Food For Thought

Cooking Shouldn’t Kill an In-Depth Look at the Issues Worldwide


By Donna Shaver

The news is full of stories about issues in the developing world, from poverty to food insecurity, violence to illiteracy—the list is long.  But one of the most devastating stories is the one we never hear—cooking. An open fire has been used since humankind started cooking—which may have been as early as 250,000 years ago based on the dating of the earliest identified hearths. In most of the developing world, especially in rural areas, the main method of cooking is the three-stone open fire.  Fuels may vary from the usual biomass, such as wood, charcoal, animal waste, and crop residue, to liquid fuels such as kerosene and alcohol.  Coal is also used for cooking, especially in China.

The cooking fire is usually inside a hut or small dwelling with no ventilation.  The health consequences from inhaling smoke and particulate matter, along with the potential for burns and scalding make cooking one of the most dangerous activities on the planet for women and children.

In addition to the health risks of cooking itself, women and children must perform the backbreaking and time-consuming labor of finding and hauling the fuel.  Walking far afield to find fuel exposes women to danger from attack by men, and in some areas, by animals.   With all such tasks, there is the opportunity cost:  what productive and empowering activities could be accomplished if that time were to become available?

“Interestingly, when time use is factored into cooking costs, the traditional open fire is the most expensive form of cooking with wood.”

 – Household Cookstoves, Environment, Health and Climate Change World Bank

The use of traditional cooking fires is not only one of the most dangerous activities on the planet, it is also devastating to the planet.  Cooking fires are a significant source of greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming and climate change.  And since most cooking fires require biomass as fuel, the result is deforestation. With continuing world population growth, the removal of biomass from the ecosystem is unsustainable.  According to the World Bank, in developing countries, the amount of biomass fuel for cooking can reach up to two tons per family each year, resulting in more than one billion tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere.



UN Millennium Development Goals addressed by StoveTeam 


Goal 3:  Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
Target:   Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015

According to the UNMDG Report 2013, Latin America and the Caribbean meet or exceed the goals for gender equality in education at both the primary and secondary levels, and are close to meeting the goals for tertiary education.  Mexico is on par with the region as a whole.

Women’s Access to Paid Employment:  In 1990, women in the region had a paid employment rate in the non-agricultural sector of 38 percent, rising to 44 percent in 2011.  However, Mexico is lagging, with 36.5 percent in 1991 and 39.6 percent in 2011.
Proportion of Seats Held by Women in the National Parliament:  In the region, 15 percent of seats were held by women in 2000 and 24.5 percent in 2013.  Women in Mexico have done significantly better, with 18.2 percent in 2000 and 36.8 percent in 2013.




Goal 4:  Reduce Child Mortality
Target:  Reduce by two thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate

According to the UN MDG Report 2013, worldwide, the mortality rate for children under five dropped by 41 per cent—from 87 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 51 in 2011.  Latin America and the Caribbean have reduced their under-five mortality rate from 53 in 1990 to 19 in 2011, which nearly meets the target.  Mexico has done even better, with 38.1 in 1990 to 13.4 in 2011.




Goal 7:  Ensure Environmental Sustainability
Target 7.A:  Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources

Proportion of Land Covered by Forests:  Forests are disappearing at a rapid rate.  The largest net losses are in South America and Africa.  Mexico had 36.2 percent of land covered by forests in 1990, which had been reduced to 33.3 percent by 2010.

Carbon dioxide emissions:  Latin America and the Caribbean had 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 1990, but 1.6 billion in 2010.


Health Issues of Traditional Open-fire Cooking

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately three billion people cook and heat their homes with open fires and leaky stoves that burn biomass.  This has profound effects on health. It is the fourth worst overall health risk factor in the world, and second worst for women and girls.

