Clean cookstoves, such as this, reduce household air pollution, a major cause of death among the world's poor. (Photo courtesy of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves) 

Half a billion people around the world depend on rudimentary cookstoves to prepare their daily meals. Although such traditional stoves have been used for generations, policymakers now recognize them to be a major health hazard. The smoke emitted from traditional cookstoves contributes to household air pollution, which is responsible for the deaths of four million people each year, according to a December 2012 study in The Lancet.

In Bangladesh, more than 100 concerned groups have made efforts over the past three decades to introduce cleaner types of cookstoves to residents, but people have been reluctant to adopt them. Economist Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak of Yale University and his colleagues are now trying to understand the reasons. They surveyed women in the rural areas to identify the factors affecting their attitudes toward new cookstove technologies.

In rural Bangladesh, women do almost all of the cooking on a traditional stove built of mud. The pots sit on top of a roughly shaped hole with a fire burning underneath. Because smoke escapes around the sides of the pots, these types of stoves pollute the air inside the home.

The researchers found that the women did not think it was important to know about the health hazards posed by the traditional stoves. Rather, they valued more highly the ability of new cookstoves to reduce fuel consumption and cooking time. Women spend a great deal of time each day collecting fuel for cooking.

Mobarak and his colleagues also found that the demand for new cookstoves depends heavily on price. It’s difficult for a new cookstove—even a very inexpensive one—to compete with the free one a family already owns. “People seemed well-informed about the problems that [traditional] cookstoves might bring, but they don’t prioritize those problems,” Mobarak says. “There are lots of other needs competing for their funds.”

What’s more, men and women value the new cookstoves differently. “Women are more interested in improved stoves, because they’re the ones who are breathing in the bad smoke,” Mobarak says. “But they are often not the financial decision maker.”

“The results of the study from Bangladesh underscore the efforts to seek more input from and better understand the preferences of cookstove users, who, by and large, are women,” says Radha Muthiah, executive director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership led by the United Nations Foundation. The Alliance’s goal is to get 100 million households to adopt clean cookstoves by 2020.

Although improving public health is the primary goal for policymakers, the study authors say, reducing the cost of clean cookstoves might be the most promising way to encourage their adoption.

Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, Puneet Dwivedi, Robert Bailis, Lynn Hildemann, and Grant Miller, “The Low Demand for Nontraditional Cookstove Technologies,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 2012.

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