Cookstoves matter less than the ladies who must use them

By | May 9, 2012
Photo credit: Goverdhan Meena, village Rawal, India Jan 2009

The Wonkblog covers findings from a randomized control trial on the impact of cookstoves in a blogpost titled “What cookstoves tell us about the limits of technology” where they share such insights as:

So what went wrong? Basically, none of the earlier evaluations of the clean cookstoves had taken into account how households in places like India would actually use the things. In early tests, there were trained technicians on hand at all times to inspect and repair the stoves. Not surprisingly, households used the stoves frequently. But when the technicians departed and the owners had to clean the chimneys themselves, they lost interest over time. People were spending too many hours conducting repairs and eventually just preferred to switch back to indoor cooking fires.

 I just need to stop being surprised at how little the people involved in these grand schemes and plans matter. The article goes on to add,

What’s more, laboratory tests had found that the more modern stoves could boil water more quickly using less fuel. This led to the idea that they could help households burn less coal and biomass overall — and so cut greenhouse-gas emissions. But Hanna and her colleagues found that the cleaner stoves did not appear to affect how long the households in Orissa actually spent cooking. “[T]here is no evidence,” they write, “of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”

It’s a dismal finding. But it suggests that for aid projects — as well as for any effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and tackle climate change — having the right technology won’t always be enough. “As engineers and scientists, it is easy to fixate on the technology,” concludes S.C. over at the Economist’s Free Exchange blog. “It is a lot harder, however, to predict human behaviour and how that interacts with technology.”

So I dug deeper to go find this Economist blogpost by the mysterious S.C who, in addition to articulating the above challenges far better, goes on to conclude, far more insightfully, that:

But the belief that countries can leapfrog on economic and social issues solely on the basis of technology seems optimistic. The poor can be frustratingly stubborn to an economist for failing to conform to a rational-agent model. Instead of expecting the poor to “do the right thing”, a better approach may be to design devices that fit into their lives with minimal effort. Else, despite good intentions, these programmes won’t affect meaningful change other than the addition of a shiny new toy.

Not to mention that nobody bothered to train people on maintenance, unless that was the point of the randomized control trial – to see if the old “chuck the technology at them and they’ll manage” approach still works. I think that only ever worked for the bicycle. But the comments in the Economist blog are fascinating to read, and one stood out:

Improving productivity with more advanced technologies requires change in work routines (habits and customs to process food or learn).

The advice in the final lines doesn’t work. Adapting technologies to the existing work routines (“a better approach may be to design devices that fit into their lives with minimal effort”) instead of altering them also produces marginal results.

It is the combination of the two: new technologies and changes in work routines, that bring results at a higher level.

The “may be” in the advice can be scrapped. One has not only to learn people how to use them, but how to adapt their daily habits.

 Asking Mrs Meena (in the photograph above) to change her entire day’s behaviour (cooking in these contexts takes a lot more time than you imagined) that too, using a cookstove that she made herself, as part of a harvest festival along with the other village women, is asking a bit much from her if there is little or no value or understanding about these barriers to adoption.

Scientific methods and metrics are all well and good to tell you that X does not mark this spot, but its only through a willingness to actually imagine that Mrs Meena might have something to teach you, that one will be able to come up with a solution that she might actually aspire towards wanting to own and use.

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