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Behavioural drivers tell us why the use of clean cookstoves is so low

The World Health Organization estimates that millions of people die every year from lung and heart disease caused by cooking with solid fuels, and millions more live with chronic respiratory diseases. A shift to advanced cookstoves can bring significant health and environmental benefits, but only with proper and consistent use.

Ekaterina Bessonova, Fiona Lambe / Published on 5 December 2017
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Ekaterina Bessonova

It is well known that cooking and heating by burning wood, charcoal or dung on open fires or poorly functioning stoves is a huge public health problem. However, tackling this issue has been far from straightforward.

Traditional cookstoves in Burkina Faso, Africa. By TREEAID (Cooking for a living) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to decades of investment and promotional efforts on the part of governments and donors, the sector experienced considerable growth and attention. However, even though advanced cookstoves are already on the market in several African countries, people continue to use traditional models they are most used to. So, the results of the development interventions in this sector are rather disheartening.

Fiona Lambe, researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute and co-leader of SEI’s Behaviour and Choice Initiative, believes that these low rates of clean cookstoves adoption are because interventions tend to be very technology-centered. Implementers tend to focus on designing the most efficient stove, neglecting the needs of the users.

Meanwhile, we know from marketing research that people’s decisions to buy and use new technologies are affected by a complex web of factors. These include, for example, culture, tradition, cognitive psychology, social meanings, norms and networks.

Studying behavioural drivers in Kenya and Zambia

In a study published in Energy Research and Social Science, Fiona and her co-authors at SEI test a conceptual framework developed by the Behaviour and Choice Initiative for analysing behavioural drivers in the context of development interventions at the household level. Adoption of cookstoves is their first case.

“We applied service design methods to map out the experience of clean cookstove users over time. The method allows us to identify specific problems users experience with different types of new cookstove at different phases along the path to cookstove adoption. The study is based on 36 open-ended interviews with households in Kiambu County in Kenya and Lusaka, Zambia”, says Fiona.

Fiona and her team find that the process of acquiring and using a new stove is not a “one time” event, but rather a multi-stage process which is nested within a local context. Furthermore, this process or journey can differ a lot, depending on the personality and motivation of the individual user.

These findings have major implications for the success and failure of interventions. For example, often the cookstove implementers consider their job done at the point of sale: once they had convinced a customer to buy the stove, they move on to the next potential customer. However, the user journey mapping revels that the start-up phase, right after the stove is delivered to the home, is decisive for technology adoption. Users may abandon the stove if the early stage is too bumpy.

The study also finds that the effect of peers, and the influence of certain opinion leaders in the community, are crucial when it comes to cookstove purchase and adoption. Incorporating such opinion leaders into the start-up phase, to provide social support to specific categories of new cookstove users may increase adoption rates.

Detailed mapping of user journeys allows cookstove practitioners and policy-makers to fine tune and direct their efforts. This approach ensures that interventions meet the needs of different types of users, throughout the full technology adoption journey.

“We know that decision-making and human behaviour are influenced by psychological, social and cultural factors. Using behavioural insights and user journey methodology can help us to unpack these factors, crafting almost surgical interventions to specific technologies in specific settings, achieving high-impact development outcomes,” says Fiona.

The development sector needs to focus not only on what kind of interventions are needed but also on how they are implemented. The results from this study provide a case in point. The Behaviour and Choice Initiative will continue to develop and test the framework. Future studies will include weather-indexed insurance for farmers in Uganda and community-based sanitation solutions in Rwanda.

Read the article “Beyond buying: The application of service design methodology to understand adoption of clean cookstoves in Kenya and Zambia” »

See the photo story “Clearing the smoke” »

Find out more about the SEI Initiative on Behaviour and Choice »

For more information, please contact:

Fiona Lambe
Fiona Lambe

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

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