Indoor Air Pollution:

  • A 2012 WHO study found that 3.5 million people per year die early from indoor air pollution.   Most of those deaths can be attributed to air pollution from household use of solid fuels.  (The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves puts that number at four million.)
  • Nearly half of deaths of children under five from pneumonia are due to inhaling particulate matter from indoor air pollution. Pneumonia is the single largest cause of death in children worldwide, killing an estimated 1.2 million children worldwide under the age of five years, and accounting for 18 percent of all deaths of children under five years old.  Each day, children who live with open-fire cooking breathe in smoke equivalent to two packs of cigarettes.
  • More than one million people die each year from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) developed as a result of indoor air pollution.
  • Women exposed to indoor smoke have double the risk of lung cancer compared with women who are not exposed.
  • Evidence also links indoor air pollution from biomass to heart disease, nasopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers, tuberculosis (TB) as well as eye disease. (The British Journal of Ophthalmology published a study of cataracts and cataract surgeries in India that noted nearly two-thirds of people blinded by cataracts were women.)
  • A mother’s exposure to indoor air pollution can lead to low birth-weight babies as well as nutritional deficiency and stunting in children.
  • Babies carried on their mothers’ backs are exposed to as much indoor air pollution as their mothers.


  • The World Health Organization estimates 195,000 deaths every year are caused by burns – the vast majority occur in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Females suffer burns more frequently than males. Women in the WHO South-East Asia Region have the highest rate of burns, accounting for 27 percent of global burn deaths and nearly 70 percent of burn deaths in the region.
  • Most burns are associated with open fire cooking, or inherently unsafe cookstoves, which can ignite loose clothing. In India, most burn injuries are sustained by women ages 16-35.
  • Burns are the 11th leading cause of death of children aged 1–9 years and are also the fifth most common cause of non-fatal childhood injuries.  While a major risk is improper adult supervision, a considerable number of burn injuries in children result from child maltreatment, according to the WHO.

In addition to the health effects of the cooking process, there are negative health consequences from hauling loads of fuel.  Women and girls are at risk for head and spinal injuries, complications of pregnancy and maternal mortality.

Traditional Cooking also has social consequences:

  • requiring time for finding fuel and cooking that keeps women from more productive and empowering activities,
  • keeping some girls out of school to help with collecting firewood and water, cooking, and caring for siblings, and
  • reinforcing stereotypical roles for women and girls.


Environmental Consequences

Deforestation and environmental degradation:  The collection of firewood and other biomass fuels for cooking over open fires is having a significant impact on the environment. With the loss of trees and other ground stabilizing plants, topsoil is easily eroded. Mali’s agricultural ministry reported in 2010 that, in Mali, more than 500,000 hectares of forest are cleared for firewood and charcoal each year. The loss of trees is a major contributor to global warming.

Contributions to global warming from open fire cooking:  Carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas that is produced by burning of solid waste, wood and wood products, and fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal).  The second major contributor is black carbon.  Black carbon emissions account for nearly one-fifth of the temperature increases associated with global warming.  About three quarters of black carbon is thought to come from the developing world – from cookstoves, open burning and old diesel engines.  (Black carbon emissions account for 30 percent of the changes associated with the Himalayan glacier melt—with long term implications for adequate water supplies for millions of people.)


Safer and More Fuel-Efficient Cookstove Solutions

There are a number of different types of improved stoves and designs.  There is no single “best” solution, as each type has its place.  For example, some offer more effective solutions for urban areas, others for rural areas.  In addition, the motivating factors for switching from traditional cookstoves to more fuel efficient ones may vary.  In urban areas, fuel is more likely to be purchased rather than collected.  In that case, there may be specific economic benefits to switching to a new stove.  In rural areas, the amount of time and effort to gather firewood may be a major factor.  All of these stoves are designed to address both health and environmental issues.


“In Tanzania, nonrenewable forest harvesting resulted in forest cover decline from 6.3 hectares per capita in 1961 to .7 hectares per capita in 2010. A research study by the UN Development Programme there showed that successful use of improved biomass cookstoves can cut firewood consumption almost in half.  

The study provided more 13,000 stoves (two each for more than 6,500 households). Women reported that before the adoption of the stoves, they were collecting two loads of firewood per week, with each load weighing 25-30 kg, and each trip requiring eight hours.  Use of the new stoves required only one load per week.  The study also reported that indoor air pollution was reduced and cooking time for most foods was reduced by 40 percent.”

– Diogratias Mushi, Tanzania Daily News

Coordinating the effort to bring clean cookstoves to the developing world is the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. GACC is an initiative led by the UN Foundation that includes public, private and nonprofit partners supporting large-scale adoption of clean and safe household cooking solutions to save lives, empower women, and reduce climate changing emissions.  It was launched by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in September 2010 at the Clinton Global Initiatives Conference. GACC’s goal is “100 by 20”— enabling an additional 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020.


