Faq

An Introduction to Improved Cookstoves
According to the Ecosystem Marketplace, improved cookstove (ICS) projects provide up to 6% of annual volume traded in the voluntary carbon market. Nevertheless, many sustainability professionals have a limited understanding of how projects work and how they may differ from one another. Many experienced carbon market professionals expect the total volume of ICS carbon credits to increase in the next decade as other, typically cheaper, carbon methodologies lose their eligibility to issue credits. This FAQ style article explains the problem of traditional biomass cooking, the solutions provided by improved (or “clean”) cooking solutions, and the choices that The African Stove Company (TASC) makes when it designs and implements projects distributing ICS.

Over 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted each year by burning wood fuels for cooking [1]. That figure is approximately 2% of global emissions and comparable to the carbon footprint of the United Kingdom. Most wood fuel is collected locally or processed into charcoal and these two processes are major drivers of regional forest degradation across the African continent [2]. Burning wood fuel also creates black carbon (BC) and other particulate emissions. BC emissions are short-lived (8-10 days) but have a significant influence on regional precipitation and temperature changes. The climate and environmental impact of traditional biomass cooking includes process emissions from woodfuel supply chains, fuel combustion emissions, and forest degradation caused by woodfuel collection.

Household air pollution (HAP) from cooking causes over 4 million premature deaths each year from conditions including lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and ischemic heart disease. HAP exposure is responsible for 45% of pneumonia deaths in under-fives and it is leading cause of blindness and low birth weight globally. These numbers are shocking, but there is broad scientific consensus that the breadth of negative health outcomes and the number of ill-health episodes caused by inefficient cooking have likely been underestimated.

Women in developing countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), have primary responsibility for household cooking. Their health, and that of their children, is disproportionately impacted by HAP. Inefficient cookstoves require more fuel to be collected and more time in attendance while food is cooked. The aggregate time spent in fuelwood collection and cooking is around 5 hours per day. Gender-based injury and violence are commonly overlooked risks of frequently travelling many miles to collect firewood.

Traditional biomass cooking has the greatest net negative impact on public health, followed by gender inequality, and climate and environment. According to the World Bank, in SSA, the total cost of inaction is over $330 billion a year: over $186 billion on gender, over $96 billion on health, and over $47 billion on climate and environment [3]. Replacing traditional biomass cookstoves dramatically improves women’s health and allows them greater economic and social freedoms. It also reduces CO2 and, today, carbon credits are the best mechanism by which to impact all of these worthwhile goals.

TASC distributes ICS in various countries across Africa. We monitor the performance of the ICS and generate carbon credits by providing evidence that they improve fuel efficiency and emissions performance when compared with the traditional technology or technique for cooking that they have replaced. 

We manage the ‘carbon compliance’ process to ensure that the projects are registered with reputable international carbon standards and transparently issue verified CO2 emissions reductions as carbon credits.

ICS includes a range of interventions or appliances designed to improve fuel efficiency and emissions performance in cooking. Most are improved cooking stoves; however, the category also includes products like thermal insulators for heat retention cooking. TASC primarily distributes improved cookstoves. 

According to the World Bank Group (WBG) and World Health Organisation (WHO), a clean cooking solution, or clean cookstove, is an advanced ICS that lowers particulate matter emissions to near zero [4]. Clean cookstoves do not burn wood or charcoal but instead use feedstocks like processed briquettes, liquid petroleum gas (LPG), methanol, or even electricity. The name ‘clean cookstove’ is often used incorrectly to describe all manner of ICS, which can be confusing. TASC doesn’t currently distribute clean cookstoves.

We distribute improved cookstoves to address two acute needs: to reduce the environmental, social and economic impacts of the overwhelming number of people that cook on open fires; and, to address the demand for high-quality carbon credits to meet regulated or voluntary emissions reduction targets.

TASC distributes best-in-class, ‘portable rocket stoves’ that have been manufactured by specialist companies to achieve high fuel efficiency gains and moderate combustion gains in burning wood or charcoal. Portable rocket stoves are classified as ‘intermediate ICS’ along with ‘fixed rocket stoves’. Many companies manufacture portable rocket stoves to cater for different family sizes and fuel feedstock (charcoal or wood). We currently distribute cookstoves manufactured on the African continent; by Burn Manufacturing in Kenya and RocketWorks (RW) in South Africa. Burn is an established market leader and their products have been rigorously laboratory and field tested to maintain performance, efficiency, and safety over their lifetime. RW is a newer cookstove manufacturer but their cookstoves are professionally manufactured, independently tested and high performance. 

