by Alison Gilchrist, CSTPR Writing Intern
Three billion people, a little over half the world’s population, cook over open fires every day. Those of us with access to microwaves, toasters, rice cookers and waffle irons might not be able to truly grasp what that means for the health of people doing the cooking without such appliances, let alone what it means for the environment to be burning so much solid fuel.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the exposure to smoke from cooking is responsible for about four million premature deaths a year. Much of the health burden of open fire cooking falls on the women and children, who are in the house while food is being prepared. There are also serious environmental effects, both on the regional scale (poor air quality) and on a much larger scale (the production of black carbon, a serious contributor to climate change). Moreover, the reliance on renewable fuels means greater deforestation in regions where open fires are primarily used for cooking.
Katie Dickinson, a Research Scientist with the CIRES Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (CSTPR), studies how this situation could be improved by a shift to cleaner cooking.
“There are a lot of different options out there,” she says “An open fire isn’t the only way to cook, there are a lot of technological alternatives. But it turns out that finding a technology that works, that is appropriate for a particular culture and their cooking needs, and then getting people to change behaviors towards that technology—there are a lot of steps in there that are very tricky.”
Katie undertook a major project on this topic in 2013in Ghana that recently wrapped up. Now, she has a grant to do a follow-up study in the same area.
In 2013, Katie started working with a team of researchers from CU-Boulder, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and Ghana’s Navrongo Health Research Centre (NHRC) on an intervention project with funding from the NSF’s Dynamics of Coupled Natural Human Systems program and an EPA STAR grant. This study was called Research of Emissions, Air quality, Climate, and Cooking Technologies in Northern Ghana (REACCTING). Two hundred households were randomly selected from the district and were randomly assigned into one of four groups: a group that received two Gyapa cookstoves, a group that received two Philips cookstoves, a group that received one of each, and a control group. The Gyapa stove was specially designed for the study and is appropriate for cooking some of the Ghanaian meal staples; the Philips stove comes with a battery powered fan and is more expensive but potentially cleaner. Both are still wood-burning, but are more efficient than a traditional “three stone stove” (think campfire).
The households were surveyed about how much they liked the stoves and how much they used them. Katie’s group also took objective measurements of how often the stoves were being used, as well as data about what dishes were being cooked with them. They also studied environmental exposure to particulate matter and carbon monoxide, to determine whether the new cook stoves impacted air quality. Finally, they took blood samples from people in the households to study biomarkers that might provide insight about the health impacts of different stoves.
Overall the participants liked the stoves, and used them regularly, although neither of the improved stoves was a perfect fit for the type of cooking and culture in the community—most of the households continued to cook over open fires in parallel. However, households that got the improved stoves did have a lower exposure to some pollutants. This is promising data that suggests improved cooking stoves could have positive health impacts in developing nations.
“As somebody who has always wanted to do interdisciplinary work, I hold this work up as a pinnacle of that kind of study,” says Katie. “I don’t need to be an expert in stove use monitors, because I can rely on an excellent team.”
But as an economist, Katie is even more excited about the follow-up study she will conduct over the next few years. It will build on the past work, and will ask whether people actually buy these cleaner-burning stoves.
“This is a sign of the adoption of technology change,” says Katie. A stove given as a gift is much appreciated, but whether people consider them worth the price is still an open question.
Prices, Peers and Perceptions (P3) was designed to look at how prices and peers—that is, knowing people who have used the stoves before—influence perceptions of the stoves and the likelihood that the stoves are actually purchased.
A new group of participants will be selected based on whether they know people who have used the stoves before, and the experiment will be designed to test whether hearing about the stove influences how much they will spend for it.
The first step was to set an appropriate price, which led to the first field work for this project—an auction. Women were invited to bid for new stoves (updated versions from the first study) in order for Katie’s group to pick a price that would entice some buyers and dissuade others. If the stoves are too cheap, everybody buys one—if the stoves are too expensive, nobody does. If they are priced just right, it’s possible to look at whether other variables influence buying habits.
The auction has informed the price levels that Katie’s group will set for the stoves in the current study, and team members from the NHRC will help monitor who actually buys the stoves and whether the stoves are used. For this phase, Katie’s team is also working with a local NGO that will market the stoves. Her team hopes the research will inform efforts to improve lives and livelihoods in the area.
The goal of the project is to identify which factors are important for changing cooking behaviors and promoting adoption of cleaner stoves. These projects can help us understand what will convince communities to switch to cleaner technology, and may affect the way in which stoves like these are introduced into regions where open fires are still the norm. Hopefully this will decrease exposure to pollutants from solid fuel, and even decrease the environmental burden of wood burning. Stay tuned for updates on Katie’s most recent trip to Ghana and the future of this project!