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President’s, Prime Minister’s and Prince’s all enjoy a BBQ, but even the most royal of us are not immune to wincing when smoke gets in one’s eyes!

It’s even worse when it gets in one’s lungs!


The Lancet Household air pollution Commission : Household air pollution is now the number one environmental cause of death in the world and this burden of air pollution is closely associated with both poverty and disease, particularly respiratory diseases.


Whatever your linguistic interpretation, we all share a common love of BBQ. As far as popular human activities go, grilling meat over an open fire on a sunny, summer’s day is right up there on the happiness scale. Every culture has some version of the pursuit - from the Hawaiian ‘luau’, to the South African ‘braai’ and Australian ‘barbie’. Rituals and traditions swirl around cooking over an open fire.

The word “barbecue” was introduced to the American colonies from Haiti and originally referred to the grilling rack, and then to the meat itself. By 1733 it also denoted a social gathering that revolved around roasting an animal. By 1931, Northerners and Westerners would be using the word to describe any outdoor event involving meat and coals.

BUT can you imagine what it’s like cooking over an open fire every day of the year. Nearly half of the world’s population does just that and tragically the smoke from these fires make the simple act of cooking the second biggest killer on the planet after malaria. The smoke kills on a massive scale - estimated to be four million people a year - and the victims are mostly women and children under the age of five.

Millions die annually from pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and heart disease caused by cook stove smoke, and millions more suffer from these ailments for years, as well as from injuries such as cataracts and burns. Women are predominantly the household cooks in most countries, and with their children swaddled to their backs or at their side as they cook, the entire family becomes victim to this silent killer.

Before they can even begin cooking, however, women will likely have spent hours searching for wood and other fuel sources. Children often accompany their mother on this journey, which keeps them from attending school or earning an income.

Such a nurturing act as cooking should not put lives at risk. Millions are spent on schools and clinics - however very little is spent on cleaner cook stoves which can mitigate the time spent in clinics by women and children and can ensure that children live beyond the age of five and can attend school. Clean cook stoves can have a transformative impact on women, as well as on their families, their communities and their environment. The numerous benefits include better health, increased safety, reduced poverty, cleaner air and a more sustainable environment.

Burning Questions.

Cookstove design, production and distribution are not usually high on the international development agendas, despite the fact that up to 3 billion people worldwide rely on open-fire cooking, which results in 4 million deaths a year and accounts for 21 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Mythili Sampathkumar Devex Impact

When researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) went to Lusaka in Zambia to see why people were still choosing inefficient, hazardous charcoal stoves over cleaner options, they realised much of the problem could be solved by one simple action: listening carefully.

Basic cookstoves have been identified as a hazard to human health and the environment for over 50 years. Today, more than 160 organisations are working to design cleaner stoves, and over 18 million new stoves have been distributed, according to a 2011 report

Yet only 14 out of every 100 cookstove projects actually deliver on their goals. Worse, the household air pollution caused by inefficient stoves still causes 4 million deaths each year. Just one cooking appliance is responsible for the third-ranking global burden of disease.

There is increasing thoughtfulness about improving stoves for different contexts. But no design has yet caught on at a significant scale. 

Aaron Atteridge, a research fellow with SEI and one of the Lusaka study’s authors, emphasises the need to “create a product that people are going to accept more reasonably on their own terms”.

That won’t always mean state-of-the-art stove designs. And it will require plenty of flexibility and creativity. But it is more likely to achieve a true market transformation, he argues.

According to Atteridge, there are several key considerations. First, try as hard as you can to get inside the consumer’s head. The SEI researchers wanted to know what kind of clean stove people in Lusaka would really respond to. So they asked low- and middle-income families what they would buy, while also making observations about cooking and purchasing behaviour.

“Our method is trying to get a more sophisticated understanding of how people make judgments and trade-offs, and using that to say, ‘OK, what would make the most sense?’”Atteridge says.

For many people in Lusaka, what made sense wasn’t the most readily available clean option, the electric stove, mainly because electricity tariffs were too high. But neither was it the traditional mbaula stove that used up costly amounts of charcoal and gave off dangerous fumes – though many favoured it because they’d always used it and liked how it made their food taste.

The next question was how to create a product that would address the mbaula’s downsides – including its vulnerability to wind and unhealthy appetite for smog-producing charcoal – while preserving its good points.

We need to stop thinking in terms of new technology only. There is a tendency to want to encourage more advanced improvements,” Atteridge says. “That could be like three technological leaps in one go.”

The role of culture is paramount to understanding why many people aren’t “early adopters” of new technology, especially in the case of stoves.

“Cooking is a culturally sustaining practice,” Atteridge says. “If somebody like me comes in and says, ‘There is a problem with the way you cook,’ the immediate reaction is, ‘No there’s not. We like our food!’ So you try to preserve things people like about the cooking process.”

The SEI team thought a more efficient version of the mbaula might be more successful than a completely new stove design.

That’s not to say interviewees were completely opposed to new stoves, especially if it allowed them to save money on charcoal. That was the number-one motivator, but any new stove still has to satisfy other expectations – which could make or break its success. 

Mike Sage, a senior consultant rattles off a list of other deciding factors: How easy it is to use the stove? How fast does it cook? How does it make food taste? What does it look like? Will people use it as their main cooking appliance or continue to use their traditional stoves as well? How many people can it cook for? Will it accommodate bigger pots and pans a family is already using?

“There’s not a lot of research capacity on the social science side for this,” he says. “There are a lot of social, cultural, behavioural aspects…that need to be understood more fully.”


Atteridge gives an example from another SEI study in northern India that completely contrasts with the response from Lusaka. Most Indians interviewed were interested in efficient stoves as aspirational products - something they had to save up for - meaning more expensive models would sell fine.

A final consideration is that it’s not all about the stoves. In Lusaka, the researchers saw the electricity tariff as one of the most significant barriers to major shifts in energy use – as well as the most difficult to change due to its political nature.

They looked for other ways to adjust energy use, such as a system that would store water on the roof to heat it during the day, eliminating the need for a stove to do that.

Thinking beyond the stove can even reveal things that might dampen some of its potential benefits. Sage gave the example of kerosene lamps, which are still used in millions of households and give off similarly hazardous emissions. Without clean lighting to accompany a clean cookstove, some of the stove’s positive effects are neutralised.

On a broader level, there’s much to be done in the push for cleaner cookstoves – like figuring out standards to determine how widely a stove has been adopted and building evidence to show the health hazards of cooking smoke. But as the SEI team stresses, the focus really needs to shift to the people who will be switching stoves in the first place.

“We need to bring communities and users into the process, and that doesn’t just apply to designing cook stoves,” Atteridge says. “We have to get better at approaching people not just as subjects to bring technology to.” 

Erin Berger - Thomson Reuters Foundation