The Past, Present, and Future of Improved Cookstove Initiatives

Why are improved cookstove projects important in the developing world?

The need to improve cookstove efficiency has increased in the developing world as approximately 3 billion people worldwide rely on coal or biomass as their primary energy source for cooking and heating, accounting for 13% of global energy consumption (HEDON). The use of open fires and traditional stoves leads to incomplete combustion of fossil fuel, causing high Black Carbon (BC) emissions. Furthermore, open fires and traditional stoves have low combustion efficiency, leading to higher cooking times and inefficient use of fuelwood. 

Despite these facts, a large number of people still use open fires and traditional stoves in household cooking and heating. Various attempts at disseminating improved cookstoves have been made since the 1980s. Although a majority of the attempts have been unsuccessful, there have been successful in disseminating improved cookstoves. Views on adopting cookstoves seem to vary at the user level and at the national or project level.  This webpage will examine past successes and failures along with current initiatives in improved cookstove distribution efforts. Through these we will define keys to success in future cookstove distribution initiatives. Finally, we will examine future initiatives, for improved cookstove dissemination.

The Importance of Black Carbon (BC) Mitigation

Black Carbon (BC) is a product of incomplete combustion of fossil fuel The major causes of global BC include the burning of agricultural residue, residential cooking and heating, transportation, and industrial fossil fuel use.  Black Carbon mitigation strategies have been implemented for all of the mentioned sources, however the distribution of improved cookstoves is among the most cost effective means of mitigating global BC emissions.  Also, since BC is a short-term warming agent and is only in the atmosphere between 1 and 2 weeks, any permanent reductions in BC will reap immediate benefits (Baron 2010).

BC's negative effects include:  

  • Contribution to global and regional climate change
    • BC contribution likely 2nd greatest after CO2 
  • Indoor air pollution major cause of illness and mortality for women and children inhaling BC 
    • 1.6 million premature deaths annually worldwide (400,000 annually in India alone) 
    • Childhood pneumonia, lung cancer, bronchitis, cardiovascular disease are among effects (Venkataraman 2010)
  • Decreased surface albedo from BC particles settling on Tibetan Glaciers and Arctic Ice Caps causing accelerated melt (Baron 2010)

Importance of Increased Fuel and Combustion Efficiencies Through Improved Cookstoves

  • Compared to traditional cooking practices improved stoves can save up to 20-67% fuel (Smith 2007)
  • Health benefits to women and children 
  • Poverty alleviation and women’s empowerment as women will spend less time gathering wood and cooking
    • This will enable them to focus on other activities such as earning extra income
  • Biodiversity conservation and reduced forest degradation through reduced pressure on forests

Obstacles to Stove Adoption At the Local or Individual Level

Before looking at past attempts at cookstove dissemination, one must first look at the barriers that prevent improved cookstoves from being adopted at the personal level. It is evident that not all “bottom of the pyramid” products are the same. Why are some products such as Coca Cola and cell phones are readily adopted by the poorest of the poor while others such as cookstoves are not?
  • Motivation (1st and foremost) 
    • Cost saving key motivator 
    • Health benefits and air pollution not despite education 
  • Affordability 
    • Is an improved stove affordable w/ disposable income or financing to someone making $1 or $2 a day? 
    • Effective financing or subsidies maybe necessary
  • Level of engagement 
    • Cooking and gathering wood touches on entire lifestyle 
    • May require training and ongoing correct use (Slasky 2009)

Prior Attempts to Disseminate Cookstoves

Attempts have been made at improving cookstoves since the1940s. Improved cookstove development started in India in early 1950s, but scientific development increased in 1970s and 1980s. Weak results in preliminary phase due to lack of testing, stove’s opening did not match size of pots; there was extensive investigation of stove physics and engineering needed (HEDON). It has been accepted that the Chinese National Improved Stove Project (CNISP) was the most successful example of cookstove distribution at a large scale. Around the same time, initiatives in India and Africa were not nearly as successful. This section will take a brief look at past Chinese, Indian, and African initiatives for improved cookstove distribution. It will also determine the keys to success in the past initiatives.

