Every day around the world, women wake up early to go about their daily tasks. For nearly four in 10, this will almost certainly involve lighting a fire to burn wood, charcoal, or kerosene to heat water for hot drinks or to cook breakfast.
Throughout the day, women spend time collecting fuel and are again found tending the fire and cooking in the evening. These fundamental tasks have never been a political or development priority, despite contributing to nearly four million deaths a year and having a significant impact on local and global environmental sustainability.
We all know that progress in clean cooking is barely keeping up with global population growth. The scale of the challenge is huge and tackling it will require bold and coordinated action and commitments of far more public and private sector resources.
What do women have now? Only the choice of fuels which are cheap or free and easy to use, but are also time-consuming and polluting. What matters to them is to save time, money, and the fuel that is easy to light.
Across Bangladesh, fuel preferences, cooking practices, market sizes, and enabling environments vary widely. Fuel and stove choices have an impact on time spent collecting and preparing fuel and cooking. In almost all communities, it is primarily women who prepare fuel and cook while collecting fuel is sometimes shared between men and women.
According to the 2019 version of the global flag-ship publication Poor People's Energy Outlook (PPEO), households spend four hours and 44 minutes per day on these tasks in Bangladesh.
The PPEO 2019 report was released by global development charity Practical Action. The report offers a comprehensive framework for a more bottom-up approach to providing energy access. By focusing on the most vulnerable, often considered the last mile, the Outlook recommends pursuing holistic approaches, addressing demand and not just supply, embracing inclusivity, increasing public funding, championing women's inclusion, and supporting multi-stakeholder processes to make sustainable energy for all a reality in everyone's lives.
Clean cooking rarely receives much policy attention and Practical Action's surveys found that in communities, people also attach less priority to clean cooking than other aspects of energy access. Reasons for this are complex but include a lack of awareness about the health impacts of cooking with dirty fuels and less value attached to women's work, such as collecting and chopping firewood and cooking.
Bangladesh relied heavily on freely available biomass and poorly developed markets for stoves. In the communities, the vast majority use firewood as a primary fuel, with some use of crop residues, leaves, and animal dung. Only a few households reported buying fuel.
All the households we surveyed used homemade stoves (Tier 0 of the Multi-Tier Framework) except for one owning a low-grade manufactured stove. Since Practical
Action's 2015 survey, there has been an expansion of the market for improved stoves, with Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL)'s programme delivering 1.6 million new stoves between May 2013 and June 2018. However, this still only reaches an estimated 3 to 5 percent of households, and these stoves, while more fuel-efficient, are far from "clean", with no health benefits.
The liquid petroleum gas (LPG) market has also grown fourfold from 2015 to 2018, replacing dwindling piped natural gas supplies. Where infrastructure exists for delivery and refilling, there is some LPG uptake among rural households, and some use of electric appliances (rice cookers and induction stoves) in line with expanded grid connections.
The debate remains about where support should be focused on: solutions that leapfrog to completely clean cooking, or incremental improvements in biomass-based solutions. Some argue the potential for growth, private sector investment, and larger-scale government support is in higher-tier models, and supporting anything will not result in achievement of important benefits for those we seek to serve, nor will it attract the finance required.
Others argue that the advantages brought by basic improved cookstoves are valued by women in reducing burdens and time spent, whether or not long-term health impacts are not realised.
The plentiful availability of biomass makes it a feasible option as an energy source for cooking fuel for domestic consumers. One abundant source of biomass in Bangladesh is rice husks. The country produces and utilises an estimated amount of 10 million tonnes of rice husks annually for power generation.
According to PPEO 2017, more than 90 percent of Bangladeshis, an estimated 27 million households, still primarily use poorly performing biomass stoves to cook. Improved biomass stove penetration is very low, and just over 510,000 are thought to be in use. Biomass is the dominant cooking fuel, with rural populations mainly using crop residues and wood.
While the government is building huge infrastructure and coal stocking structures, it is a real struggle for them to solve certain double-edged problems. How can they both reduce carbon emissions and increase marginalised people's access to energy? How can they move with the scale and pace that justice demands, while yet involving communities in shaping local solutions?
