Rather than show pictures of squalor, stove programs could strive to show women in a favorable light as in this photo taken in Gisenyi, Rwanda. Photo credit: Nathaniel Mulcahy.

In 2010, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves  was created by the UN Foundation and spearheaded by Hilary Clinton. Her position as US Secretary of State and experience as an advocate for women gave the movement and its related health concerns prominence and facilitated an infusion of public and private capital. The program has provided an international umbrella organization through which most stove initiatives are now funneled. However, few of these initiatives have succeeded in going to scale without being subsidized. Reflecting on the appropriateness of terms and messages employed by the clean stove movement could provide insights into what may be holding back these important programs.

Research has shown that a user-centered approach at the project level improves adoption of new stoves (Gill 1987; Barnes, Openshaw, Smith 1994). However, there has been little reflection on the importance of cultural sensitivity to messaging in what has evolved into an international movement. For example, to many stove programs, the word ‘clean’ covers a spectrum of meanings including efficiency, less soot, and improved technology. At the project level, however, ‘clean’ often translates simply as ‘tidy’ or ‘sanitary’ and can reinforce internalized stereotypes among some development actors about stove recipients related to race/ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and power.  While notions of ‘cleanliness’ are complex, the point is not to define it, but to explore how the term “clean cookstoves” may, itself, be a barrier to successful adoption of stove innovations.

While working on a project in Ghana, we observed a film crew interviewing a woman in her home. The woman was asked about her interest in participating in a “clean cookstove” program. With a mix of confusion and anger, she responded “But my stove is clean. My whole kitchen is clean. I am a good mother.” Her kitchen and stove were, indeed, spotless (Photo 1). Washed each day with a mixture of clay, water and ash, the kitchen was sanitary, organized, and attractive in its terra cotta hues. A source of pride that bespoke hours of care, her aluminum pots shone with an almost mirrored surface.

In Afiasu, Ghana, a typical rural kitchen with traditional stoves illustrates the usual way local kitchens are kept clean and hygienic. Photo credit: Nathaniel Mulcahy.

In Afiasu, Ghana, a typical rural kitchen with traditional stoves illustrates the usual way local kitchens are kept clean and hygienic. Photo courtesy Nathaniel Mulcahy

In Mexico, a woman who was asked the same question replied, “But we have a clean cookstove.” She brought us to her kitchen, where stood a modern range right out of a Better Homes and Garden review of modern kitchen designs (Photo 2). She had saved for years to purchase the stove by working as a migrant seasonal farm worker. Her kitchen is used almost exclusively for weddings and feast days in order to keep the stove pristine and save on fuel costs. Regular meals are cooked outside the home on open fires or clay comals.

In Los Reys Mezontla, Mexico, this “clean” stove is used to prepare foods on feast days and other special events. Photo credit: Nathaniel Mulcahy.

In Los Reys Mezontla, Mexico, this “clean” stove is used to prepare foods on feast days and other special events. Photo courtesy Nathaniel Mulcahy

What connects these two different women on two different continents is a common but erroneous supposition held by a number of actors running stove programs: That those in developed nations know better than those in developing nations. Indeed, countless presentations and brochures generated by stove programs over the past half decade feature women and children in small smoky rooms—with black creosote staining the walls and rafters—where  tears stream from thin children’s eyes. These examples of poverty make for compelling visuals that appeal to NGOs—and their funders—in places like DC, New York, and Rome. But the reality is that most of the three billion people who are the intended recipients stove programs do not identify with such images. Indeed, such campaigns tend to shame rather than inspire those who are a program’s true end-users.

Are better stoves needed? Absolutely. Are smoky stoves a problem? The answer to that question is far more complex. While stove smoke can certainly be a health concern, it can often be a culturally appropriate and cost-effective tool for better health. In Togo, we saw that stove smoke was used to cure fish and keep weevils out of grain. The adoption of improved stoves had unintended consequences: Poorly cured fish and unsmoked grain led to food spoilage, which put villages at heightened risk for malnutrition and food-related illness. In Sierra Leone, we noted that when smokeless stoves were introduced malarial-carrying mosquitoes became more of a problem. As a consequence, expensive mosquito nets then became necessary. And in Rwanda—where smoke is a critical culinary component of local traditional foods—people stopped using smokeless stoves because they could not cook many dishes central to their culture.

Rather than show pictures of squalor, stove programs could strive to show women in a favorable light as in this photo taken in Gisenyi, Rwanda. Photo credit: Nathaniel Mulcahy.

Rather than show pictures of squalor, stove programs could strive to show women in a favorable light as in this photo taken in Gisenyi, Rwanda. Photo courtesy Nathaniel Mulcahy

Such problems could be addressed early in the design process if a more anthropological approach had been used to transfer technology in a way that was respectful of local customs and culinary traditions. Enlisting local cultural consultants—who reside in the target culture and engage in traditional culinary practices—in the design process helps ensure that stove innovations meet the needs of local end-consumers. The fact that the single most frequent question WorldStove fieldworkers are asked is “Do you use these stoves in your home?” speaks volumes to what it takes to design stoves that can successfully go-to-scale. Anthropologists are uniquely qualified to bridge the disconnect between NGOs end-users of efficient—and culturally acceptable stoves. After all, a better stove by any other name than “clean” will surely ‘smell as sweet.’

A Humanitarian Engineer, Nathaniel Mulcahy is the director and founder of WorldStove and a founding member of the UN Foundation’s Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. He has conducted stove programs in 13 countries—including Ghana, Haiti, Mexico, Rwanda, Togo, and the US—that target low-resource populations in which the every-day decision of “fuel versus food” is a primary driver for more efficient stoves.

To submit contributions to this column please contact SMA Contributing Editor Megan Carney (megcarney@gmail.com).

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