Following are some stove designs listed by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

Alcohol or Ethanol Stoves, Biogas Stoves and Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG):  Fuels have to be purchased, which is common in urban areas.  These stoves are unlikely to be adopted in rural areas, where potential users do not have the resources to purchase fuel and have access to free fuel, albeit requiring grueling labor.

Plancha Stoves:  These are griddle type stoves for areas where items like tortillas are a staple.  They can be built in place or are available as prefabricated modular stoves that are easy to install.  The stove is designed to enclose the fire, and exhaust and particulate matter is drawn outside through chimneys.  Stoves are fuel efficient and fuel sources can be diverse, from biomass to charcoal. Well-designed stoves have been shown to mitigate 1.5 to 3.6 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, thus reducing the impact on global warming caused by cooking and heating with biomass.

Rocket Stoves: Rocket stoves have an improved insulated, L-shaped combustion chamber that allows for partial combustion of gases and smoke inside the stove. Rocket stoves improve heat transfer efficiency using insulation and narrow channels directing the flow of hot gases closer to the pot or griddle. This design enables rocket stoves to achieve important emissions benefits. Production of rocket stoves can range from centrally mass-produced products to locally produced artisanal products.  The fuel is biomass.


The StoveTeam rocket stove, the Ecocina, was co-developed with Dr. Larry Winiarski.  Dr. Winiarski is the inventor of the rocket stove and Technical Director of the Oregon-based Aprovecho Research Center, a non-profit stove design and testing facility.  (In 2009, the Center won the Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy.)  The Ecocina has a removable plancha for cooking tortillas, but does not have the same chimney design as the traditional plancha stove.  The Ecocina has undergone the rigorous testing by the EPA-sponsored Aprovecho Research Center.  The Ecocina met or exceeded all benchmarks. Test results are available on the StoveTeam website.


Solar Stoves:  These stoves, which harness the power of the sun and do not require fuel, can be used in areas where solar energy is abundant for most of the year – between 30 degrees north and south of the equator, where much of the developing world is located.  They are often used as part of an integrated cooking method, combining solar with heat-retention cooking.  In the latter method, food is heated to boiling for a short period of time and then placed in an insulated box or basket to continue cooking.

Solar stoves are not always an appropriate solution.  All cooking must take place in the daylight hours.  Stove efficiency varies, depending on the strength of the sun.  If dwellings are under the shade of the trees, the stove will need to be located away the home.  Solar cookers work best during midday, the time of day when many women are away from the home working in the fields, herding animals, hauling water or engaged in other activities.  For areas that have a rainy season, and for cooking at night or under overcast skies, access to another stove is critical—preferably an energy-efficient stove.

Institutional Stoves: In addition to cookstove solutions for families, there are also institutional cookstoves.  Aprovecho designed a 60-liter institutional cookstove.  In 2011, the UN World Food Programme ordered 200 of these stoves for use in Darfur.  They are ideal for schools, orphanages, refugee camps and other institutional settings.  They use 75-90 percent less wood, generate almost no smoke and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 tons a year.  In a school in Nigeria, only three of these stoves are used to feed 1,200 students.  (These stoves can also be fitted with high quality autoclaves to sterilize instruments in hospitals.)


Social, Cultural, and Economic Barriers to the Adoption of Clean Cookstoves

“Designing stoves is far more complicated than many people think.  You need good technical design to achieve high efficiency and low emissions, and it must be cheap to produce.  But above all the cook has to like it – a stove won’t help the cook or the environment if it’s left to gather dust in a corner.” 

– Dr. Anne Wheldon, Technical Director of the Ashden Awards
In order to convince the user to adopt a new technology, there are a number of barriers to overcome. Social Marketplace, an online resource center for sharing best practices and case studies for successful social marketing, has a list of barriers to adoption:

  • Overemphasis on technology; under emphasis on the user
  • Products that require a lifestyle change
  • Household purchasing patterns
  • Income variability
  • Negative marketing message
  • Failure of past projects
  • Reliable distribution

Barriers to change can be greater in societies that are highly invested in traditional cooking practices.  In many cultures, the three-stone fire or traditional stove may have great social significance.  Some examples include:

  • The Baganda people in Uganda, who associate the three stones with marriage.  If a man moves the stones out of the kitchen or fireplace, it signals divorce.
  • In the Iteso and Adhola tribes, also in Uganda, the stove is made by the mother-in-law, and signifies the acceptance of the daughter-in-law into the family.  It is believed that if the daughter-in-law were to make her own stove, she would become unable to bear children.

