wood or other biomass fuels) got some improved stove that may or may not have been totally acceptable to her, free of cost. Today too it is the same situation - she is still getting some improved stove free of cost, which may or may not find any use in her kitchen. 

So if the government is not paying for the stoves, and if the stove enterprises are not doing any charity, how is this happening? This is now happening through CSR programmes of big corporations and other donor driven initiatives. As far as the end user is concerned, the subsidy regime has continued, only the faces behind the programme have changed. 

So what has changed, if any?? 

Earlier, most of the stoves disseminated were mud/cement stoves and used to be constructed by some poor person who lived in the vicinity of the end user. This activity provided a partial livelihood for thousands of poor people. A few enterprising self-employed workers had used this opportunity to come out of poverty and earn a steady income, while providing livelihood to other poor persons around them. Now, primarily for the ease of mass manufacturing, metallic stoves are being distributed. The activity is creating profits for a few urban businessmen and women, and some foreign investors, and employment for a few mechanics (who are employable in any fabrication industry any way). 

This is India's big achievement with the shift to commercialisation of improved cook stoves! 

Priyadarshini Karve
Samuchit Enviro Tech

    Samuchit Enviro Tech. 

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