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  • Stephen Nash

Complex cooking – why have we not yet cracked one of the most critical parts of the energy access pu

Significant progress has been made in recent years in increasing the role of renewable energy in Africa. In several countries utility-scale renewables installations have been secured at increasingly competitive prices. The decline in renewable energy technology costs, combined with the progress made in developing more energy efficient lighting and appliances, is catalysing a revolution in the use of renewable energy for off-grid electricity at the household and community level.

The story for energy use in cooking is less encouraging. The use of traditional biomass remains dominant. Globally, REN21’s Renewables 2018 Global Status Report states that 7.8% of Total Final Energy Consumption in 2016 was sourced from traditional biomass. This compares to 10.4% for modern renewables. Despite many initiatives, ESMAP’s 2018 Tracking SDG7 update reports that access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking has only increased from 9% in 2000 to 13% in 2016 across sub-Saharan Africa.

The benefits of tackling the clean cooking challenge are huge. If all of the current use of traditional biomass were to switch to a more sustainable fuel, that would reduce carbon emissions and contribute towards health benefits resulting from less household air pollution. Recent analysis by Kuungana Advisory for Zambia suggests that even ~2.5% of households shifting to clean cookstoves could contribute >$20m to economic growth, through reduced illness and premature deaths. This number could be higher in other countries; in Zambia, cooking often takes place outside or in relatively well-ventilated shelters.

Given these benefits, why has little progress been made? Donor programmes have been trying to tackle the clean cooking challenge for years but, as the ESMAP data shows, progress has been limited. Why is this? There are some obvious differences if we compare the clean cooking sector to off-grid solar, for example:

  1. Off-grid solar often delivers real and immediate economic savings for households when compared to their expenditure on traditional alternatives such as kerosene and candles. This is not always the case for clean cooking, where households may be switching away from a free or very cheap fuel.

  2. At the same time, households switching cooking technology are – despite the ancillary benefits – simply using a new technology to achieve the same primary outcome. Conversely, off-grid solar allows households to achieve new or improved outcomes: better quality lighting, or the ability to use electricity to power a radio or TV.

  3. Some cookstove technologies have failed to adequately meet consumer needs. Some stove technologies might be slower or more cumbersome to use than traditional stoves or are perceived to result in less tasty food.

  4. The benefits of clean cooking are arguably less immediate. Households used to air pollution from cooking might not appreciate the benefits of reducing or removing this air pollution. The carbon benefit is a common benefit, rather than one that affects the individual household.

The mapping of interventions to benefits in the clean cooking sector is complex. In addition to the differences noted above, it can be complex to understand the benefits that result from a given intervention. For off-grid solar this is relatively simple: most interventions are ultimately trying to increase uptake of a solar system, replacing traditional alternatives for lighting. With cookstoves, the value chain considerations can be more complex:

  1. Forestry – improving sustainable forestry and moving households to sustainable biomass, with no change in cooking technologies, could reduce carbon emissions significantly, but would not realise household level benefits, such as improved health outcomes.

  2. Fuel production – more efficient kilns for charcoal production could again reduce carbon emissions, and might lead to economic savings, and maybe marginal health benefits, for households as they burn less fuel.

  3. Alternative fuels – alternative fuels such as LPG or sustainable biomass can lead to benefits. However, depending on the fuel/stove combination used, carbon emissions may not be eliminated, and some negative health outcomes may remain.

  4. Stove technologies – even if households continue to use their existing supplies of firewood or charcoal, a more efficient stove may reduce (but not eliminate) carbon emissions and reduce (but not eliminate) household air pollution.

  5. Cooking environment – the household cooking context is critically important when measuring benefits. In less densely populated regions cooking might take place outside, reducing the negative health effects of traditional cooking solutions compared to regions where cooking predominantly takes place in the home.

The figure below summarises the mapping between the parts of the value chain where interventions can be targeted, and the environmental and health benefits that are drivers for increasing access to clean cooking.

The figure is necessarily simplified and open to debate but illustrates the complexity of designing interventions in this sector. This complexity is also highlighted by the IWA technology standards for cookstove technologies, which award cookstoves separate ratings for four different areas of performance: efficiency and fuel use, total emissions, indoor emissions, and safety. This reflects the real complexity of the sector (remember these standards only cover the stove itself!), but the absence of a single, overall rating arguably makes the standards difficult to understand.

A holistic approach is required when designing interventions to promote clean cooking. The complexity of the sector means that focusing on one part of the value chain can reduce the benefits that are available from clean cooking. Interventions that take into account this complexity are more likely to succeed and achieve transformational change. We’re starting to see what is possible with increasing access to electricity using off-grid solar, but success in meeting SDG7 will require us to step-up our efforts to increase access to clean cooking as well.

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