Can the COVID-19 setback accelerate the transition to clean cooking?


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A Kenyan woman in her kitchen bends downs to use a biogas-burning stove
Photo: Dana Charron

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 in rural Kenya 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, (Ci-Dev). 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?

COVID-19 has magnified household preferences for convenience and affordability, presenting both challenges and opportunities for the transition to clean cooking fuels.  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, without external support, more poor households will have to rely on traditional biomass for cooking — further exacerbating adverse effects on health, gender equity, and the environment. 

Moving forward

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. By making clean cooking a policy priority, we can rebuild better, turning challenges into opportunities to ensure a healthier, greener, and more equitable recovery. 

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Zijun Li

Carbon Finance Specialist with World Bank Climate Change Group

Frank van der Vleuten
November 22, 2021

The potential is huge but a big push is needed to make clean cooking an actual policy priority. The World Bank is well-placed to lead this push.

Folake Josephine Odegbenro
November 22, 2021

Good day Yabei.
Great listening to you and the team of experts on Modern Energy Cooking Services talk yesterday at the World Open Learning Webinar on Hidden Sides of Cooking Energy.
Again reading through your blogs this morning made me write this mail. Indeed the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down the progress towards SDG 7 target. This came convincing when while looking through my office window within the University, I saw a woman with a baby fastened to her back and another child holding a plastic nylon bag for which the mother I guess was putting pieces of sticks they came into the University environment to pick for cooking purposes.

Can a study be conducted here on my city on the effect of COVID-19 and other related factors on the cooking behaviours of the urban poor in Niger State or Nigeria through the support of World Bank in order to call the attention of the State and Federal government or policy makers to the need for an incentivized cooking sector towards sustaining the gains before COVID-19?

Hope to hear from you soonest.

Best Wishes.

Tpl. (Mrs) Folake Odegbenro
Technical Officer
Centre for Human Settlements and Urban Development (CHSUD)
Federal University of Technology, Minna-Nigeria

Raymond ngetich
November 22, 2021

Nice article. I joined joined Sistema bio I may 2020 , at the height of the pandemic . Most farmers that we visit always complained that there has been a huge increase in energy needs since most of the family members were at home.
Our approach in educating farmers on the importance of switching to Biogas has been an interesting journey .
When we visit the farmers we first try to understand the challenges they go through using firewood , charcoal , LPG and purchase of chemical fertilizer. After establishing those challenges, we calculate the cost of those challenges . In Kenya an average household spends between 4500- 7500 USD per month and in most cases the farmers are usually not aware because this costs are spread through the month and usually not documented.
The increase in uptake of biogas especially during the pandemic period has been due to the realization that the non renewable form of energy is expensive , time consuming, unhealthy .
We have also gone an extra mile to educate the farmers within our network of the importance of switching to organic farming. We have walked this journey with various stakeholders in Kenya such as Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture Program ( KCSAP) and other groups that are helping mitigate the effects of climate change.
For me this is one of the positive change that has happened amidst the covid 19 pandemic.