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Tech by VICE

Just Because You Give Someone Cleaner Technology Doesn’t Mean They’ll Use It

In rural Mali, cleaner cookstoves simply don't meet users' needs.

by Mat McDermott
Dec 27 2013, 6:40pm
Cleaner cookstoves aren't always a perfect replacement for traditional open fire stoves. Photo via TREEAID/Flickr

With 2013 all but fully wound down, there’s an important lesson to take forward into the new year on the topic of theory versus practice, as well as understanding your end user, via an article on how people in rural Mali are and aren't using cleaner cookstoves in the inaugural issue of Dem+nd magazine.

As has been the case elsewhere (in Bangladesh, for example), just because people have cleaner technology doesn’t mean they'll use it as you expected—meaning the real-world benefits in terms of improving health, reducing fuel consumption, and slowing climate change trail behind the theoretical by a wide margin. 

Cleaner cookstoves have for several years now been touted in development circles as the closest thing to a silver bullet for improving health (particularly for women), slowing deforestation and land degradation, and reducing emissions of that powerful component of global warming and glacier melting, black carbon. A great deal of money and design expertise, as well as political clout, has been poured into making cleaner cookstoves more easily available in the poorer areas of the world, particularly in Africa and South Asia, where a high proportion of people cook on open fires. 

This has been inspired by some startling stats regarding the number of people dying from indoor air pollution, as well as the potential, shown in a number of studies, for slowing down global warming and glacier retreat in the Himalayas. All are worthy and well-meaning motivations. 

The only problem is that studies like these don't always take into account the reality of life on the ground—which is where the experience of villagers in Mali comes in.

It turns out that, at least in this circumstances examined by the study authors, the subsistence farmers of Nana Kenieba decided to put their cleaner cookstoves to use how they thought was best, and it wasn't really the way they were intended (which was as a replacement for open fire stoves).

Instead of turning their backs on open fire stoves, the women in this village—all the cooking there is done by married women with children—who had a cleaner cookstove simply used the new device as a supplement to their traditional cooking methods. It's something the authors call “stove stacking.” 

They make the apt comparison to how pretty much no one who has a microwave or toaster oven uses it as a replacement for their stove top or regular oven. Even though in an absolute sense you could cook all your meals with any one of them alone, you quickly learn that some things cook best in one or the other.

The original study breaks down the types of meals prepared on the various types of traditional cookstoves used in the village and the two types of cleaner cookstoves, including where they were used (indoors or out), etc., to determine what effect on fuel use these cookstoves were actually having. Since the fuel used in traditional cookstoves—wood or charcoal and sometimes dried dung—is behind the pollution they cause, it’s a good proxy to assess the intended pollution-reducing effect of the stoves. 

The authors found that, “In practice, consumer behavior significantly reduces the theoretical impact of improved cookstoves … With only 64.5 percent of fuel used for cooking meals, the total fuelwood reducing for all domestic cooking and heating activities is just 0.18 percent, for the selected group of women.” 

It turned out that heating water used much more fuel than cooking food—and it's something which in practice is apparently far easier to do on a traditional cookstove than a new, cleaner one. Therefore, a more effective strategy for reducing fuel use, the researchers noted, would be to focus on getting villagers solar hot water heaters, as this would reduce domestic wood usage by 13.7 percent.  

If you want to build an effective solution, you have to identify the real problem first.