Cooking a hot meal is one the most basic, instinctive, nurturing ways to feed the body and soul of a loved one. Yet for nearly 3 billion people in the developing world with inefficient and rudimentary stoves, it yields an unsavory outcome.
Approximately 1.9 million people - mostly women and children - die prematurely each year because of exposure to and respiratory complications from poorly ventilated cooking smoke.
According to the World Health Organization, that makes indoor air pollution from biomass and coal stoves the fifth largest health threat to the developing world.
“What you often find is the mother’s intentions are so positive. She’s collected the wood, she’s built a fire, she’s cooked food to nourish the kids, but the impact and effect can be the exact opposite of nourishment,” says Radha Muthiah, the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
And this week, the Alliance added a culinary heavyweight to its roster: noted chef José Andrés.
“I have seen this silent killer first hand, and I am therefore honored to join the Alliance in helping to raise additional awareness,” said Chef José Andrés. “Shortly after the earthquake, I went to Haiti to assist in humanitarian relief efforts, and saw that the grinding poverty they live with day-to-day had been exacerbated by dirty cooking conditions in overcrowded and unsafe tent cities.”
Substantial health costs aside, Muthiah points out it's also important to be mindful of the opportunity costs of inefficient cooking devices. These include security concerns for women in conflict zones going out with their children to collect wood and climate concerns of greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.
"We’ve seen that this one very simple intervention can tackle a multitude of development issues. We’ve focused a lot on the health side, but what comes about from reduced time to cook and reduced time to collect fuel is that women can engage more productively in their community, in their economy and in their family," says Muthiah.
"Kids can go to school more because they’re no longer off with their mothers or grandmothers collecting wood – which can take anywhere from two to four hours depending on where you live. There are all kinds of livelihood, economic and empowerment issues that come about for adopting a clean cookstove."
Included in the Alliance's “100 by 20” plan is the introduction of high-energy, low-smoke stoves. This can mean, depending on the specific locale and societal needs, cooking with clean fuels like biogas or kerosene, electric stoves or even solar cookers.
However, the challenge for the Alliance is not a supply-side issue; the demand-side is just as crucial.
"It’s almost like when you’re using a charcoal barbecue versus a gas barbecue," says Muthiah. "You want to make sure all those recipes that have been handed down for generations in their families are still going to taste as good. They’re many of these cultural and social barriers that can actually be overcome - we just need to understand them and include them as a critical user requirement in developing the next generation of stoves."
She continues: “Understanding what the stove should be able to do is critical, otherwise the person responsible for cooking may not end up using the product.”
The United States government has pledged more than $50 million over the next five years to support the Alliance's mission.