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The Polluted Kitchen

This blog reflects on key insights from a panel discussion event organised by University of Warwick academic, Dr Giorgia Barboni on the 18th of November 2021 for the ESRC Festival of Social Science. The panel discussion explored a holistic understanding of the challenges, opportunities, and ‘next steps’ needed when transitioning to clean cooking solutions in low-income countries.



Dr Giorgia Barboni, Warwick University

Dr Om Kurmi, Coventry University

Dr Kirsten Campbell, Loughborough University

Dr Ankit Mathur, Greenway Appliances

Dr Daniel Sweeney, MIT D-Lab

Happy Amos, Roshan Renewables Ltd

The problem: Indoor air pollution


Indoor air pollution (IAP) is produced by burning solid fuels such as; coal, wood, or traditional biomass. The exposure of indoor and ambient carbon emissions from burning these fuels is one of the leading causes of premature deaths in low-income countries (WHO 2016). For example, in India, almost 2 out of 3 households use solid fuel to cook their food on open fires or traditional stoves known as a Chulha. The Chulha stove is preferred because it is cheap and readily available.

Unfortunately, such cooking methods in India lead to severe ill-health and almost five hundred thousand deaths every year, particularly among women and children. Cooking on traditional open fire stoves has also been linked to the slowing down of economic and social development of local communities, a contributor to deforestation and global warming.

Thus the importance of mobilising “clean cooking solutions” and reducing IAP has garnered particular attention within academic, policy, and philanthropic communities. If done adequately, such interventions facilitate the improvement of health & environmental concerns and lead to progress of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.


Figure 1. Clean cooking and the SDGs




Panel Discussion 1: The broader implications of cooking with traditional stoves

The event began with a short video, which walked through the setup and use of the Chulha stove. We heard directly from women and the challenges they faced daily. We were introduced to Shaila, an Indian woman living in Maharashtra who cooked for her family of six three times a day. It was clear from this video just how time-consuming and how bad the issue of indoor air pollution was; the black smoke filled the room and the soot coated the entire cooking space and the faces of the women who were cooking.

Om Kurmi, a researcher at Coventry University, confirmed Shaila’s experience as he shared both his lived experience growing up in rural Nepal and the results of his household air pollution research. His overview built up a picture of the chronic health implications of being exposed to a “Chulha” for 3-4 hours per day. The consequences of this cooking on the health are staggering; exposed people are likely to get respiratory, cardiovascular, and eye-related health issues. In addition to this Om emphasised the danger to pregnant women and the unborn child. In his study, Om found that pregnant women exposed to biomass cooking emissions were five times more likely to experience premature births. Furthermore, babies were born with multiple health issues such as pneumonia, asthma, and other low respiratory tract infections.

While these health statistics may make clean cooking 'an obvious choice' – panel members noted it is not an easy situation to change! Participants Kirsten, Giorgia, and Ankit discussed the tensions and trade-offs that exist in the everyday lives of people who use the Chulha.

in her reflection, Kirsten said

“It is important to acknowledge the diversity and ways in which people cook, and the situations that people are in –that mold decision making around what they cook and what they use to cook. From an economic standpoint for instance in many rural areas, people can collect firewood for burning into these traditional stoves and so that’s a lot of labor and it can have environmental consequences – but also to some extent it has a benefit to household income because they are not paying for alternative fuel .”

This quote highlights the decision-making factors that families consider when shifting to a different cooking method; some households may prioritize economic factors over health and environmental concerns.

From Kirsten & Giorgia’s explanations, it became apparent how tacit concerns such as political attitudes, cultural narrative, and power dynamics can shape the decision-making of adopting a novel practice. For these communities, the Chulha is not just a tool but also becomes entangled within the community's social, generational, and relational fabric. Ankit, confirms this finding from his work in the field. Ankit argues, aspiration is a hidden driver for changing social attitudes.

“We see in the field when you ask how many of you cook on a Chulha – not a lot of hands go up. Whereas when you offer the stove on a discount even people with a gas connection end up buying it, so what that tells you is that a lot of people would not be very open about the fact that they are cooking using biomass … so there is a real aspirational value to having cleaner forms of cooking and as far as India is concerned that cleaner form is understood to be LPG.”

It is evident that the challenge of converting households to clean cooking solutions is a complex one.


Panel Discussion 2: The way towards a transition to sustainable and cleaning cooking methods.


In the second half of the event, a video of Shaila and her friends using a Greenway stove was shown. The Greenway stove is categorised as an ‘improved biomass cook stove’ still using solid fuel, but it significantly reduces the time and emissions to the users. The video draws attention to how social entrepreneurs can co-negotiate innovation with a community, and enable sustained change. The audience was also introduced to the work of Happy Amos a social entrepreneur working in Africa and Dan Sweeney of the MIT D-lab.

In the lab, Dan is able to run various experiments to help determine health and climate risk indicators but more importantly to help social entrepreneurs like Ankit and Happy Amos, ensure the performance and reliability of their stoves. Ankit shared an anecdote from the field that reliability was a real factor when asking people to replace the stoves that were being used at present.

Moreover, Dan highlighted D-lab's investment in creating field testing instrumentation kits, a portable grey box with a set of sensors that can log the emissions in the kitchen, allowing researchers to take the “lab” to the study site. This enables the sensor to capture the stove performance and indicators of IAP in real-time. This partnership is fruitful since they can build on their expertise to create a product that the market will trust.

Towards the end of the session, Giorgia asked the panel members for their thoughts on the future.

Ankit Mathur shared that rather than completely replacing a cooking instrument, people will inevitably stack their appliances - ie a house is likely to have a gas stove, a mud stove, and an improved biomass stove like the one developed by his organisation Greenway. Ankit believes that people should have a clear path to moving up the energy ladder. In addition, it is interesting to note that Ankit challenges the idea of creating a "sustainable" business model around the appliances he sells, and instead insists that this type of entrepreneurship should be transitionary.

In her concluding remarks, Happy noted, we should all share the vision that all consumers ought to have quality cookstoves; And at each transition point, stakeholders must keep the holistic perspective in mind.

“I’ve seen customers who do not want to jump from a three-stone stove to LPG gas because they do not trust it. But if there is a gradual move across the ladder then it’s easier for them to adopt…. It is also about the infrastructure that is available at the moment. … for customers who are off-grid having an electric stove at the moment will not make sense to them”

The panellists agreed that renewable energy-powered electric cooking is the most suitable option, but Kirsten pointed out it is not as simple. 

“your not just dealing with technology, and honestly technology is the easiest part of it, but all the financial systems that go around it, the wider infrastructure around electricity grids and off-grid systems and things that fit within it, which is the limiting factor of the MECS programme”

In summarising one of the main takeaways from the panel, Giorgia said, the work each member was doing assisted people in moving to the “next step on the (energy) ladder, based on wherever they are, at the very least that it moves people up from the use of Chulha stoves.”


Overall what I found particularly useful in the panel discussion was the global, transdisciplinary, and critical perspectives shared with the audience. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and economic, health, and social considerations take place against a challenging backdrop of political, cultural, and gendered narratives of work. It was clear for me that the facilitation of such interdisciplinary discussion, enables us to address the cross-cutting issues to ensure as researchers we can create meaningful and transformative change that enables equitable, sustainable, and just energy transitions for all.