Biomass cookstoves and solar lighting improve the health of women and are creating business models that empower them

Around the world three billion people have no access to modern cooking fuels. They depend mostly on direct burning of solid biomass for cooking and heating. The smoke from these rudimentary stoves causes some four million deaths annually, destroys millions of tonnes of crops and leads to global warming and large-scale regional climate change.

In India, 400 million people, of which 90 per cent are women, are exposed to indoor air pollution from inefficient cookstoves. This results in respiratory, pulmonary and vision problems.

In addition, inefficient cookstoves mean that women spend five to eight hours per day on cooking activities, 20 per cent of that time collecting fuel. This is time that could be spent on educational or other activities. Searching for fuel also puts women and children at risk of sexual violence.

The government of India is taking action. The National Programme on Improved Cookstoves has been successful at the State level. The National Biomass Cookstoves Initiative (NBCI) is providing improved cookstoves, which directly help the weakest and most vulnerable sections of society.

But extending the take-up of new cookstoves involves changing perceptions and practices around some of the most fundamental activities of a household. To make such changes sustainable, local conditions need to be taken into account. The stoves need to be affordable and the households need to see tangible benefits.

Spreading the light

The U.K.’s Department for International Development is working with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) to support pilot programmes to make available more effective and affordable clean cookstoves and solar home lighting products to meet the energy needs of poor households in India.

TERI aims to have improved cookstoves delivered and in use by 100,000 households by 2015 and for 400,000 households to have adopted solar lighting systems. As a result, 2.5 million people will benefit from access to modern, clean energy for cooking or lighting.

Sustinable practices

This is not about handouts, but about developing sustainable business models that empower women and provide clean energy and lighting. The project actively involves women in designing the new cookstoves and developing sustainable business models that include the women as economic actors in the supply chain.

TERI has incubated women’s organisations as Energy Enterprises which provide after-sales services for the cookstoves. It also helps women to start up businesses by supporting them in opening bank accounts, training them in social marketing and technical servicing.

Similarly, TERI’s Lighting a Billion Lives programme is making a difference. It supports the establishment of micro solar enterprises to provide high-quality and cost effective solar lamps in un-electrified or poorly electrified villages. Importantly, it gives priority to women when selecting village level entrepreneurs.

In Uttar Pradesh, more than 175 solar charging stations are now operated by women entrepreneurs. 100 are operated and maintained by women self-help groups, while 75 are operated by marginalised sections of society such as handicapped women, widows and Dalits. In Bihar, TERI has created energy enterprises to extend after-sales service to more than 1,000 women self-help groups.

We know that improved cookstoves help reduce indoor pollution and harmful emissions, and help women and children to lead better lives. We also know that when a woman generates her own income she re-invests 90 per cent of it in her family and community. This is good for the local community, and for the national economy. I am delighted that the U.K. and India are working together on this important agenda.

(Baroness Verma is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Department of Energy & Climate Change, U.K.)

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