A group of people standing on an open roof, inspecting stoves

Community members examine stoves before making their selections in Neenu. Photo: Karthik Sethuraman / Samuha.

More than 840 million people in India cook with traditional biomass stoves. Women and children spend hours collecting fuel, and many more cooking over smoky fires that cause illness and premature death. The associated air pollution and impacts on forests also raise concerns for the climate.

We know people in rural India want to use cleaner-burning stoves and fuels – yet in India and around the world, major efforts to get households to switch stoves have yielded limited results. In some cases, the reasons are obvious: poor design or manufacture, unaffordable prices, stoves that don’t meet users’ needs.

But what kinds of stoves – and promotion campaigns – would be most effective at getting households to adopt and keep using improved stoves, and thus realize the full health and environmental benefits? An ongoing project in India, funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, offers some intriguing insights.

We are working in two very different places: Karnataka state, in the far south, and Himachal Pradesh state, in the Himalayan foothills. Himachal Pradesh has a pronounced cold season, while Karnataka has a warm semi-arid climate.

In Karnataka, just 5% of households had gas or electric stoves prior to our intervention. In Himachal Pradesh, households cooked primarily with biomass, but two-thirds also had a gas or electric stove. However, ownership of gas and electric stoves differed dramatically by caste: while 85% of general caste families had them, the same was true of just 36% of households from scheduled castes – historically disenfranchised “untouchable” groups.

In order to assemble a choice of potentially attractive stoves to offer to households, we conducted cooking tests to see how well various stoves available in India worked for preparing common local dishes. We chose a range of wood, electric and LPG options, plus a high-efficiency tandoor for communities in Himachal Pradesh.

We then distributed stoves for free or at subsidized prices in four villages in each state, with funding from the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves .

The options we offered varied in their advantages over existing technology, compatibility with existing cooking practices and ease of use, and we provided information about fuel savings and emissions reductions of each. We also allowed households to switch out stoves after an initial period, so they could test different options.

In addition, we harnessed the power of social networks – which have been found to play an important role in facilitating technological change in rural communities – by hosting quarterly “stove bazaars” where community members can share stove knowledge and experiences.

We wanted to test a widely held view that households that pay for stoves value (and thus use) them more, so we gave stoves to half the households for free, while the others were asked to pay a subsidized price (25% of the cost in Himachal Pradesh, 20% in Karnataka). We are also investigating other factors, such as whether it matters if the women work outside the home.

Our first big insight was that improved wood stoves have little appeal. Households want aspirational technologies. Nearly 70% in Himachal Pradesh chose either gas or electric stoves, including 80% of scheduled caste families. In Karnataka, 86% opted for gas or electric stoves.

A woman carrying an LPG cylinder in a basket on her back

A woman carries an LPG cylinder home after stove distribution in Himachali. Photo: Karthik Sethuraman / Samuha.

We confirmed the preference for gas and electric stoves when we returned to Himachal Pradesh in April this year and offered households in two of the four communities a chance to try a different stove. All of those who selected gas and electric stoves stuck with their original choice, while all but one of the families who chose an improved wood stove switched to gas or electric. We plan to return to Karnataka later this year to see how people there respond to our offer to switch models.

The strong preference for gas and electric stoves is a promising insight. However, people will only reap benefits if they use the stoves for a substantial share of their cooking tasks. We still don’t know if that is happening with the stoves we have distributed. While we have anecdotal evidence that people are using their new stoves to boil water, make tea, or for other quick tasks, it isn’t yet clear whether they are using their traditional stoves any less. In Himachal Pradesh, for instance, families use their tandoor stove for heating, so it doesn’t always make sense to start up a second stove in the wintertime.

Similarly, difficulty obtaining new LPG cylinders and frequent electricity outages might affect the ways that people use those two options. Surveys and monitoring of stove use among some households will show how much this impacts people’s cooking choices.

In the coming months, we will continue to survey each household and use data-logging temperature sensors to quantitatively monitor stove use in order to get a better sense of how much the new stoves displace the old and determine how factors like wealth, social status, and seasonality affect outcomes.

We are also monitoring changes in air quality and stove emissions, and will continue to do so for another year. It may be that it just takes time for people to start using the stoves for more cooking tasks. By closely monitoring conditions, we may be able to identify ways to accelerate the transition to cleaner cooking.