Access to clean cooking: Is there a business case

Providing clean energy for cooking or clean cooking device to millions of people is a big challenge. World over about 2.8 billion people still rely on biomass, coal and kerosene for cooking. Recently launched IEA's 'Energy Access Outlook' report said that unlike electricity, improved access to clean cooking facilities remains elusive. More than anything else, it has a large health implication, especially for women and children, on account of indoor air pollution. And of course there is an associated issue of drudgery as well. To address this, under Prime Minister Ujjwala programme, a target has been set to provide LPG connection to 50 million below poverty line households by 2018-19, out of which about 20 million connections had already been provided. But this would still be covering only half of 100 million households in India that rely on firewood, coal, dung cakes etc. as primary source of cooking. At global scale, situation is equally concerning.

Against this backdrop, Clean Cooking Forum 2017, co-hosted by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and TERI got concluded recently in Delhi. During its deliberations, I was struck by one remark made by Mr N R Naryana Murthy, founder of Infosys. Responding to a question as to why private sector is not looking at clean cooking space as a business although in India alone millions of people do not have access to clean cooking, Mr Murthy reasoned that given very low paying capacity of these people, any private industry would never consider this as a viable market.

While it is true that many out of this segment would be too poor to afford clean cookstoves, if 'Bottom of the Pyramid' theory is right, this very stratum is fertile ground for businesses. Moreover, the rural population is not one homogenous entity but comprises many layers, from very poor to well-to-do households. The fact of the matter is that millions of motorcycles and television sets are sold in rural India. So if expensive items like these could be easily bought by rural population, obviously there is something else in play, other than simple purchasing power of the rural consumers. It seems that ultimately this phenomenon is linked to (a) whether the decision maker of a household is convinced about the utility of a product and (b) what sort of financing is made available to the consumer to defray the first cost of the product.

That means that the marketing efforts must be directed to the right audience. For clean cookstoves, traditional wisdom has been to sensitize the womenfolk about the pitfalls of cooking on traditional chulhas. Given that predominantly ours is a patriarchal society, it is the menfolk who must be made to understand the health implications of traditional biomass cookstoves and what kinds of benefits a clean cookstove can bring in for the whole household. The trick lies in converting clean cookstove to an aspirational product for head of the family. Another issue right now is that market of clean cooking devices is highly fragmented. Its consolidation could very well help in achieving economies of scale. Towards this, the EESL/UJALA model of aggregation and bulk procurement could also be explored for better price discovery.

Designing right kind of financing schemes for the consumer that is not that well to do economically is another area to focus on. Partnering with micro financing institutions could be one of the ways to tackle this aspect. In Bangladesh, this approach has been used successfully for solar home lighting systems. The other way could be to leverage CSR spending of the corporates as a partial financing. Moving away from subsidy based approach, TERI has demonstrated through its various field level interventions how to blend CSR funding with other sources, including micro financing, to make clean cooking and solar lighting devices affordable to a common, rural user.

TERI's extensive field experience of working with the communities at the grassroots level indicates that fuel-stacking cannot be just wished away in rural areas, even with LPG provisioning. In that scenario, what is required is to provide efficient and clean cooking options to the consumers. In turn that means understanding users' needs and designing cooking 'product' accordingly. That is where public-private-people partnership could be utilized fruitfully. And this being a global problem, why not to have Global Challenge for developing clean cooking devices based on different input energy sources such as solar?