China - Chinese National Improved Stove Program (CNISP)
Chinese National Improved Stove Program

  • Introduced 129 million cookstoves to rural areas during 1982-1992 (biomass, coal, space heating)
  • Highest rate and extent of any nation (>50% Chinese rural households) - 90% of all cookstoves distributed globally in 80s were in China 
  • Although encountered quality control problems and durability initially, more than 2/3 were still in use as of 1993
  • R&D conducted at the national, provincial, and county levels 
  • Chinese program has not only been largest, but also has been the most cost effective (15% of total stove program cost) (Smith 1993)

India - National Program on Improved Chulhas (1985-2002)

  • Total installations reached 35 million units with greater than 60 designs and aimed to achieve goals through use of chimneys 
  • Stoves in the field had low durability, usage, and performance, 
  • Materials used, skills available, delivery and maintenance were all issues
  • NPIC “improved” stoves often had higher emissions than traditional stoves 
  • Relied on government subsidy-based delivery mechanisms with no provision of maintenance/repair leading to poor adoption rates 
  • Little formal monitoring making it difficult to evaluate and develop needed mid-course corrections in design and dissemination (Venkataraman 2010)

Africa Improved Cookstove Distribution
African woman carrying fuelwood

  • Most fuel gathering, open fire cooking, and traditional stove use is free of monetary costs therefore investing in improved stoves is illogical
  • Smoke been around for long time therefore less motivation to change; few households making linkages with health problems and household smoke due to low literacy rates
  • Partriarchal Africa is less concerned about problems with womens’ health due to activities such as cooking as these problems are considered part of womanhood 
  • Very few programs allow for diversification of stoves beyond household cooking therefore in winter families revert to simultaneous cooking and heating from open fires or conventional stoves becoming permanent for some families 
  • Poor working class has created demand for cooked lunch, but ICS program has failed to disseminate stoves to food vendors 
  • Need for energy and health practitioners to raise awareness of health problems among biomass users and policymakers (HEDON)

Lessons Learned from China

One may downplay China's success due to factors such as its political difference from the rest of the developing world, the overstated success of other programs such as biogas and microhyrdo, and greater buying power for poor Chinese as compared to other developing nations. Although one may consider the Chinese improved stove program a different ballgame all together, there are several basic lessons and keys to success that other countries and programs should consider.
  • Established program from bottom up starting from pilot programs at local level rather than trying implementing extensively from the get go
  • Worked in the best areas first (those with good financial, technical, and raw materials resources)
  • Constant monitoring and evaluation – this was not common in stove programs around the world, however it worked with the help of the Rural Energy Offices at County level 
  • Little direct government contribution (15% of total costs and restricted to training, administration, and promotion) led to a sense of ownership and higher rate of adoption among improved cookstove users
  • Promotion of Rural Energy Companies brought in products and stoves with diversified functions such as space heating which Africa lacked
  • Improved biomass stove program benefited from the experience, rural energy infrastructure, and supply chains already created by biogas and microhydro programs from 70s(Smith 1993)

Current Improved Cookstove Distribution Initiatives 

Since the late 1990s over 100 different projects have emerged in improved cookstove distribution however a great percentage have them have not learned from past failures.  The following projects are two of the emerging initiatives in cookstove distribution.  Both have unique approaches in monitoring, marketing, and financing the improved stoves.
Project Surya
Project Surya BC monitoring with filters
  • Use mobile phone technology to gather data on climate and health outcomes by taking pictures and recording sounds
  • Replace conventional practices with solar stoves and other efficient back-up during evenings, nights, cloudy, and rainy days 
  • 3 pilot areas with 5,000 stoves each: Himalayas, Indo-Gangetic plane, South India  
  • Considers larger context (fuel supply chain, affordability, and access to maintenance) 
  • The program will focus on women as consumers and address entire product life cycle (Project Surya)
Envirofit International
Envirofit stove
  • Founded by US based non-profit with research base in Colorado State University
  • Rely on microfinance loans and payback over 6-8 months 
  • 50,000 stove sold so far 
  • Prices range from $14 to Rs $54 plan to introduce for below $10
  • Market "save time, save money" 
  • Plan to expand to other Asian countries and Africa and distribute 5 million stoves over next 5 years (Mohandas 2011)
Carbon Market and Improved Stove Projects
  • CDM, VCS, and Gold Standard carbon markets fund approved local projects such as Surya return for verifiable carbon credits 
  • Purchased by countries or institutions trying to decrease carbon footprint 
  • Carbon markets currently hold approximately 40 improved cookstove projects 
  • Scale of projects not large enough for significant impact on climate or health
  • Recently private initiatives have surfaced with significantly improved designs, but have had limited penetration

