An interview with Dr Priyadarshini Karve, CEO of Samuchit Enviro Tech
Dr Priyadarshini Karve is an Indian physicist and inventor I met at the Pathways to Clean Cooking conference organised in Ireland this year. Karve is also the CEO of Samuchit Enviro Tech, a social enterprise focused on enabling individuals, households, institutions and small businesses to embrace sustainability in their daily activities. Karve’s passion for raising awareness about sustainability and climate change issues among the general public meant we immediately clicked.
“I am focusing on reaching out to people,” explains the physicist. “I believe that policies, as well as business priorities, are driven by what people prioritise and demand. Therefore, creating opportunities and incentives for common people to discuss and understand the global issues and local implications around sustainability, climate change, etc, is very important.” The organisation’s core activity is to promote clean cooking technologies based on biomass fuels to address the problem of indoor air pollution and adverse health impacts associated with the traditional biomass-based cooking technologies. To reach their goals, Karve and her team organise meetings, workshops, social media and newspaper articles. They also provide advice and consultancy on energy saving, mitigation of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, policy and business strategies for promoting renewable energy technologies.
One of Samuchit Enviro Tech’s projects is focused on making Pune city, in India, carbon neutral by 2030, as well as developing a roadmap for Pune city to be sustainable by 2030. “Both these efforts go hand and hand, and also allow me to often focus the discussion on how the insatiable hunger for energy in the cities impacts the lives of the people in rural areas, thereby highlighting the challenges of access to clean cooking for vulnerable populations too.” We talked about how to provide clean cooking solutions to everyone, and how to overcome the challenges of leaving no one behind.
What would you say are the main sustainable challenges of western India?
India is a big country with a lot of diversity. Western India, where I am based, is the most industrialised part. This is also where you’ll find Mumbai city, which is India’s economic capital. This area uses most of the country’s fossil energy and contributes the most to India’s GDP as well as carbon emissions. Because of the intense industrialisation and urbanisation, there has also been a lot of land-use change in this part of the country, which also includes part of the Western Ghats Mountain Range: a globally recognised biodiversity hotspot. People from across India migrate here in search of a ‘good life’, which is why it is so important that the people in Western India now show the way to low carbon and sustainable urbanisation and circular economy to the rest of the country.
How are you contributing to overcome India’s sustainable challenges with your organisation?
Samuchit Enviro Tech was established in 2005 with the aim to market clean cooking energy devices in rural India. However, in the course of the work, I realised that this is just one part of a bigger need. There is a lot of interest among individuals, small organisations and businesses, both in rural and urban areas, to embrace renewable energy and sustainable technologies in general, but there is a lack of a ‘bridge’ between sustainable technology solutions developed through R&D and customisation of the solutions to actually meet the needs of the end-users. So since 2010, Samuchit Enviro Tech started providing this type of knowledge consultancy service not just in the cooking energy sector, but in a variety of other areas such as household solar technologies, water conservation, waste management and recycling.
“There is a lot of interest among individuals, small organisations and businesses, both in rural and urban areas, to embrace renewable energy and sustainable technologies in general, but there is a lack of a ‘bridge’ between sustainable technology solutions developed through R&D and customisation of the solutions to actually meet the needs of the end users.”
How big of an issue is indoor air pollution in India and what are the adverse health impacts associated with the traditional biomass-based cooking technologies?
Air pollution, in general, is a big problem now for India. A lot of the contribution is coming from vehicular pollution and open burning of crop residues, but the use of polluting cookstove, the fuel systems for household as well as commercial cooking is an important contributor too. Because of our geographical location, we live in houses with natural ventilation in rural and semi-urban areas, in most parts of the country. As a result, there is very little difference between indoor and outdoor air pollution for most of us.
Yet, the people who suffer the most from indoor air pollution are the urban poor, as they live in congested areas, often in small and poorly ventilated homes, and are cooking with traditional cookstoves and solid biomass fuels. People living at high altitudes also typically use their cookstoves for space heating in winter. During this period, especially in villages, the doors and windows of the single-room houses are tightly closed and a polluting wood fire is built in the middle of the room. This is a very hazardous situation for the health of the residents of the house, particularly women, children and old people who spend relatively more time inside than outside the house.
According to a study published by the Health Effects Institute in 2018, particulate matter air pollution is responsible for about 1.1 million deaths annually in India. This is about 11% of the total deaths in a year in the country. Out of these 1.1 million deaths, nearly 25% are attributed to exposure to smoke from household cooking fires. But the number of deaths is just one aspect of this enormous issue: long term exposure to smoke in the kitchen causes a number of diseases of the respiratory system and the eyes, which reduces productivity and quality of life for millions of people, particularly women and children.
Could you please introduce us to LPG? Why are they better alternatives than what people are traditionally using? And what are their limits?