 

Improved cookstoves vary widely in terms of the fuel feedstock, construction materials, methods of production, and performance. Some carbon projects distribute ‘basic’ artisan cookstoves or make permanent alterations to ‘legacy’ coal or biomass cookstoves. ‘Basic’ and ‘legacy’ cookstoves achieve minor efficiency gains and negligible reductions in local air pollution. These products are not quality tested, prone to malfunction or degradation, and relatively expensive considering their overall impact.

Clean cookstoves can reduce HAP to levels that eradicate its worst health impacts, but they are also the most difficult ICS to adopt because they involve a change in both fuel and technology. There isn’t suitable fuel supply in remote rural communities and the products are too expensive to distribute under a carbon credit model.

Rocket stoves achieve, on average, around 60 percent HAP reduction [4]. TASC finds portable rocket stoves to be the most appropriate technology because they:

  • have benefited from years of research and development to maximise fuel and combustion efficiency;
  • are financially viable for use in carbon credit projects; and,
  • allow people to cook traditional meals using fuel that is readily available in their community

Receiving a portable rocket stove is a step up the ‘energy ladder’ for households and provides immediate climate, health and gender benefits. Portable rocket stoves also give recipients more time and money to invest into their work and education. In the future clean cookstoves will take us from 60% HAP reductions to over 90%. TASC looks forward to distributing truly ‘clean’ cookstoves when we see a broad willingness to pay for carbon credits from these types of projects.

Many families use open ‘3-stone’ fires, where pots are balanced on rocks or metal grates. This is most common in rural areas where households use wood fuel. In peri-urban and urban areas we find families using charcoal and here a basic manufactured stove called an ‘Mbalula’ is common in Zambia and, similar technologies exist in Zimbabwe. Mbaula resemble a washing machine drum with air vents cut out to encourage air flow. In colder areas, where we are not currently active, we may also find traditional indoor stoves with rudimentary chimneys.

 

We are currently distributing stoves in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We have been working in Zambia for over ten years but our operations in South Africa and Zimbabwe are new.

In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), approximately 729 million people, or 73% of the regional population, have no access to any ICS. 17%, or 171 million people, have access to a rocket stove or equivalent ICS, and 10% have access to devices that burn modern fuels [1, 3]. 

Regarding the countries where we operate, Zambia offers the best data on penetration for ICS. 88% of rural Zambian households have no access to electricity and just 2% have an electric cooker. In total, over 83% of households cook with biomass; 46% burn wood on 3-stone fires, and over 36% use Mbalula, mainly with charcoal [5].

Zimbabwe is in the top five countries for annual increases in deforestation, making the situation there arguably even more acute. In rural areas, an astounding 95% of households rely on firewood or charcoal for daily cooking. 66% of urban households are connected to the grid but unreliable supply forces many to employ charcoal stoves as the primary mode of cooking [6, 7]. ICS are beyond the reach of most household budgets, due to the upfront cost.

South Africa is different altogether. It has high rates of electrification and the majority of the population does not rely on biomass fuel. Nevertheless, disparate rural communities live a world apart from the urban centres of SA and receive little to no social support from the national government. Thus, we have identified communities where SA citizens and economic migrants face the same issues that we identified in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Access to an improved rocket stove is no less transformative for these people.

Our areas of operation suffer from high annual increases in deforestation, combined with high proportions of woodfuel use. The link between woodfuel consumption and deforestation is highly localised and, charcoal supply in particularly, is considered a primary cause of deforestation in Zambia [8]. The academic opinion chimes with our experience.

The first phase of distribution is a process called sensitization. Sensitization is the dissemination of information about the proposed project to local communities. The objectives of sensitization are to maximize the adoption of the fuel-efficient stove and eliminate the use of three stone fires or charcoal braziers. Sensitization meetings are arranged through local authorities, which in many cases is a tribal leader. The buy-in of cultural leaders helps TASC to ensure the project is promoted in a culturally appropriate fashion. At sensitization meetings, participants are taught how to cook with efficient stoves, and benefits of an efficient stove, as opposed to open flame cooking, are carefully explained. TASC staff also explain to participants how they can acquire an efficient stove and the information that we need to collect from each of them – to achieve carbon compliance. During sensitization meetings our staff collect the names and addresses of people who would like to obtain a new stove. Only one cookstove is allowed per household so that they cannot be resold.

