When Devender Sen walked into his home in Eral, Rajasthan, with a fuel-efficient stove, his mother had scolded him. Why did he spend money on it, when they had a perfectly fine chulha (Hindi word for mud stove)?
The next morning, Devender found her using the new stove to cook breakfast. “This new chulha used less wood than our mud one!” she told him.
Devender’s family had come into possession of a a portable, steel and aluminium stove known as a smart stove. With its air regulation technology, this improved biomass cookstove claims to reduce smoke by 70% and also save up to 65% of the fuel.
Mud chulhas require biomass like wood, agriculture residue or coal to burn. This emits carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter estimated to cause up to 570,000 premature deaths in women and children in India. In resource-scarce regions, the need for biomass also leads to environmental degradation. Yet, over two-third Indian rural households still use it.
Lack of Shift to LPGs
“When wood and cow dung are available for free, people don’t see the need to pay up to Rs 600 (around 8 USD) every month,” explains Devender. For an agricultural household earning an estimated average of Rs 8900 (around 121 USD) per month, this can be a costly affair. Furthermore, good transport infrastructure for deliveries of LPG cylinders is only partially available.
A family’s irregular cash flow also hinders this shift. “With uncertain cash flows, as is the case when the household is engaged in agriculture or labour, setting aside money to refill the cylinder every other month over competing expenses of education or health is a decision-making hassle,” says Sasmita Patnaik from Council for Energy, Environment, and Water, a policy research institution.
Gender plays a role too. Cooking in rural India is primarily a woman’s role, but since women are not the primary earners and lack negotiating power, it is rare to spend the family’s income on what is considered a woman’s issue. So, even when households possess an LPG cylinder, it is only lit during emergencies like the sudden arrival of guests.
“We have seen that households stack fuel,” explains Sasmita. ‘Stacking’ is using a variety of fuels and methods together—mud chulhas, electricity, LPG cylinders—to cook. A cleaner stack can make all the difference.
That is where the smart stove fits. Since the stove uses biomass that women are comfortable with, the shift is smoother. Its structure feels familiar to the mud stove users, while the health and environmental benefits it offers are closer to that of an LPG cylinder.
“The smart stove is a bridge for households as it moves from mud chulhas towards better incomes that could enable their complete shift to LPG,” says Neha Juneja, co-founder of Greenway Appliances, the company that produces the devices.
Meanwhile, the smart stove offers more benefits. For Meena, also from the village of Eral, the device’s efficiency helps her save time. “Since it uses less wood, it reduces my time for collecting more wood to burn.” This time saved is used well: currently, she is tending to her 3-month old infant, and other times, she works on the family’s field.
But, the smart stove faces a roadblock: its high cost of Rs 2000 (Around 27 USD). The company is not oblivious to this. In many places, Greenway has partnered with local women’s self-help groups to make small loans available to buy the stove.
In Eral, where Devendra and Meena live, 20 such smart stoves were provided at a subsidised rate by the NGO CUTS Centre for Human Development. “The company even gave the option of a monthly instalment if families could not pay the cost upfront,” says Gauhar Mehmood from the NGO. Greenway is also trying to get carbon credits for the products to bring down the cost.
Since 2015, Greenway has sold over 100,000 smart stoves in India. “Due to population and GDP growth, increasing living standards and increasing mobility, it is expected that the overall energy demand will increase significantly,” Achieving the Paris Goals in the Covid 19 Era, a policy brief notes while acknowledging India’s high biomass dependence. This increasing energy demand should be accompanied by cleaner cooking fuels.