To utilise rice husks further, there is a proposal to ascertain the feasibility of two rice husk plants with capacities of 250 KW and 400 KW in Kapasia and Thakurgaon upazilas respectively. The IDCOL's biomass-based improved cooking stoves (ICSs) arrived in the market in 2013. The IDCOL claimed that the ICSs developed thus far have the advantage of using fuel up to 50 percent more efficiently and emitting less smoke than traditional cooking stoves.
Another alternative to traditional cooking stoves is to deliver biogas to residential homes for cooking purposes. As of December 2016, the IDCOL has installed over 44,000 domestic biogas plants, with a target to put in about 60,000 domestic biogas plants by 2018.
Another source of renewable energy is municipal waste. Not only for generating power, but municipal waste is also a source of gas. The government intended to commission plants with a combined capacity to process 1,000 tonnes of waste to produce 10 MW of power and then to increase the capacity to process 5,000 tonnes of waste to generate 50 MW of power by 2016. The two semi-aerobic sanitary landfills established in Matuail
and Amin Bazar are now in operation, and are managing 2,700 to 3,000 tonnes of waste per day.
With the national budget for this year strained by immediate Covid-19 needs, short- to medium-term energy access investment may represent less of a priority for governments. However, underinvestment in this area could severely contribute to the high prevalence of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in rural Bangladesh. Rural women usually cook indoor using an open-fire traditional cooking stove at a small kitchen with biomass fuel such as wood, cow dung, and charcoal, without or insufficient ventilation that highly exposes them to COPD.
Clean cooking has long been chronically underfunded, with a lack of both public and private funding. It needs a higher profile in planning discussions, and to be integrated more effectively with electrification strategies.
More funding is also needed urgently. While financing solutions are often context-specific, the need to focus on gender mainstreaming and empowerment applies everywhere. This should include supporting women's greater involvement in roles higher up the energy value chain. It must also ensure that consumer and entrepreneurial finance for clean cooking and fuels is tailored to women's needs and does not increase the barriers they face.
The inclusion process is being hindered by four major barriers – affordability, social and cultural constraints, bargaining power, and lack of awareness. The upfront cost of buying an improved stove and fuel may be high.
A rural/poor or marginalised woman may have poor access to consumer finance, linked to not owning assets or lacking a savings and credit history.
She may be cautious to change traditional cooking methods. She may be cautious to change traditional cooking methods, and she may not have control over household decisions about the purchase of costly household items. Moreover, she may not be aware of the benefits to herself, her family, and the environment of cooking with improved stoves and clean fuels.
At a broader level, national energy policies and strategies are often driven by considerations of economic growth and energy security rather than access, with
limited attention on clean cooking. This is even though biomass for cooking accounts for a huge amount of residential energy demand.
Responsibilities are often distributed across multiple agencies, with clean cooking sometimes under renewable energy, agriculture, rural development, or even the ministry of power and energy. This creates fragmentation and a lack of leadership. Given this, devising Action Plans and Investment Prospectuses under SEforALL helped bring stakeholders and agencies together. However, momentum has sometimes stalled in follow-up planning and investments.
To address these and to achieve scale, markets must be built holistically across demand, supply, policy, and finance. New business models
and technical solutions, including electric cooking linked to off-grid solar, have begun to emerge, and need to be pursued boldly. However, at the same time, we must not lose sight of more established solutions that can reach the "last mile" quickly and improve
lives as soon as possible. In the rush for "scalable" solutions, we also need to find ways to reach the most challenging market segments: rural households who collect rather than buy fuel.
Clean cooking progress continues to lag behind electricity access. Along with establishing strong national leadership, we need to set ambitious national targets for clean cooking and implement robust plans which put clean cooking on a par with electricity access and look for synergies between the two.
While addressing entrenched barriers to women's access to finance and consumer credit for clean cooking solutions, we must work with financial institutions, including MFIs, to improve awareness of the sector and of emerging business models. And, most importantly, we have to continue challenging the sector to find ways to serve the poorest, rural, wood-burning households so they are not the last to be reached.
Plaban Ganguly is an anthropologist and development communication expert, currently coordinating the marketing and communications unit in an international charity.