LPG or liquid petroleum gas is a byproduct of petroleum refining. LPG, being a gaseous fuel, burns cleanly when used with a properly designed burner. It is easy to ignite, easy to control the flame, clean-burning and easy to turn off. Therefore it provides a clean and convenient cooking energy option for households or for larger commercial kitchens.
The only bottleneck, however, is the supply chain and the cost. In urban areas, where the population density is high and people generally have the money to pay up-front for a cylinder (about US$15 at current rate for households, about US$30 for commercial kitchens; a household may need anything between 8-12 cylinders per year, commercial kitchens may typically consume one or more cylinders every day), it is affordable for the gas supply company to create and maintain very efficient supply chains. An urban household user can order for a refill cylinder over the phone, and it gets delivered to their doorstep within 24 hours. This is one of the reasons why almost 100% urban middle class and rich residents have shifted to LPG as the only or primary cooking energy option.
The situation, however, is quite different in rural areas. On one hand, people cannot afford to pay upfront for LPG cylinders, and on the other hand, low population density means that the gas company cannot afford to deliver the cylinders to the doorstep. This adds to the cost for the user as the user often has to spend a day or so in going to the nearest agency to get a refill cylinder, which involves loss of wages for a day and the cost of transport. There are also other issues such as the burner design not being suitable for some cooking tasks in traditional Indian cooking, or an LPG fire not being useful for space heating during winter, etc., which also contribute to limiting the use of LPG by rural households.
However, one should also realise that LPG cannot and should not be considered as the ultimate clean cooking energy device. This is because LPG is a fossil fuel, and clean cooking is not just about indoor air quality but also about climate change and other global environmental impacts. LPG using urban households have not really made a full transition to clean cooking: they still need to progress towards renewable energy-based cooking options to complete the transition.
What are, and by extension, what are the advantages of decentralised and ‘low-carbon organic waste to biofuel’ type technologies?
While the urban households are halfway to ‘clean cooking’, the rural have not even yet started to make the journey. Due to economic constraints as well as accessibility issues, for the rural poor we need to find clean solutions that are locally available and affordable. Currently, the majority of effort is focused on getting rural people to catch up with the urban people in terms of access to fuels like LPG, which fulfil the ‘cleanness’ criteria for indoor air quality, but not for global environmental impacts. Furthermore, LPG is neither locally available nor affordable low cost. In a world that has pledged through the Paris Agreement to eventually move towards a fossil-fuel-free future, why should we push millions of the poor and vulnerable to follow in the footsteps of the urban households? Why can we not leapfrog them to clean cooking that is good for their health as well as for the environment?
This is where the decentralised organic waste to fuel technologies come into the picture. Waste biomass (agricultural waste, forestry waste, vegetable market waste, slaughterhouse waste, toilet waste) is available wherever there are human settlements, and technologies do exist to convert different types of waste biomass into solid (e.g., charcoal), liquid (e.g., alcohol), and gaseous (e.g., biogas) fuels. Cooking energy devices have been designed to burn all such fuels cleanly. The advantage of using waste biomass is that it is renewable, and therefore its use for cooking energy will have no or very low climate change and other global environmental impacts. If the fuel production technologies are implemented in cottage industry mode, a variety of standardised and clean-burning biomass fuels can become available locally and in an affordable manner.
In your experience, what are the main challenges of achieving clean cooking for all, and leaving no one behind?
I believe the main challenge is at the level of policy and implementation of the policy. The bottom one billion people in the world have no political clout, and therefore no champion when governments are designing energy policies. The bureaucrats who design schemes with the good intention to service the bottom one billion do not often think it necessary to actually communicate with the target beneficiaries. They generally approach this with a very ‘benevolent missionary’ attitude of ‘doing good for the poor and ignorant’. In the process, they fail to address the real needs of the people and the real challenges faced by them on a daily basis. On top of this, there are no financial and political gains to be made by actually making life easy for these voiceless populations. Therefore even the flawed policies do not get implemented with proper care and diligence, leading to leaving these people behind in all sectors of development.
Specifically, in the context of clean cooking, the flawed understanding of how to define ‘clean cooking’ adds to the overall problem of neglect of the poor and vulnerable. The issue in this case is of eliminating pollution, which depends on whether a clean cooking device is being used in the kitchen or not. Just ownership of a device that has been tested as clean in the laboratory is not a guarantee that the device would actually be used correctly and full time in the kitchen. Secondly, sometimes a combination of a cleaner (than traditional) device and proper ventilation can also achieve the desired effect, at least as far as indoor air pollution is concerned. However, there is no recognition of such combination of factors having positive impacts. All of this means that inappropriate and impractical technologies are being pushed with misdirected strategies, leading to leaving the bottom one billion behind.
“There are no financial and political gains to be made by actually making life easy for these voiceless populations.”
