the road to discovery
While D was trying to avoid bandits in Kenya’s wild North, S went on a work trip to Kisumu, serving as the control officer for the visit of Director of the U.S. Cookstoves Initiative Jacob Moss. As the hub of East Africa, Kenya is a focus country for pretty much every international initiative cooked up by the President or the State Department. Secretary Clinton launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves in 2010 with the aim of saving lives, improving livelihoods, empowering women, and combating climate change by creating a viable commercial market for clean and efficient cookstoves and fuel.
For nearly 3 billion people in the developing world, traditional cookstoves and open fires remain the primary means for cooking and heating. People might tell you that food cooked over a traditional open fire tastes better, but the cumulative effects of long-term exposure to smoke accounts for nearly 2 million premature deaths annually, a number that the World Health Organization is in the process of revising to 4 million after the latest studies.* Because women are overwhelmingly responsible for cooking, they – and their young children – are the ones most affected.
Not only is the health toll staggering, but there are also other costs imposed by traditional cookstoves. It is estimated that on average women in developing countries walk over 10 miles and spend more than 30 hours per week collecting firewood. Those who purchase wood or charcoal spend over a third of their annual income on fuel. That is why the Secretary refers to clean cookstoves as a triple winner. More efficient stoves are better for the environment and women’s health, and also empower women by drastically reducing the resources they have to dedicate to cooking.
The clean cookstoves initiative is one of several areas that fall into the State Department’s Environment, Science, Technology, and Health portfolio in Kenya. It is also an area in which CDC has started to work. In S’s current limbo state, she has gotten involved on both the State and CDC side and was happy to have the opportunity to work this visit.
Jacob wanted to spend most of his time in the field rather than in stuffy boardrooms, so on the first day S took him to visit several households that fall within CDC’s demographic surveillance area, a local hospital, and a model village supported by one of CDC’s partners, where six cleaner wood-burning stoves are undergoing testing for acceptability and indoor air pollution reduction. The most widely-accepted new models owed their popularity to their fancy designs, which included a fan and solar panel. Some households even jury-rigged the solar panels, which charge the fan battery, to recharge their mobile phones.
Everything went smoothly and relatively on time on day one. With only a radio interview planned before Jacob’s flight back to Nairobi the next day, S felt confident that the trip would be a total success. However, when they arrived at the radio station 15 minutes before Jacob was to be on air, S learned that the Embassy had not confirmed the interview and that the owner of the station had gone to Nairobi. Stomach fluttering, S asked if another anchorman could do the interview and proceeded to copy out the prepared questions from her Blackberry onto a sheet of paper. It took a half hour of scrambling but everything worked out in the end, and Jacob even answered a few call-in questions from listeners about why indoor smoke is bad for one’s health and where they could see the new stove designs.
Although a step in the right direction, cookstoves are not the panacea for the developing world that some champions of the initiative make them out to be. What is needed now for this relatively new sector is applied research – studies about the health and climate benefits, factors that drive adoption, and finance models. The technologies are up-and-coming but not all stoves address the triad of issues: some are efficient, reducing fuel consumption but not dramatically reducing emissions or particulate matter; others are clean, reducing smoke, especially black carbon, and particulates, but not enough to lead to measurable health benefits. And because the initiative is still in its infancy, the price tag on many of these new-fangled stoves is jaw-dropping. Hopefully, a market approach will drive down the costs over time and newer, cleaner, cheaper stoves will be developed as demand increases.
*If you’re wondering how experts surmise that cookstoves account for nearly 2 million (or 4 million) premature deaths annually, they are looking at the global burden of disease and their associated risk factors by estimating population attributable risks, which is only complicated by the joint effects of multiple risk factors. Geek out further with the WHO here.