Reducing poverty and lowering emissions using cook stoves
More than 90% of the households in Laos cook on wood and/or charcoal, and in urban and peri urban areas the main stove is a portable, ceramic stove. The unregulated cookstove market shows a large diversity of designs, most of them with low performance and a short lifespan. Some models are good on principle, but in absence of quality control the production process is not strictly followed through.
The EU-funded SWITCH-Asia project Improved Cook Stoves contributes to poverty alleviation in Lao PDR through the development of a sustainable consumption and production chain of fuel-efficient Improved Cook Stoves (ICS), which promote the effective use of wood and charcoal and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Started in February 2013, the project aims to have distributed 100,000 improved stoves through a subsidy-free, market-based intervention involving 15 producers and 150 retailers by January 2017.
The stove predominating the market has been the traditional "Tao Dum," or black stove, which the project has adopted as the 'baseline' stove to compare new prototypes against in efficiency tests. After testing many stoves, the project developed prototypes that are viable for the market. Currently, only certain stove models that adhere to a series of quality standards receive a distinct blue quality label, recognisable for the retailer and the customers.
For the first time ever a stove has become an aspirational product.
The ICS uses some familiar design elements of previously existing Lao stoves for ease of use, but improves on the quality, durability and efficiency. All of the ICS are produced locally in Laos, and the project supports both the producers and retailers in promoting their product. ICS are currently made by 19 producers in 3 provinces and sold by 450 retailers, from roadside stalls to local markets and family minimarts across 9 provinces of Laos.
The ICS consumers
Ms. Khampheng is a typical consumer who has switched to the improved cook stove. She used to have four stoves in her kitchen, and recently she bought one ICS brought to the market through the Improved Cook Stoves project.
"I like the new stove better for two main reasons," she says, "It saves charcoal every time I cook and it boils water faster."
With charcoal as her main source of cooking fuel, she consumes 1.2 Kg per day, which amounts to a daily cost of 25 Euro cents. This means she spends some 7.5 Euros per month. With the improved stove she saves 29%, or 2.2 Euros per month, on her fuel costs that she now can use for other important purposes. The stove also produces less smoke in her kitchen, for a more pleasant and safer cooking environment.
In 2014 an independent survey assessed the impact of the improved stove on livelihoods, especially those of women. It concluded that the time saving of 20 minutes per meal significantly alleviated the daily drudgery of women, certainly for those cooking more times a day.
However, the ICS is also more expensive: Ms. Khampheng bought it for 5 Euros, compared to the cost of 2.7 Euros for a normal stove of similar size. Nonetheless, within approximately a month, all these extra costs have already been paid back by her savings on charcoal. Additionally, the ICS lasts for two years instead of the mere 6 months of a traditional ceramic stove.
Based on user's profile data collected yearly by the project, the early ICS adopters are the urban middle class, whereas poorer households are expected to be reached increasingly over the next years.
Teaming up with the Lao Women's Union
As one of its strategies to reach out to consumers, the project team established a close relationship with the Lao Women's Union (LWU), because of its concern with women's well-being and its extensive branches across the entire country.
At the initial meetings, the response to cooperation was conservative because there was no understanding about the improved cook stove, but once the Union's leadership started using the stove themselves, their interest to partner with the project gained momentum and the enthusiasm to promote the product increased.
As Ms Khampheng explains, "The main reason I bought the stove was that I saw a cooking demonstration by the Lao Women's Union at the market, showing a faster boiling time compared to the traditional stove, and they explained about the savings on fuel. After that, I saw the stove with the superman logo in the shop nearby and recognised that this was the improved one."
Currently the project has agreements in place with Lao Women's Union in five central and Southern provinces, namely Vientiane Capital, Vientiane Province, Khammouane, Savannakhet and Champassak.
Project staff trained the LWU members about the basics of cook stove technology, organised exchange visits to stove producers and retailers and logistically supported cooking demonstrations at local markets. Over the last two years, 72 demonstrations have been conducted, directly selling hundreds of stoves and sparking dozens of orders from retailers, who have sold 40,000 stoves in the first two years of the project. No subsidies have been involved in the price of the stoves.
Satisfaction levels among traditional stoves back in 2012 showed low rankings, whereas in contrast surveys among ICS users are very high. The feedback from users is that also different sizes and stoves for wood should also be brought to the market.
As a result, since 2014 a smaller and cheaper design with similar performance can be purchased and in 2015 a new stove for restaurants will be made available. A stove for wood will be launched later on this year, expected to face a very high demand.
Based on R&D efforts at the stove test labs that are managed by the Ministry of Science and Technology, even more stove models may be offered to the market, as long as these are durable, affordable, marketable, and profitable and save at least 25% fuel compared to the baseline stove.
(Author: Bastiaan Teune)
(Editor: Silvia Sartori)