We incubate businesses that distribute affordable household technologies, especially improved cookstoves and renewable fuels, such as sustainably harvested stickwood, briquettes, pellets, bioethanol and biogas.
We offer low-interest, no-recourse loans and other financial assistance to businesses and non-profits that promote efficient, affordable, climate-friendly cooking practices, which are viable in the communities where they will be used.
We support experiments to implement and refine strategies to make ventures self-sustaining.
Global HearthWorks Foundation seeks to support promising, market-based solutions to the problems of energy poverty in the developing world. We focus in particular on cookstoves and fuels, because, despite decades of efforts by governments, passionate individuals, and well-funded aid agencies, 3 billion people continue to face alarming rates of disease, death and environmental degradation from the use of three-stone fires and simple charcoal braziers. In recent years there has been a renewed push within the global community (spearheaded by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves) to address the cooking crisis, and a wider range of stakeholders—including social entrepreneurs, private investors, corporations, and a large array of international funders—have entered the cookstove space. As the sector has diversified, a number of issues have emerged as points of controversy. Here is where we stand on a few of the salient points:
“Improved” vs. “Clean” Biomass Stoves
The World Health Organization’s most recent guidelines for indoor air quality presented a sobering message to the cookstove community: in order to achieve a significant reduction in the major health risks associated with household wood and charcoal combustion (specifically, pneumonia, COPD, and cardio-vascular disease), a replacement cooking system must eliminate at least 90% of the harmful emissions. (http://www.who.int/indoorair/guidelines/hhfc/recommendation_1/en/). Only the most advanced biomass stoves (fan-driven gasifiers) have the potential to burn sufficiently cleanly to meet this standard. Yet these stoves continue to be far too expensive for the intended users and, even with subsidies, have yet to be distributed at scale. This predicament has led some in the cookstove space to abandon the goal of clean biomass stoves and focus instead on promoting clean-burning fuels like LPG, ethanol, and biogas (which in most places require significant infrastructure and supply chain investment as well as relatively high upfront user costs). Others have continued to work on building business models that they hope will eventually make the cleanest biomass (gasifier) stoves accessible to poor households in combination with sustainably produced pellet fuel. But the majority of project developers have settled on “improved” wood and charcoal stoves (ICS)—devices that significantly increase fuel efficiency but may only reduce emissions of PM2.5 and CO by 20-50%; they reason that, although these stoves will not eliminate all the health risks from biomass cooking, they currently offer the best, most scalable option and bring a host of additional benefits to households in terms of the environment, income, women’s labor, safety and time, etc.
Global HearthWorks is pursuing an ambitious but pragmatic approach to the cookstove question. We are always looking for game-changing innovations that will completely free people from the dangers, drudgery and costs of traditional biomass cooking. We support promising initiatives to introduce clean cooking fuels (bio-ethanol, in particular) into markets currently dominated by charcoal, kerosene and wood. At the same time, we recognize the need for intermediate solutions in many contexts. An “improved” biomass cooking system—one that women genuinely want to use—that lowers fuel costs, slows deforestation, and allows women more time for productive activities is certainly preferable to the status quo, especially if it helps create the infrastructure (business, human, behavioral) that will eventually allow truly clean cooking solutions to take hold. An all-or-nothing approach at this time will not address the scope or urgency of the problem.
The Role of Carbon Finance
Over the last ten years, revenues from the sale of carbon credits have played a central role in the dissemination of clean and improved cookstoves across the developing world. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and increasingly the voluntary carbon market have provided an essential means of financing the distribution of hundreds of thousands of stoves to users who otherwise would not be able to afford them. But in recent years, as the price of carbon has plummeted, many stove enterprises have faced painful setbacks; no longer able to count on the same level of funding to subsidize stove prices, their sales have declined. In Uganda, where the entire stove industry has historically sold products below cost, the decline in carbon proceeds has threatened the survival of many local stove enterprises, especially those that have not developed alternative higher margin products (such as institutional stoves) to compensate for losses.
GHWF supports the use of carbon finance as a source of capital assistance to cookstove enterprises but not as the foundation of a long-term business model. We believe carbon revenues best serve as a safety net for enterprises as they are seeking to expand (e.g. by serving as loan collateral) or weather local economic downturns. Relying on carbon funds to lower product prices distorts customer expectations and leaves businesses vulnerable to a highly uncertain, external market.
Is the Market the Answer?
Global HearthWorks, like many others working in this field, believes that the long-term solution to the clean cooking challenge lies in the development of thriving clean stove and fuel industries that can meet the needs and preferences of local customers, while providing employment, encouraging entrepreneurship and inspiring innovation. Yet, there is no doubt that the pace of industry development in many countries has been slower than hoped, and the challenge of bridging the gap between clean technology and last mile affordability remains daunting. Given that indoor smoke kills more people each year than TB or malaria, should we really be counting on markets to solve the problem? Why not approach cookstoves like other public health crises--through large-scale government action funded by international aid dollars?
In our view, addressing the cooking practices of 3 billion people is a qualitatively different endeavor from combating a disease through a vaccine or drug treatment campaign (even one as complex as that required by the HIV/AIDS epidemic). Not only are cooking habits embedded in local cultural traditions and social practices making a one-size fits all approach impossible, but they are also tied to existing market systems (involving charcoal producers, sellers, stove manufacturers etc.) that support thousands of livelihoods in a given community. Most importantly, clean cooking solutions must be economically self-sustaining, because old practices will return as soon as government commitments and aid dollars run out.
At the same time, governments do have a vital role to play in creating an environment in which clean stove and fuel businesses can succeed. By implementing favorable tax policies, tightening controls on illegal charcoaling, protecting forest areas, and promoting education on traditional cooking hazards, governments can encourage the spread of healthier cooking practices across their countries. Partnerships between private enterprise and government (as well as NGOs) hold the greatest promise for moving viable cooking solutions to scale.