India: Women Entrepreneurs in Bihar Help Improve Air Quality through Cleaner Cookstoves

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India: Women Entrepreneurs in Bihar Help Improve Air Quality through Cleaner Cookstoves Solar Mart entrepreneur Annu with the beneficiary explaining how the improved cookstove works.

Surjamani Devi remembers the time not so long ago when she used to stoke her earthern cookstove with twigs to get the fire going for the family meal.

“The room was full of smoke,” she recalled when we visited her small mud and thatch home in Khudwa village in the eastern state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states.  “We coughed a lot, it was harmful to our eyes, and the children couldn’t study.” Little did she realize that apart from harming her family’s health, the wood fired cookstove was adding to the pervasive pall of smoke of that hung heavily around them every winter.

Bihar suffers greatly from air pollution. Despite the state’s significant rise in the use of cleaner cooking fuels such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and biogas - from 8.4% in 2011 to 37.8% in 2019-21 – many poor households continue to use wood and cow dung to light their family stoves. Smoke from these cookstoves contributes 40 percent to the high levels of ambient air pollution, amongst the highest sources of such pollution in the state.

As giving large-scale access to LPG or electric stoves may take time, the government of Bihar is addressing the issue in the short term by boosting the use of cookstoves that use far less biomass and emit very little smoke.

Since reducing air pollution is a priority for the World Bank, the Bank supported a pilot project that mobilized women from Bihar’s successful self-help group movement (JEEVIKA) to market, sell, and service these improved cookstoves among local communities.

The pilot, which ran from 2021-2022, was carried out in cooperation with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), JEEVIKA and the Bihar government’s Department of Rural Development.  

Initially, 25 women from 5 districts were trained to become successful entrepreneurs in this traditionally male-dominated sector. The women, equipped with skills in marketing, product demonstration and after-sales service, began selling improved cookstoves through small, specially established women-run solar marts – called Uttam Urja Kendras.  They also sold other clean energy products such as solar powered fans, light bulbs and mobile phone chargers, particularly useful where power supply is unreliable.

Till 2024, 372 women-run solar marts had sold 50,000 improved cookstoves across 15 of the 38 districts in the state. And their numbers keep growing.

Surjamani Devi is one of the proud new owners. She smiles as she places a large iron pot on her gleaming new stove to cook the evening meal.  “The food gets cooked much faster and the children can study nearby,” she tells us with satisfaction. “We haven’t coughed and we have stopped wearing glasses. We save on wood, and money too.” 

Image Solar Mart entrepreneur Annu with Jeevika members explaining the features of the improved cookstove.

An all-women business model

In Lakhaipur in Bihar’s Gaya district, we met Annu, a confident young woman who sells these new stoves. She said that the steady income she earns from their sale not only enables her to support her family but allows her to buy a new saree now and then. What’s more, as a self-sufficient woman successfully managing her own shop, she has acquired a newfound status in society, triggering a shift in the patriarchal mindset of those around her.

Importantly, the entire supply chain of improved cookstoves is managed by women. While women work as assemblers and technicians to put together the new cookstoves at the JEEVIKA’s Women’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and Solution Pvt. Limited (J-WIRES), all the other aspects of the business, including sales and after-sales support, are managed by the women who run the solar marts.

The pilot’s success led to demand for more such women-led small businesses. In fact, since the pilot ended, JEEVIKA has expanded the business model to other villages through its own networks and systems, without any further World Bank support.  And the women have continued to build their inventories through profits from sales, while expanding their customer base through microfinance loans from the cluster level federations of the women’s self-help groups.

This innovative business model not only generates new jobs for women, but the emphasis on training and skill development gives them valuable expertise, enhancing their overall agency and economic resilience. And, by challenging gender norms and stereotypes, it paves the way for the greater inclusion of women in the workforce.

The broader airshed level approach to air pollution

Looking ahead, the World Bank is collaborating with the government of Bihar and JEEVIKA to rapidly expand the model to 10 million rural households over a 5–6-year period. Under this program, JEEVIKA would aim to establish over 3,500 solar marts, providing doorstep services to rural buyers.

The clean cooking business model is also starting to spread into the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), initially through a small-scale pilot by TERI. This will, in turn, be scaled up under UP’s Clean Air Management Program with funding from the World Bank.

Nonetheless, better cookstoves are only one factor in reducing air pollution in India’s northern belt. These programs are thus part of a broader airshed-level approach that is being planned through a series of programs with all the Indian states of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, as well as with the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan. Such an ambitious program, with financing from other partners and donors, is essential to bring cleaner air to the 800 million plus people living within this shared airshed.

In the meantime, Annu and the other new businesswomen like her are busy driving change at the grassroots, becoming an inspiration for others to follow. 

Read more: 

Karin Shepardson

Lead Environmental Specialist, World Bank South Asia Region

Neha Sharma

Environmental Consultant

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