Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar has written a superb critical analysis looking back at the history of India’s development efforts to provide viable, feasible, and desirable solutions to the myriad unmet needs of the common man. Using cookstoves as her narrative theme, she explores the challenges of base of the pyramid product development and marketing, and draws lessons for “the toilet builders of today.” A must read for social enterprises, entrepreneurs and design for impact.
Years after its big launch, India’s stove mission is going nowhere. A new government is in power, and another object meant to save the rural poor is now galvanising excitement. Companies such as Indian Oil, L&T, Tata Consultancy Services and Vedanta, among others, have pledged to build toilets to stop people from defecating in the open. Meanwhile, the cookstove programme has practically vanished from view, quietly renamed the Unnat Chulha Abhiyan and downsized.
This was not the first time a big push for clean cookstoves started only to falter. The history of India’s cookstove programmes parallels the evolution of the global development agenda, shaped by the geopolitics of each era—saving forests in the 1970s, improving women’s lot in the 1990s, preventing global warming in the 2000s. Since the 1970s, development agencies and governments around the world have spent millions of dollars promoting clean stoves as the solution for a succession of big problems. These programmes reflect a yearning, among nation-builders and international donors alike, for silver bullets—objects that are quantifiable technological solutions, but also symbolic, such as vaccines, mosquito nets and toilets.
A timely find, as the World Bank et al renew their PR push to promote toilets over mobile phones. The rise and fall of the “next big thing” for the poor is as much a trendy hip thing of the moment as any 15 minute internet celebrity. As silver bullets emerge and disappear according to donor whims and fancies, its the poor who suffer from half baked solutions and incomplete projects left behind like abandoned children’s toy in the sandbox.
Badly trained, reluctant stove-makers meant bad stoves. In one Haryana village, 67 percent of users said the new chulhas were too high, and over half said the cooking holes were too small for their pots. In Punjab, many families found their fuel consumption increased. In Orissa, chimneys were removed because villagers feared their thatched roofs would catch fire. In one village, a row of houses did burn down. “We couldn’t talk about chulhas in that area for years,” said Sarin.
There was also a more fundamental issue: the programme’s goals were out of sync with what women wanted. While the focus was on making stoves that consumed less wood, women wanted ones that emitted less smoke, or cooked faster.
As for clean cookstoves, she came to the conclusion that structural problems couldn’t be solved with single-point interventions. “Designing a smokeless biomass chulha,” she said, “is in some ways more complex than designing a nuclear power plant.”
And in India, we note the same issues that plague the sales of “objects to replace dirty stinky kerosene” and other things that are good for you, like oatmeal.
Over the years, Karve found that even better-off rural communities were not persuaded by arguments about health, the environment, or even time saved in cooking. Women’s time and health were not valued; any family with Rs 1,000 to spare would first buy a mobile phone. She came to believe that the “aspirational value” of the stove had to be engaged. Like any successful consumer product, “the price has to be right, the benefits outstanding, and it has to look good,” she said. “It has to be cool.” That kind of hard-sell made Karve, with her “NGO mindset,” uncomfortable.
Is that women’s health is not valued, or that the rupee invested in the mobile phone brings back a greater return than the rupee sunk into a stove or toilet? What are the assumptions we are making on why people choose to make these trade-offs, and how does that bias us so that our own assumptions end up being consistent barriers to new product introductions to this target segment? We have enough years of experience with the stoves and toilets and water purifiers to want to pause and reflect by now.
“Why must the global alliance for a developing-country problem be headquartered in Washington?” he said in an interview in his IIT office, in 2013. Besides, he wasn’t sure that the GACC’s market-driven approach was the correct one. “I’m always worried when people say there’s only one way to solve a complex problem,” he said.
Which brings us full circle to the problems of toilets and the bank.