Several days later our team returns with new stoves for all of the people that signed up for the program during sensitisation meetings. TASC uses a smartphone mobile application to collect stove recipient data – which includes owner, proof of identity, GPS location etc. – in the field. Recipients also sign an End User Agreement to ensure the understanding that they are participating in a program voluntarily and that, in return for receiving an ICS, the rights to the CO2 emissions reductions generated by the stoves lie with TASC.

 

TASC doesn’t technically give stoves away for free. The term ‘free’ suggests a non-conditional donation. We give stoves away in exchange for the exclusive right to monitor their performance and sell carbon credits that may be accrued by registering them with a carbon credit issuing body. In our experience, our mode of distribution is the most efficient way of installing quality stoves in households that need them. Our customers have meagre incomes meaning that the retail price of our stoves is beyond their economic reach. Demanding partial or concessionary payments dramatically slows the pace of distribution and increases the costs of our operations by more than we gain in income. Contrary to popular belief, and after 10 years of experience, we do not find beneficiaries are less willing to look after their stove even though they didn’t pay for it up front. 

The primary measurement of cookstoves’ performance is reduction in carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions. This is how the issuance of carbon credits is determined. CO2e savings are calculated by following methodologies by the Gold Standard or the Verified Carbon Standard. The Gold Standard, in particular, provides guidance on how other project impacts – health and gender – can be extrapolated from the data on stove usage.

Each year, the project scenario is compared with the baseline scenario to estimate the average fuel savings per unit (stove/household). Each scenario is formulated by conducting a series of tests to measure how households cook before and after the stove. The fuel savings per unit is extrapolated to every cookstove still registered with the project and the total is multiplied by a conversion factor to calculate the total tonnes of CO2e that has been reduced by the project activities during that monitoring period. The main driver of the CO2 conversion factor is the amount of non-renewable biomass that is saved from being harvested, measured on a country-by country basis, by every cookstove.

The first step to successful monitoring, reporting and verifying (MRV) project CO2 emissions reductions is a complete record of stove sales/distribution. TASC must make all its records accessible for spot checking and cross referencing by a third-party auditor. Contact information or GPS locations must allow a project auditor to easily contact and visit end users. An auditor must also be able to cross reference pertinent project documentation, including archived stove purchase agreements, financial accounts and distribution records. TASC uses a custom-built, cloud-hosted database for all data collection and monitoring.

The second step is analysis of fuel consumption before and after the distribution of new stoves. Depending on the methodology, baseline (before) and project (after) scenarios can include any carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) or nitrogen dioxide (N20) emissions from the production, transport and consumption of woodfuel. Baseline scenarios may be taken from a similar project registered with the credit standard, or from another reputable source, but project scenarios must be calculated annually (of more often).

The project scenario relies upon monitoring and usage surveys. The former investigates changes in how cookstoves are used, how much fuel they consume, and seasonal variations in either. The results of a monitoring survey can lead to increases or decreases in the volume of carbon credits that can be issued for each project cookstove. The latter measures the “drop off” or replacement of project stoves as they age. The usage survey results will lead to stoves being removed from the project database and, ultimately, a diminishing carbon credit yield over the lifespan of the project.

All field testing measures real cookstove performance in a statistical sample of participant households, chosen using a randomised selection technique. The tests are attended by project staff who instruct the participant households to consume fuel using any and all cooking technologies that they would normally use. Participants cook typical daily meals but avoid large social occasions. If secondary stoves are used, their emissions are included in the results.

 

Commercial motives improve the efficiency of clean cookstove distribution and uptake. TASC is rewarded if our customers use their new stoves. Equally, TASC stands to lose out if our stoves are not used. So, we are directly incentivized to make sure the project is successful. If we relied upon on charitable donation our incomes would not be linked to our results. On a practical level, our commercial team is highly experienced in each aspect of the business – transcontinental distribution networks, import and export duties, training, logistics, data management, etc.

TASC earns revenue by selling carbon credits or derivates thereof. We profit if we sell carbon credits for more than their total cost of production. Costs of production include cookstoves, logistics, warehousing, staff, external support, marketing, and, most importantly, debt repayments. Carbon credits are verified ex-post (after the fact), therefore TASC incurs most costs before it can generate revenue. Carbon credit projects have a complicated risk profile so we must obtain financing from specialist lenders on a project-by-project basis. Our loans must be repaid in full before we can turn a profit.

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