Important Considerations

  • Research and development, quality control, and monitoring and evaluation fundamental component from past experience 
  • Extended state and donor support played vital role in past (China) 
  • Social marketing important in conveying that stoves important investment with benefits such as cleaner indoor air 
  • Low purchasing power among majority of rural biomass users requires financing spread over acceptable period of time 
  • At the user level motivation, affordability and engagement required
  • Is it preferable to establish new supply chains or ride on existing?  
    • China benefitted from biogas and microhydro programs 

Fututure of Cookstove Dissemination Measures

The following are two of the major future initiatives of improved cookstove distribution.  The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is an international initiative led by the US, with the goal of BC climate change mitigation and improved health impacts.  The National Biomass Cookstoves Initiative is a program led by the government of India with the primary goal of health benefits.  It is therefore evident that goals at the national level and international level differ as developing countries leading national initiatives are more driven by health benefits whereas programs led by developed countries are driven by the climate change benefit of BC mitigation as well as the health benefits.

Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves
Global Alliance for Improved Cookstoves
  • Goal: 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient burning cookstoves by 2020
  • Claims to have robust monitoring, creating local awareness, and local testing program for stoves
  • Will try to create local economic opportunity and jobs
  • Founders: UN, USAID, EPA, WHO, Shell, Morgan Stanley, Govt. of Norway, Govt. of Peru, etc. (

National Biomass Cookstove Initiative (India)
  • Hope to provide energy services as clean as LPG, but through the use of biomass 
  • 15 million stoves distributed every year for the next decade will supply 87% of households across India and avoid premature deaths by 17% 
  • Hope to avoid 570,000 premature deaths and 4% of Indian GHGs along with 1/3 of Indian BC emissions 
  • Interested more in health benefits (climate benefit is icing on cake) 
  • Series of pilot projects will enable deploying project from bottom up
  • Careful testing, certification, and field performance monitoring of stoves vital (Block 2011)

