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Scaling Markets for Clean Cooking: What We can Learn from Off-grid Solar Sector

Created Nov 09 2017, 8:15 AM by Debajit Palit
  • Energy Access

The Clean Cooking Forum 2017, co-hosted by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), TERI and others, concluded in Delhi recently. The author was a panelist at the technical session on ‘scaling markets for clean cooking: what we can learn from the off-grid solar sector’. It was an interesting session with panelists from both the Global North and South. However, the topic makes us believe that the off-grid solar sector has addressed all its challenges to scale-up and the clean cooking sector has many things to learn from the solar sector on scaling up clean cook stoves. The reality, however, is far from it. A number of challenges still plague the growth of the off-grid solar sector. At the same time, there are many challenges that have been successfully addressed by the off-grid solar sector and one can learn from such best practices to scale up the clean cooking sector.

However, before I deliberate about the best practices, it is important to understand how clean cooking sector may be different from the off-grid solar sector.

There is still an ambiguity on what is a 'clean cookstove'. With no proper standard definition, the clean cookstove is understood differently by each stakeholder. It is high time that the GACC, Sustainable Energy for All initiative, World Health Organisations and all other major stakeholders arrive at a consensus on a standard definition of the clean cookstove based on efficiency, power rating, emission parameters and other attributes

The second important challenge — that many of us may not have pondered over, but is extremely important for a rural household — is the fact that in case of off-grid solar, a household shifts from a priced fuel to zero cost fuel. On the other hand, in the case of adopting a clean cook stove (of any design and fuel), the household usually shifts from zero priced fuel (that a household uses in traditional stoves) to a priced one, whether it is charcoal, pellets, LPG or any other fuel. The solar electricity is prioritised by a household, as it is seen as an aspirational and productive demand whereas clean cooking devices are often considered as an expense and hence usually avoided. Additionally, often the person using the stove is not empowered to take the decision to buy. Such decision to buy vest within the domains of the male members who generally control the cash flow in the household.

There are also challenges related to affordability, reliability, flexibility of a clean cookstove (read here), which to a large extent have been addressed by off-grid solar sector. Behavioural issues, in case of adoption of clean cookstove, is a significant challenge, which one rarely find in adoption of solar lighting solutions. There are also other associated challenges on how one defines adoption of clean cookstoves. Is it sale of cookstoves or sustained use of it over a period of time? Different stakeholders have different views. The author believes that if the major meals (e.g. lunch and dinner) in a household are cooked on a clean cookstove, only then one can consider it adopted by the household.

Fuel-stacking is another important challenge. There is no harm to stack stoves or fuel as long as they work efficiently and there are no harmful emissions. The stacking is also common in urban households where a family may be using LPG stove, microwave oven as well as induction cook tops almost in equal proportion depending on the food being cooked. However we never discuss this as an issue. The key point should be using clean cookstoves and cleaner fuels rather than the number of stoves or types of fuel that a household may use.

Having discussed the differences with the off-grid solar sector and most barriers discussed extensively in an earlier article, what can we learn from the off-grid solar sector and what further work needs to be done to scale up clean cookstoves? 

First, the manner in which the off-grid solar sector has addressed the technological, financial and social barriers by reaching out to prospective customers using innovative delivery and financing models, need to be replicated in the clean cook-stove sector with some adaptation specific to the sector. For instance stove builders need to work on the stove reliability, quality and flexibility issues, especially for biomass based stoves, to instill confidence among the users. The solar sector has faced such challenges for many years. Quality assurance programme and standards by Lighting Global, GIZ Energizing Development, and International Electrotechnical Commission etc. at the international level and various countries at the national level have largely addressed this challenge.

Second, the clean cookstoves should be considered as a 'health or rural lifestyle product' and disseminated following the concept-selling model (such as an insurance product) rather than like selling a energy product. The health benefits, which are the primary advantage of a clean cookstove, do not occur in the short-term but are more medium to long term, similar to insurance products. Further, the health benefit of clean cooking fuels is not valued by beneficiaries of the lower economic strata because of lack of awareness. Benefits of solar electricity, on the other hand, are immediate and often linked with productive use. In fact, clean cookstove needs to be recognised as a health product rather than an energy product. For better outcome, clean cookstoves may be piggybacked with clean lighting solutions. TERI has developed an integrated product with solar home system and a low-cost forced draft clean cook-stove and has successfully disseminated more than 25,000 systems in the state of Bihar in India using an innovative financial model of collateral-free joint liability debt to the women-led Self Help Groups (60%) from JEEViKA, the local livelihood programme, and CSR grant from corporate (40%).

Third, while focussed capacity building of solar technicians has contributed to the up-scaling of off-grid solar interventions, we do not find such programmes in the case of clean cookstoves. Similar to Suryamitra programme in India, Swachhata-mitraprogramme for clean kitchen may assist in higher dissemination of clean cookstoves in rural areas. The stove builders and technicians would first adopt the stoves themselves and only when convinced of the stove’s efficacy, would be in a better position to convince others to adopt. Experiences have shown that early adopters find it easier to graduate to a seller in due course, especially in case of any concept sale model.

Social goods and services are targeted at the base of the pyramid population, especially those living under the income of US$ 2 per day. However, for subsistence, farmers’ income fluctuates with the season, with major income coming in at the end of harvest. Thus, positioning strong marketing efforts to drive sales during this time period may be more fruitful than promotions throughout the year. Thus, consumers should have the option of diverse financing options, with flexibility in repayment amount (without increasing the duration). The current financing options for stoves are sometimes rigid in their repayment structure and thus restrict the user from availing them. Further, financial support need to be made available to the entire supply chain, to push prospective energy entrepreneurs, especially women, in considering stove dissemination as a business venture.

Last but not the least, in many countries including India, Ghana etc., LPG stoves are being promoted in a big way by subsidizing the connection cost. While such programmes are laudable and they have been making considerable progress, adoption will continue to be a challenge in view of the higher monetary expenses incurred on LPG refills as highlighted by the author in an earlier article. While there is no denying the fact that all households have to be provided with cleaner fuels to reduce Household Air Pollution (HAP), what is equally important is to work towards increase in the rural income substantially, so that the incremental income may be used for adoption of cleaner fuels and stoves. The other challenge for under-privileged households is to spend a considerable amount to get a refill. However, this can be addressed if the LPG marketing companies make the fuel available regularly at shorter intervals and at a price which one can afford (e.g. weekly delivery of 2.5-3 kg refills in lighter cylinders and/or introducing PAYG LPG refills) using a hub and spoke delivery model. The hub and spoke model has been very successfully used to scale-up sale and maintenance of off-grid solar solutions. The hub, in this case, could be the LPG dealers while the village retailers could act as the spoke and deliver the small refills. While there may be other associated challenges with this model, piloting in few districts would provide us lessons on how challenges can be best addressed.

The continuous use of solid biomass in India and other developing countries is resulting in large number of mortality and morbidity from HAP, especially women and children, according to the recently released research report by LANCET. We need to consider HAP as public health emergency and come out with urgent innovative multi-approaches and models to address the challenges and transform lives of under-privileged people for good.