Clean cooking: let the data speak for itself

An article by Rotimi Olatunji, Nexleaf Analytics


Rotimi Olatunji

This article by Rotimi Olatunji was featured in The Beam #9 – Subscribe now for more.


Nigeria is a vast and diverse country of over 190 million people and over 250 different tribes and ethnic groups. It is also a country in which about 70% of the population live below the poverty line, either in remote rural areas or slums around major cities. The socio-economic disparity is so stark in countries like Nigeria that it even plays out in the simple practice of cooking.

Globally, three billion people rely on fires inside their homes, fuelled by biomass (dung or wood) or coal, for cooking and heating. This is the case for many communities in Nigeria living in remote or impoverished areas. They arrange three stones like a tripod around a flat central hearth and place a large pot on top to create three-stone fires. Three-stone fires and other traditional cooking methods negatively impact the environment and human health, predominantly afflicting women and young children. Close to four million deaths around the globe stem from indoor air pollution created by traditional cooking according to the World Health Organization.

Large-scale efforts and resources have been directed towards low- and middle-income countries to encourage individual households to adopt more efficient clean cooking solutions including improved cookstoves and cleaner fuels. While households initially express enthusiasm for their new stoves, they eventually abandon them.

“Successful uptake of clean cooking solutions is challenging because oftentimes, the cookstoves or fuels are not adaptable to the needs of communities.”

Getting to full adoption of clean cooking solutions is something we are investigating. We had seen 90% adoption in India and were wondering if we could transfer our solutions and program to Nigeria. Our pilot program involved monitoring clean cooking usage in 20 households in the capital, Abuja. With Rural Women Energy Security (RUWES) and Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), two cookstoves were carefully chosen for small-scale monitoring to decipher what might appeal to Nigerian women. We considered 13 clean stoves but found two to be the most promising: one for its high indoor emissions reduction rate; and the other because it was a larger stove which might fit the large household sizes in Nigeria.

Data to adapt

Getting solutions to crucial problems is oftentimes elusive. Surveying households on their usage levels can be misleading. That’s why we focus on gathering data with sensors. With our data platform StoveTrace, we are able to monitor cooking in real-time to understand the cooking behaviour of the households with a focus on the four key areas that categorically have been the biggest barriers to clean energy access: emissions, affordability, durability, and adoption.

Successful uptake of clean cooking solutions is challenging because oftentimes, the cookstoves or fuels are not adaptable to the needs of communities. Asking women to use a new cookstove is expecting women to shift the cooking practices deeply ingrained in their culture and to adjust their daily routines around cooking. Gathering objective data from households provides a thorough understanding of individual women’s cooking behaviour, giving each woman the opportunity to voice her preferences.

Last-mile entrepreneur Debashree Mishra leads a training session on data gathering tolls to guide the clean cooking transition — © Nexleaf Analytics

In the pilot program in Abuja, we found that women were able to operate advanced biomass stoves (equipped with a fan) with minimal issues. They appreciated the additional advantages of the stoves: the lights and charging ports. More surprising to us was that durability was not a huge concern. Even when stoves broke, the local technician, who had received spare parts and training, was able to handle the repairs easily.

Unfortunately, the stove was too small to accommodate the cooking needs of the households. Therefore, while the sensors indicated that the biomass stove was used ubiquitously (with most households cooking on the stove at least 1 hour a day), we also found that the women continued to use the three-stone fire for most of their dinners.

Detecting this behaviour, known as stove stacking, with our sensors allowed us to ask these women targeted questions. The main limitations we found include that only one-third of the women felt they could cook all the food they needed on the cleaner cookstove. Foods like alumbe, akpu, or tuwo could not be cooked on the stove because the stove was perceived to be too small for the rigorous mixing required. Further, most women did experience some kind of disruption due to required stove repairs. They also expressed having to chop the wood fuel into small pieces became too burdensome, and would not be sustainable. These contextual factors around cooking become more apparent through data, reducing the alienation of rural communities from the solutions meant to serve them.

A clean cookstove in use — © Nexleaf Analytics

Slow and steady wins the energy race

Before launching into large-scale distribution of clean cooking solutions, we have to identify and resolve those complex issues at the local levels. Slow implementations are less impressive in the short term, but the discoveries and opportunities for self-correction revealed in smaller implementations create a roadmap for responsible, high-impact scale. Premature mass distribution of insufficient cookstoves, while well-meaning, has the unintended consequence of perpetuating the cycle of energy poverty which pushes marginalised communities further into the fringes of development.

By following a slow and methodical scale up, we can identify cookstoves that are designed for the household, and fuels that are accessible to remote communities. We should then only advance stoves that show 80% continuous usage. In Abuja, only half of the households met this threshold of 80% adoption, which means more work needs to done to identify solutions that meet their needs.

Laying the groundwork

Pre-existing social conditions can limit the continued use of stoves. With a new stove comes new fuels, and those fuels, while cleaner, are also typically more challenging to procure on a regular basis for financially-strapped and remote families. To drive stove distribution, we have to identify ways to support affordable and sustainable access to cleaner fuels. That’s how local engagement can play a role in stimulating adoption. Objective data is the starting point to capture the nuance in the way women cook, but active on-the-ground presence has shown to be a major influencing factor. Engaging last-mile entrepreneurs who mentor the community on the use of stove as well as learn about opportunities to improve designs for stoves and programs to communicate back to us as the implementers are, therefore, an essential part of clean cooking stoves development.

“Premature mass distribution of insufficient cookstoves, while well-meaning, has the unintended consequence of perpetuating the cycle of energy poverty which pushes marginalised communities further into the fringes of development.”

It is also important to partner with a local organisation that is experienced in working with people in rural areas and hard-to-reach locations. We partnered with the Rural Women Energy Security (RUWES), a coalition of women entrepreneurs that mobilised to promote renewable energy at a subsidised rate for underserved rural and peri-urban women. Their impetus for working in the energy space involves wealth creation by improving the value chain of women in an enterprise involving over two million women across Nigeria.

This work is still in its infancy in Nigeria, but we now know that steady and sustained scale-up is within reach. Thanks to the feedback from the women, we’re shifting directions and will evaluate up to six more stove options to find ones that women love. Every household matters and continuous data helps us hear their voices.

Rotimi Olatunji is Nexleaf’s Project Coordinator in Nigeria, where he oversees initiatives for immunisation and clean cooking. He has vast experience working in development in Nigeria, including with rural dwellers, the Nigerian Government, donors and development partners.

This article was published in The Beam #9 — Voices from the Global South. Subscribe to The Beam Magazine to read more.

This piece is also available on our Medium page.