Read how Indian women are revolutionizing clean cooking as entrepreneurs

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November 12, 2017 2:08 AM

Two years after earning a master’s degree in management, Neha Juneja was making loads of money from derivatives trading when she saw a “great business opportunity” in an entirely different sector.

Neha Juneja, Indian women, entrepreneurs, Kitchen warriors, cookstoves, clean cookingTwo years after earning a master’s degree in management, Neha Juneja was making loads of money from derivatives trading when she saw a “great business opportunity” in an entirely different sector. (Image: Reuters)

Two years after earning a master’s degree in management, Neha Juneja was making loads of money from derivatives trading when she saw a “great business opportunity” in an entirely different sector. She left derivatives to manufacture cookstoves. “I was 24 and didn’t know people cooked on open fires, endangering their lives from indoor emissions,” says the co-founder and CEO of Greenway Grameen Infra, which makes cookstoves that are fuel-efficient and emit less smoke.  Then there is Gifty Baaba Asmah, who was heading an NGO in microfinance in Ghana when she watched rural women spend hours collecting wood and dry leaves to cook food. “Initially, I was ignorant,” says Asmah. “These women walked for hours everyday to collect fuel and cooked on fires that filled their kitchens with smoke, killing them slowly,” says Asmah, the founder and executive director of Daasgift Quality Foundation, which helps villagers acquire efficient cookstoves with chimneys.

For Betty Ikalany, it was the desire to improve the lives of women in Uganda, many of them victims of abuse and tragedy, that pushed her towards the clean cooking sector. “I realised that giving these women access to clean cooking was the best way to help them,” says Ikalany, the founder and CEO of Appropriate Energy Saving Technologies (AEST), a women-led social enterprise in eastern Uganda.  A new alliance  Juneja, Asmah and Ikalany represent a new band of global leaders, who are changing the way homes in low-income countries cook their meals. As per the Global Burden of Disease Study published in The Lancet last month, 2.6 million people die every year from respiratory diseases caused by emissions from cooking in open-fire kitchens.

Almost all of them are women and children, the worst victims of household air pollution. Half of all deaths of children under 15 years of age in the developing world are from pulmonary diseases caused by indoor air pollution.  The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which brings together governments, industry and campaigners to find solutions to household air pollution (the second leading risk factor for early death in developing countries), estimates that three billion people worldwide use open fires to prepare their meals every day. Two years ago, governments across the world brought clean cooking to the global agenda by including clean and affordable energy in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030.

“Creating access to clean and affordable energy for cooking leads to better health for women, empowerment of women and increase in livelihoods,” says Radha Muthiah, the Indian-origin CEO of Washington-based Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which was founded in 2010 as part of the United Nations Foundation. Last week, the alliance organised its Clean Cooking Forum, a gathering of representatives of industry and governments held once in two years, in New Delhi. A majority of the speakers, which included Juneja, Asmah and Ikalany, were women. “Several enterprises in the clean cooking sector are led by women,” says Muthiah. The world has also realised the wider benefits of clean cooking. “Clean cooking supports 10 of the 17 SDGs,” says Muthiah. A study on the impact of household energy consumption commissioned by the alliance in India early this year showed that almost 30% of the country’s air pollution was from cooking emissions.

Equality & empowerment

“Women will have to be brought in to design, produce and distribute clean cookstoves,” says Reema Nanavaty, who heads the NGO, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). “In our country, women cook food and the men decide which stove or fuel to use,” she says. “This has to change.” That change is already happening in countries like Kenya, Ghana and Uganda, where women-led enterprises are working towards increasing awareness, as well as extending credit to women to buy clean stoves.  In Africa, Hivos, a Nairobi-based biogas partnership programme supported by the Netherlands government, has helped build 60,000 biodigesters (used for cooking with biogas) in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda and Burkina Faso. The programme, which aims to construct one lakh biodigesters, has so far provided clean energy access to three lakh people.

“Biogas is a game-changer for women,” says Victoria Ndung’u, the manager for monitoring and evaluation at Hivos. “It not only frees them from the drudgery of collecting fuel every day, but restores their dignity as they work in clean kitchens,” she adds.  “Clean cooking means more time and safety for women,” said UN deputy secretary general Amina Mohammed in a message to the Clean Cooking Forum. In Ikalany’s AEST in Uganda, 95% of its staff are women, who design and manufacture its cookstoves. “We did our research to understand which are the best stoves for our kitchens,” says Ikalany.  In Ghana, Asmah’s Daasgift Quality Foundation regularly organises awareness programmes for its microfinance clients. She also invites officials of local civic bodies to influence them to put clean cooking on their agenda. “We now train young women to be energy educators and ambassadors for clean cooking in their communities,” says Asmah.

When Greenway Grameen founder Juneja made her first stove product, she was laughed at by villagers in Wardha, Maharashtra. “The women in the village said I was an idiot because I had made a stove that was not designed to suit their style of cooking,” says Juneja, who then decided to live with the villagers to understand how they used stoves. Juneja’s Greenway cookstoves today are popular in many states.

Focus on India

India’s Ujjwala scheme to provide 80 million LPG connections to poor women is touted as an example of empowerment in many developing countries. “Many countries look up to India for finding solutions,” says Muthiah. Union petroleum and natural gas minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who spoke at the Clean Cooking Forum, said energy access was a “catalyst for social change”, while explaining the decision to upgrade the Ujjwala scheme from its earlier target of 50 million LPG connections to 80 million.  With the Ujjwala scheme target set for 2019, India is poised to give 200 million of its 250 million households access to clean cooking energy. Besides big NGOs like SEWA, philanthropic institutions such as Tata Trust have also entered the clean cooking sector. Tata Trust, which has distributed 60,000 gas and induction stoves, has already trained 500 women entrepreneurs to track and monitor the use of new cookstoves and fuels in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

At the Clean Cooking Forum in New Delhi, Muthiah announced the goal of universal adoption of clean cooking by 2030 in line with the SDGs. With the Indian initiative well on its way to achieving the target of 80 million LPG connections, the world is suddenly waking up to the idea of smoke-free kitchens as a reality. Indonesia, another developing country with a high population, has also marched ahead with LPG connections for one in every four households. A lot would depend, however, on India, China and Bangladesh, which account for half of the world’s three billion people without access to clean cooking.

Clean cooking campaigners believe the role of women in the developing world would be a major factor in the universal adoption of clean cooking. Rachel Kyte, CEO of SEforAll, a sustainable energy-for-all global initiative of the UN, envisioned the future of clean cooking. “Let women own this movement, let women’s entrepreneurship be unleashed, let women’s anger be heard in the corridors of power,” Kyte, the special representative of UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, told the New Delhi Clean Cooking Forum.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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