How do we overcome these challenges and scale the solutions to reach the poorest of the poor in India and all over the world?
I think what needs to be done at a fundamental level is to change how we define ‘success’ in the clean cooking sector. It is because of the wrong definition that the poorest of the poor are being left behind! It must be clearly acknowledged that ‘clean’ in the context of any energy use means healthy for people and healthy for the environment.
There is another problem that needs to be addressed. Typically organisations across the world have used ‘ownership means sustained use’ as a convenient logic and year after year reports have come out that more and more people have access to electricity and LPG, everyone’s all energy needs are being met and clean cooking is happening in increasingly more homes. This, in turn, leads to declaring the problem is solved or about to be solved and funding as well as research focus moves away to other sectors.
In India, for the last four years, we have seen a phenomenal increase in the number of households with LPG connections through a government-led effort to increase access to LPG with a special focus on the poorest families. The number of connections in the rural areas is being shown as proof that the indoor air quality problem is solved in those many households! But the ground reality is that these households continue to cook on traditional cookstoves and either do not use the LPG at all or use it only for peripheral tasks in the cooking process. Having seen how LPG is clean and convenient has now created aspiration for better cooking energy technologies in the minds of the poor women, but they are unable to shift 100% to LPG for a variety of reasons. But now that no funding and finance is available for research and development or for promotion of any other alternative technologies, the rural poor now have no options to their traditional cookstoves even though their mindset is now open for a change. This is the tragedy of the wrong definition of success!
We need to understand that ‘success’ for clean cooking should mean a reduction of pollution in the process of cooking in each household. And this cannot be achieved by taking away people’s options but by giving them as many options as possible and helping them to figure out what combination of options achieves zero pollution without compromising on what they need and want to happen in their kitchens. This change in thinking in itself will bring about changes in policies, funding priorities, in research approaches, in the designing of welfare projects and marketing strategies that will go a long way in ensuring that no one is left behind in smokey kitchens.
What type of clean cooking solutions are available for the poorest of the poorest who can’t afford to buy expensive clean cooking stoves?
Clean cooking is a matter of creating heat without any pollution so that food can be boiled, roasted and fried on it without harming the health of the people in the kitchen or the health of the environment outside it. Technologically, many solutions are available that can achieve this, from solar cooking, to use of renewable biomass fuels as described earlier.
Solar cooking and some of the cleanest biomass cookstoves that are metallic and portable have a few practical limitations and can involve high capital cost. But the issue is not always affordability. Ownership of a movable but expensive asset can become a liability when one is living in a flimsy house in a not-so-law-abiding society. For the cleanest biomass cookstoves, there is an additional ongoing cost of the fuel, that too can be a barrier even if the stove in itself may be affordable. However, there are other interesting strategies that can be used to achieve clean cooking than going for such expensive technologies. For example, if one introduces a cookstove that is low cost (say US$10) which reduces but does not eliminate pollution, and combine this with a scientifically designed low-cost ventilation device (say, a properly placed chimney, which might cost another US$10 or so), this combination of technologies may achieve the desired level of clean indoor air. This is just one example. Low-cost technological solutions do exist, an innovative combination of these can achieve the desired end result at a much lower cost than a US$150 cookstove. Another approach to tackle this is innovation in financing, targeted subsidies, etc., which will allow even a poor household to access the best technological option, however expensive.
Talking about subsidies and financing, what do you think is the role of the government and the private sector, in scaling up the solutions?
I think the role of the government is to create an enabling policy, whereas the role of the private sector is to ensure that appropriate clean cooking energy technologies are manufactured and made available at a reasonable cost. Both government and the private sector also have an additional responsibility to be sensitive to the vulnerable communities and to therefore provide some smart subsidies and philanthropic support to the efforts aimed at providing these households with clean cooking options.
Is there anything you would like to add?
There is a clear link between sustainable low carbon urbanisation with sustainability and prosperity in rural areas. If the urban areas focus on becoming islands of high economic activity, this is going to deprive rural areas of basic resources and services, and that in turn is going to increase migration to the cities, making it more and more difficult to sustain the economic prosperity in cities! It is important that the men and women on the streets connect these dots so that their expectations from their elected representatives and the businesses that they financially contribute to will not be focused on selfish short term gains. This, in turn, will allow the politicians to become bold in their ambition to usher in measures needed for containing climate change and creating long term sustainability, and businesses will also be pushed to behave in a socially and environmentally responsible manner to retain and expand their customer base. This is the driving force behind my focus on raising awareness about sustainability and climate change issues among the general public, which is the mission of Samuchit Enviro Tech.
Dr Priyadarshini Karve is the Director of Samuchit Enviro Tech, a social enterprise promoting sustainable products and services. She is a member of the Executive Board of Clean Energy Access Network, an India-wide society for decentralised renewable energy technologies, and the National Facilitator of the Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change.