Smoke Clears On Safer Cookstoves For World's Poor

In the developing world, the smoke emitted while cooking leads to the death of one person every 20 seconds. Secretary of State Clinton is to announce a new initiative to renew the global commitment to safer cookstoves. An India company already is selling cookstoves in villages and showing the potential for changing traditional cooking techniques.

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Around the world, millions of people cook on open fires, which lead to many health and safety problems. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will announce today a worldwide campaign for cleaner cook stoves.

In India, a fledgling market for cleaner, safer stoves is already making inroads.

Eliot Hannon reports from New Delhi.

ELIOT HANNON: Pushpa Bathi(ph) sits cross-legged on the cement floor of her kitchen as she feeds twigs into the belly of a small wood burning stove. It's a familiar pose for Bathi, who spends five hours each day preparing meals for her family of seven. Until two months ago, like most of the other 150 million households in rural India who cook over open flames, she used a traditional stove to prepare meals. But when she saw an ad on TV for a new brand of stove that reduced the smoke, she decided it was worth the investment.

BATHI: (Through translator) I am feeling the difference now. I used to choke. The room used to be completely full of smoke. Now that's not the case.

HANNON: Across the developing world, however, smoke-filled kitchens are still a fact of life - and a dangerous one, says Jacob Moss, senior advisor on air pollution and radiation at the Environmental Protection Agency.

JACOB MOSS: Think about thick smoke several times a day that is being suffered or exposed to women and very young children, the most vulnerable people on the planet. If these levels of air pollution existed in American cities today, it would be considered a public health crisis.

HANNON: According to the World Health Organization, nearly two million people die each year from complications related to the smoke inhaled while cooking. Previous stove giveaways and subsidized initiatives by governments and NGOs, however, have largely failed to deliver. To avoid the mistakes of the past, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves aims to use private and public resources to create a market for low cost, safer, more efficient cookstoves with prices starting at $20, says Moss.

MOSS: In the past, many of the government programs involved in this field have sort of designed a stove and then taken it to the marketplace and said, oh, here's our stove, please use it. The beauty of the private sector is they go in, they ask communities what they want. So they develop a product for a specific marketplace.

HANNON: When Envirofit India first launched its cleaner burning ceramic cookstove in Southern India, it was a tough sell. The product was tailored to the cooking needs of the villages there, but that still wasn't enough.

Barun Mitra of the Liberty Institute in New Delhi says that there are other important variables.

BARUN MITRA: The fundamental problem with all these initiatives is a lack of understanding and appreciation of the social, economic, institutional circumstance which makes people use what they use. You know, people - these people have priorities ranging from clothing, housing, health, education - you know, whole range. Cooking is just one part of that.

HANNON: To make buying a new stove a priority, Envirofit emphasized the savings in time and money that the stove's more efficient design could bring, rather than its health benefits. In villages where the husband still controls the family finances, the company offered a cell phone with the stove to sweeten the deal. To try to make the stove a want, not just a need, they launched a more expensive, sleeker metallic model in different colors to attract families with a bit more money to spend.

Slowly, the effort has begun to pay off. Envirofit has sold 150,000 stoves so far. It's still far short of what's needed, but the market is there, says Anan Sina(ph), director of the development consulting firm Abt Associates.

ANAN SINA: Someone needs to be able to provide advanced clean cooking technology for those who cannot afford to go to the market to buy. But it's not the entire rural population. The remaining 80 percent can(ph) afford to buy a product.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

HANNON: One of those people is Pushpa Bathi. She sits beside her stove kneading dough on a marble cutting board. Her house doesn't have running water, but her new stove's cost wasn't a problem. She opted for the pricier model, she says, because she liked the color.

For NPR News, I'm Elliot Hannon in New Delhi.

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