Until recently, Huong Tong cooked her family’s meals on an open fire in a thatched bamboo kitchen at her home in Namheng village, surrounded by hillside rubber plantations.
She also volunteers, with two other Namheng women, to cook a daily lunch for the village school’s fifty pupils; they are among hundreds of women organized by the World Food Programme to deliver school meals across the Lao People’s Democratic Republic since 2002. Her role as a school cook placed her among the country’s pioneers in using a super-clean, energy-efficient, largely smoke-free cookstove.
In 2018, a World Bank initiative launched with support from the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) is introducing 50,000 of them to replace charcoal and wood-burning cooking fires in three Laotian provinces. The project has started with distribution of a hundred of the same stoves to schools with feeding programs. The school cooks, like Ms. Huong, are getting a super-clean stove to take home with them.
“I’m very happy about it,” she said after a day of training in operating the stove. “When I cook on the fire, the smoke hurts my eyes. With this stove, there is no smoke.”
In fact, cooking on open fires causes more than eye irritation. Exposure to household air pollution:
- Causes 3-4 million premature deaths a year worldwide
- is a major cause of premature death among women in Lao PDR, and in low-income countries as a whole
- causes two-thirds of Lao child deaths due to respiratory illnesses
- is a major cause of stunting and low-weight in newborns
- is a daily reality in 96 percent of Lao households
One researcher’s analogy offers an instant reality check: a typical wood-burning cookstove emits 300-400 cigarettes’ worth of smoke an hour into the environment around the stove.
In addition to the health risks of indoor smoke, traditional fires mean more unpaid labor and drudgery for women, who spend over three times the time men do on domestic work and child care, according to survey data from 83 countries. Women at once carry the heaviest burdens of energy poverty and time poverty. This positions them as vital change agents in adopting new technologies for cooking, such as super-clean stoves.
Lao PDR ranked 107th among 146 countries in 2011 on the UNDP’s composite measure of gender inequality. Women there work longer hours than men, spending seven hours a day on productive tasks and child care, compared to 5.7 hours spent by men. They also spend twice as much time as men, and walk longer distances, to collect firewood.
Why hasn’t this global scourge that so shortens and diminishes the quality of life for women been defeated? Among the reasons is a failure of innovation. Cookstove technologies have rarely met the multiple demands placed on them to be at once energy-efficient, safe, affordable, durable, easy-to-use, and low-priced. Without the right technology, and faced with limited markets for such stoves, financing for them has proven scarce. But a project in Lao PDR that uses the newly-minted cookstove, combined with an innovative financing model being tried for the first time, may be on the cusp of a major breakthrough.
Three innovations: stove, financing and gender outcomes
First, there’s the stove itself. It’s a forced-air gasifier cookstove that:
- is certified for top performance in reducing household air pollution (Tier 4)
- burns biomass pellets, cheaply-manufactured from crop waste such as coffee-bean and rice husks, corncobs or sawdust
- burns efficiently, cutting wood fuel use by 90 percent
- reduces CO2 and particulate matter emissions by 99 percent over open fires
- has fuel chambers of different sizes, so it can burn at higher or lower intensities, to meet the cooking requirements of different dishes.
The project’s second innovation is its financing model, in which upfront funds from a private investor are to be used to purchase the 50,000 stoves. These funds are the basis for an Emissions Reduction Purchase Agreement between the Lao government and the carbon market. Greenhouse gas emissions reductions achieved by introducing the stoves will then be offered as carbon credits to interested buyers. Their payments will be used to reimburse, with interest, the original investor as well as lower the costs of the stoves to the household users
Another innovation in this project is its focus on “gender outcomes”. Improvements in women’s lives and well-being that result from using the stoves will be offered to “buyers”—bilateral aid donors, foundations, trust funds and philanthropists—who want to support gender equality. They are being invited to provide results-based financing to further reduce the retail cost of the stoves to make them affordable to the 50,000 low-income households buying them.
Agreements are being sought under which buyers disburse the money after specified “outcomes” for the women using the stoves—such as reduced time devoted to cooking, reduced headaches, coughing and eye irritation—have been achieved. Those results will be monitored, reported and verified using a method employed to track progress towards achievement of the 17 United Nations-approved Sustainable Development Goals.
Asking buyers to pay for improvements in women’s lives will depend on disciplined training to ensure consistent use of the super clean stoves. It will also require rigorous monitoring and reporting of progress. To do this, a team of researchers is tracking a representative sample of Laotian households—those of the school cooks among them—to assess the cookstoves’ impact. For example, they will learn whether or not women and men save time previously used to cook and collect fuel, and how such time saved is now used.
“Every year, I have to walk farther and farther to find wood for cooking,” said Chansamone Phonemany, a mother of three and head of the local women’s union in the northern Laotian village of Ban Phoula, on the Nam Tha River. “That’s why I am so excited about this new stove.”
Women like Ms. Chansamone and Ms. Huong—who do most of the home cooking in Lao—are being asked how the stoves change their day-to-day lives and those of their children. These data will be used to place an imputed value to positive gender outcomes achieved by the shift to super-clean cookstoves. This value will be added to the already-monetized carbon benefits. Potential buyers of carbon benefits, as well as donors seeking to improve the lives of women, will have reliable empirical evidence of the progress their contributions have made possible.
Reduced household air pollution. Reduced GHG emissions. Improved health. Longer lives. Less drudgery. More time for productive work, child care and education, or simply more rest. Better opportunities for women. It is a powerful package of change.