“A clean cooking solution or a new technology
must meet the needs of the users and be culturally appropriate otherwise it
will fail to be utilized over the long term. This includes making sure that the
technology is affordable, socially acceptable, easy to use, widely available,
durable, and most of all, that the technology is desired.” 

– Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

StoveTeam has field-tested its stove technology in Honduras and Mexico, and thus has the experience of working with indigenous populations to facilitate the adoption of this lifesaving and life-changing technology.  The adoption of clean and energy-efficient stoves requires a lifestyle change – the three-stone cookfire has a long history. StoveTeam’s model emphasizes the components for successful adoption – including building stoves locally and selling through a distribution network of trained local women.  These women understand the culture and its traditions. They are uniquely qualified to educate women on the health risks of current practices and the benefits of adopting a new technology, and to train them in culturally appropriate ways to use the new stoves. The pieces are in place to foster the adoption of a new, safer and healthier way of cooking.  The beauty of the program is that it supports women as entrepreneurs, educators, trainers and sales representatives while contributing to better health and less deforestation in the community.



o Ahuja, Rajeev B. and Sameek Bhattacharya. “Burns in the developing world and burn disasters.” BMJ (British Medical Journal). August 21,
2004. v329(7463): pp447–449.
o “The Aprovecho Institutional Rocket Stove.” (YouTube video from Aprovecho). February 4, 2011.
o “Aprovecho to ship more stoves to Darfur on Friday.” April 12, 2011.
o “Barriers to adoption.” Social Marketplace. (no date)
o Block, Ben. “India announces improved cook stove program.” World Watch. V 23, n2, March 2010.
o “Burns.” Fact Sheet N.365. Media Centre, World Health Organization. May 2012.
o “Cooking.” Wikipedia.
o Cordes, Leslie. Igniting change: A strategy for universal adoption of clean cookstoves and fuels. Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
November 2011.
o Diara, Soumaila T. “Women engineers promote low-carbon cooking across Mali.” Thomson Reuters Foundation. February 10, 2012.
o Doyle, Alister. “Air pollution scourge underestimated, green energy can help: U.N.” Reuters. April 9, 2013.
o Early, Samantha. “Saving lives one stove at a time.” Top Stories. DW (Deutsche Welle) July 9, 2013.
o “Fuel for life: Household Energy and Health.” World Health Organization. 2006.
o Fullerton, Duncan G., Nigel Bruce, and Stephen B. Gordon, “Indoor air pollution from biomass fuel smoke is a major health concern in the
developing world.” Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 2008 September; 102(9): pp843–851.
o Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
o “Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.” (press release) U.S. Department of State. (no date)
o Guay, Justin. “Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.” Sierra Club of India via Celsias. (no date).
o “Household Cookstoves, Environment, Health, and Climate Change: A New Look at an Old Problem.” World Bank. 2011. Cookstoves-web.pdf
o “Indoor air pollution and health.” Fact sheet No. 292. September 2011. World Health Organization.
o Lindsay, David. “When cooking can be deadly.” February 12, 2012.
o Millennium Development Goals Indicators. United Nations.
o The Millennium Development Goals Report 2013. United Nations.
o Morgan, Richard. “Children are the makers and the markers of sustainable societies.” Thomson Reuters Foundation. June 26, 2013.
o Mushi, Deogratias. “Tanzania: Why we need improved biomass stoves”. Tanzania Daily News. December 1, 2011.
o Nirmalan, P. K., A. Padmavathi, R. D. Thulasiraj. “Sex inequalities in cataract blindness burden and surgical services in south India.” British
Journal of Ophthalmology. 2003; 87 pp847-849.
o “Pneumonia.” Fact sheet No. 331. Media Centre, World Health Organization. April 2013.
o Schmidt, Charles W. “Black Carbon: The Dark Horse of Climate Change Drivers.” Environmental Health Perspectives. V199(4), pp A172–
A175, April 2011.
o Zimmer, Carl. “Black carbon is worse for global warming than previously thought.” The Guardian. January 17, 2013.