Useful Links

Annotated Bibliography

Citation     Description
Smith KR, What's Cooking? A Brief Update, Energy for Sustainable Development (2010), doi:10.1016/j.esd.2010.10.002 
This article discusses various current initiatives taking place in the distribution of projects such as GACC, cookstove carbon projects, national initiatives, et
Slasky, Xander, and Mark Thurber. "Cookstoves and Obstacles to Technology Adoption by the Poor." Program on Sustainable Development Working Paper 89(2009). Print.
This paper presents reasons various obstacles (motivation, affordability, level of engagement necessary for adoption) for poor people in developing countries to adopt new products – specifically cookstoves.
Smith, K., Dutta, K., Chengappa, C., Gusain, P., Masera, O., Berrueta, V., et al. (2007). Monitoring and evaluation of improved biomass cookstove programs for indoor air quality and stove performance: conclusions from the Household Energy and Health Project.Energy for Sustainable Development,11(2), 5-18. This paper explores results from Monitoring and Evaluation techniques used by two NGO-led programs in India and Mexico.  Results show reduced Carbon Monoxide emission between 30-70%, reduced particulates between 25-65% and reduction in fuel use per person between 20-60%.  Some results indicate that benefits in the above categories were the result of heat transfer rather than combustion efficiency.
Smith, K., Shuhua, G., Kun, H., & Daxiong, Q. (1993). One Hundred Million Improved Cookstoves in China: How Was It Done?. World Development,21(6), 941-961.  China has had a national improved cookstove program which distributed approximately 129 million cookstoves to rural homes between 1982 and 1992. Although the program had its drawbacks, over two-thirds of the cookstoves distributed are still in use today. The article also shows how other programs could learn from the Chinese initiative by taking a look at the program's organizational and funding structure. This helps answer my research question of past successes and lessons learned for future initiatives.
Bailis, R., Cowan, A., Berrueta, V., & Masera, O. (2009). Arresting the Killer in the Kitchen: The Promises and Pitfalls of Commercializing Improved Cookstoves. Elsevier Ltd., 37(10), 1694-1705. This article presents the case study of GIRA, and NGO that has distributed improved cookstoves in Mexico's Central Highlands.  The study could be looked at by organizations with a market based approach to the dissemination of cookstoves.  It is important for my research question becasue it displays the challenges and the perspective of an organization operating in local conditions with a funding source that is from the outside.
Venkataraman, C., A. Sagar, G. Habib, and K. Smith. "The Indian National Initiative for Advanced Biomass Cookstoves: The benefits of clean combustion." Energy for Sustainable Development 14 (2010): 63-72. Print. This paper provides information on India's newly launched, National Biomass Cookstove Initiative (NCI).  There is also a comparison with India's previous cookstove program, the National Program on Improved Chulhas.
Baron, Robert, W Montgomery, and Sugandha Tuladhar. "An Analysis of Black Carbon Mitigation as a Response to Climate Change." Copenhagen Consensus on Climate: Copenhagen Consensus. (accessed June 2, 2010).This analysis paper examines aspects such as cookstoves, health, and BC mitigation cost-effectiveness. The paper is a comprehensive paper on BC and argues that BC mitigation is a potentially cost effective way to mitigate global climate change.  It provides a global source break down of BC emissions.


Citation        Description
Mohandas, P. (n.d.). Rural India gets a lifesaving cookstove. Livemint. Retrieved March 26, 2011, from <> This article talks about Envirofit International's efforts at marketing and selling improved cookstoves.  Envirofit, started in 2008 has already sold 50,000 stoves in southern India and claims that their cookstoves, containing insulated material reduce cooktime by 40%, reduce emissions by 80%, and halve fuel use.  The company's primary way to market stoves are through the use of the "save time, save money" tag line.  I have chosen this article because it displays one method taken towards successfully distributing improved cookstoves. 
Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. (n.d.). Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Retrieved March 26, 2011. <> This is the website for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. This is a global initiative sporsored by several NGOs and goverments that claims to have robust monitoring, creating local awareness, and local testing program for stoves.  The goal of the program is for 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient burning cookstoves by 2020.  This is a future effort to distribute improved cookstoves.  
"Project Surya." Fighting Climate Change Now. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2011. <> This is the official website for Project Surya, an current initiative for improved cookstove distribution in India led by Black Carbon expert V. Ramanathan.  The program is unique since it has deployed several pilot projects and has a unique means of monitoring climate and health benefits through the use of cell phones.  The project intends to use women as the primary customer when marketing improved cookstoves. 
"HEDON." Household Energy Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2011. <>     The site gives an overview of improved cookstove programs.  Included is an overall history of improved cookstoves and distribution efforts.  The site is also helpful because it contains accounts and results of past failures such as that of African countries and India.  Furthermore also included are current best practices, current best practices, characteristics of various types of stoves and barriers of stove adoption, all of which are relevant to the research question.  
Block, B. (n.d.). India Announces Improved Cook Stove Program | Worldwatch Institute . Worldwatch Institute . Retrieved March 26, 2011,<> This article talks about India's National Biomass Cookstove Initiative to combat air pollution and a major contributor to climate change. The country's major purpose to implement the program is mainly to reduce illnesses and premature deaths, rather than mitigating climate change. This article gives a perspective on cookstove distribution at the national level. 

Photo Credit

1. Guatemalan woman cooking on 3 stone fire - Creative Commons Images
2. Global BC Emissions by source (data) - Baron et. all 2010
3. Chinese National Improved Stove Program -
4. Project Surya BC Monitoring -
5. Envirofit Stove -
6. Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves -
Site Created By:  Akhilesh Khopkar, Master of Natural Resources Student - North Carolina State University