Can’t Stand the Smoke

by Eric Ellman

Acute respiratory infections – the result of smoky cooking fires in poorly ventilated homes – kill an estimated 4 million people each year1, most of them women and children in developing nations.  Household air pollution (HAP) and the unimproved cook stoves that cause it have stymied public health officials for decades.  Realization that black carbon from the cooking fires of an estimated 3 billion people is the #2 contributor to global warming engages the climate community too.  But after years of interventions that include innovative stove designs being introduced through subsidized programs, signs of progress are hard to find.

“The field is littered with failed projects,” says Yale’s Rob Bailis who studies the dynamics of energy production and use in developing countries.  Numbers bear him out.   In Bangladesh, 40 years of subsidized interventions have resulted in just 2% of the population adopting cleaner, more efficient stoves2.  MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Laboratory recently followed up on 2,600 homes that had received subsidized stoves in rural India.  Entitled “Up in Smoke,” the report chronicled how after four years the stoves were either in disrepair, unused or used in addition to the traditional stoves it had been hoped they would replace.  Overall, people’s health and economic standing were not improved. 3

In the face of such epic failure, it’s impressive that efforts continue.  But when you consider the Gordian knot of issues that successful intervention would untangle it’s understandable why.  The thought of reducing death and morbidity and saving people billions of hours collecting fuel – all while reducing greenhouse gas contributions – is a compelling target.   The biggest investment ever came in 2010 when Hillary Clinton helped create the International Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a $250MM United Nations Foundation project she chairs.  In lesser headlines around that time, the YCEI made its own investment, $100,000 to support an interdisciplinary team from Yale, combustion expert Alessandro Gomez, Forestry and Environmental Studies professor Robert Bailis and School of Management economist Mushiq Mobarak. 

“The quintessential YCEI inter-disciplinary project”, Sandro Gomez says, looking back on his role of designing a more efficient stove built with concrete and other supplies available in development settings. BRAC, the world’s largest development organization, field-tested Sandro’s prototype at their Bangladesh field station. It burned efficiently, but providing a more efficiently burning stove turns out to be only a small piece of the cookstove puzzle.

“You think naively that if you came in with a better technology, it would be adopted,” says Rob Bailis.  “But it hasn’t.  This has turned out to be quite a tough nut to crack.  You have to question what does it mean to be “better”? better for whom? Better for what reason?  You need to understand cultural norms. Around cooking.  Around the kitchen. Gender dynamics around the household.  Who prioritizes what? Whose health matters?  You have to understand how the family interacts with the technology.  For marketing it’s essential.” 

Towards that end professor Mushfiq Mobarak surveyed thousands of Bangladeshi families, coming to the very practical conclusion that if you want to get women to adopt a new cookstove there’d better be something in it for men too.  Inspired by telecommunications companies that bundle internet service with phone and cable to maximize consumer appeal, he found a partner in Biolite stoves, a New York City-based manufacturer of wood camping stoves that incorporate a charging device for cell phones.  In rural third world settings men are more likely to be phone owners than women.  With low rates of electrification, the opportunity to charge a phone increases the likelihood of the household buying a stove whose health benefits accrue to women and children.  And since improved communication offers farmers a chance to learn who’s offering the best prices for the crops they grow, added income can become part of a virtuous cascade to benefit the entire family.

Four years, one stove and numerous papers later, YCEI is sponsoring Bailis’s and Mobarak’s “Adoption Gap” workshop to create dialogue between social and behavioral science researchers with public health experts and engineers to identify opportunities and barriers for the dissemination of HAP-reducing technologies.

The conference is all day, March 28, at Kroon Hall. Participants include Rema Hanna, author of the “Up in Smoke” study, and Biolite stoves, demonstrating how a wood-burning innovation intended for western backpackers acquired an entirely new dimension of utility on behalf of development and against global greenhouse gas production.   Bring your cell phone.


1 Global Burden of Disease Study 2010, The Lancet, December 2012

2 Low demand for nontraditional cookstove technologies, Ahmed Mushfiq Mobaraka, P. Dwivedi, R. Bailis, L. Hildemann, G. Millerd.  Proceedings of the National Academy, vol. 109, no. 27

3 Up in Smoke: The Influence of Household Behavior on the Long-Run Impact of Improved Cooking Stoves, Rema Hanna, E. Duflo, M. Greenstone. National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 18033, May 2012