This month marks one year since many of us switched to home-based work to stay safe and help slow the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic has dramatically changed our daily routines, with many of us spending more time in our kitchens than ever before. For those with access to modern cooking technologies and fuels, this translates into more meals prepared in comfortable surroundings. But what about the estimated 4 billion people around the world who lack access to efficient, clean, convenient, safe, affordable, and reliable cooking solutions? Has the pandemic had harsher effects on households lacking access to such solutions? Will COVID-19 further slow progress toward universal access to clean cooking — a key target of Sustainable Development Goal 7?
With these questions in mind, we designed a focus group discussion as part of a larger field study funded and managed by the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) and the Carbon Initiative for Development. In October 2020, when the study communities were under a partial lockdown, two all-female focus group discussions were held: one for the intervention group who had purchased and installed domestic biodigesters; the other for the control group who mainly use wood, supplemented by liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and charcoal. Below are our findings.
Has COVID-19 changed cooking practices?
Participants in both the intervention and control groups reported similar pandemic-related factors affecting their cooking behavior. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated lockdown (i) reduced their mobility owing to travel restrictions and higher transportation costs; (ii) pushed up food and fuel prices; (iii) cut household income; and (iv) raised the number of household members at home during the day. As a result, both groups reported reducing consumption of dishes that require more expensive ingredients.
“The economy is bad ... and the price of oil is high, [so] we reduce cooking chapatti. Those meals that spend more money, we reduce their consumption.” — Participant in intervention group
Participants in both groups also reported changes in the amount of food they cooked and the number of times they cooked each day, as more members of the household are at home during the day rather than at school or work.
“School-going children are now at home… I was cooking half a kilogram of rice, but now I had to add so that they can have something to eat. They also take tea and a snack at 10:00 am in school, which I have to provide now… We are spending more on food…” — Participant in control group
Are the intervention and control groups affected differently?
The households with access to biogas cooking-energy service reported less fuel stacking, the practice of using more than one cooking fuel. By contrast, fuel stacking was reported as common by participants in the control group. Independent access to biogas insulated participants in the intervention group from COVID-19’s impact on fluctuations in fuel prices and limits on access. By contrast, participants in the control group reported increased use of wood and reduced use of LPG. Some reported paying for a tree to be cut, split, and delivered.
“There was a time that gas was expensive and scarce… which changed the way I cooked.” — Participant in control group
Switching from LPG to wood among the control group also extended cooking times. Participants in the intervention group, by contrast, reported no changes in time spent cooking due to the pandemic. Instead, they reported an overall reduction in time spent cooking compared with prevailing levels before installing their biodigesters. Unlike their previous wood stoves, the biogas stove has two side-by-side burners, which makes cooking easier and faster.
Has COVID-19 presented opportunities?
It is nudging middle-income households with less severe affordability constraints to switch to modern cooking fuels and technologies, especially biogas and electricity, which have been less disrupted by COVID-19 restrictions. Indeed, some clean cooking companies have reported increased sales in 2020, compared with prior years.
However, for lower-income households, affordability and accessibility remain major barriers. The pandemic is pushing an estimated 150 million additional people into extreme poverty. This means that,
As societies recover from the pandemic and rebuild, governments should consider clean cooking an essential service and a critical part of the pandemic response. Apart from using stimulus funds to build green infrastructure, the recovery provides an opportunity to integrate energy planning and tackle clean cooking challenges. More budgetary support will be needed for poorer households, those most affected by the pandemic but least equipped to recover from it. Such support could take the form of conditional or unconditional cash transfers or results-based grants providing incentives to eligible households for the acquisition of technologies that improve access to clean cooking.