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An exploration into the cooking practices of People Living with Disability and the Elderly: A Cambodian perspective

20th October 2021

By Melinda Barnard-Tallier (Gamos Ltd.)

This blog accompanies the recent research by iDE on the cooking practices of people living with disabilities (PWD) and explores how nuanced qualitative research begins to fill the gaps in knowledge around PWD and cooking. The blog highlights some early findings and provides several recommendations of the way forward.

The overarching aim of the MECS programme is to shift the existing narrative towards an integrated approach of electrification and access to clean cooking at policy level in order to meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7: Providing affordable and clean energy to all

As researchers we grapple with the question of what ‘access’ means or looks like, and existing discourse all too often suggests that the lack of access to clean cooking is simply a gender problem (as women bear the brunt of collecting fuels and do the cooking) or a consequence of poverty (low-income households rely on cheap or free biomass fuels for cooking). This has meant a significant gap exists in understanding further marginalised or vulnerable populations who might be left behind in energy and cooking transitions (and indeed, not recognising that many individuals do not only identify with one of the marginalised categories). Specifically, little research exists not only on disability across many of the MECS priority countries (and indeed elsewhere), but especially connecting disability to cooking and energy/fuel access.

According to the World Health Organization, around 1 billion people in the world live with some form of disability – that’s around 15% of the world’s population. Of these, around 80% live in low-income contexts across the Global South, and this figure is expected to increase in the years to come as increasing ageing populations are more vulnerable to age-related disability, as are those who have chronic health conditions. People living with disabilities (PwD) are often further marginalised and access to energy is disproportionately lower in households of people with disabilities.

In developing a combined vision in the programme to ensure that our work in accelerating the adoption of clean cooking does not favour one population over another and building a Gender Inclusive Leave No One Behind (GILNOB) framework, the team discussed how the programme could potentially contribute to filling this gap and begin to answer the question: How do people living with disabilities experience cooking and what do their day-to-day cooking practices entail?

MECS and our country partners are well placed to fill the gaps in literature on how cooking, which in itself is often a very physical (or mobile) process, is experienced by people with disability. So, when the team at the iDE in Cambodia and I met earlier this year to establish the way forward for the MECS in-country research, we took the opportunity to begin to tackle this gap. Through qualitatively driven research, the team explored the cooking experience of PwD and the Elderly. The result is a deeply sensitive and nuanced research report which, in the absence of other studies on disability and cooking, provides not only insight on the challenges faced by PwD when encountering cooking, but also acts as an invaluable cornerstone for future research. Most importantly, it provides us with an understanding of how MECS might subsequently intervene to help make transitions towards clean cooking more feasible and accessible to PwD.

Through in-depth interviews and ethnographic elements such as participant observation, the iDE team, led by Chivorn and Vandy, spoke to 19 participants primarily living with a mobility (or physical) disability or the Elderly who have an age-related disability. The study considered not only the physical practicalities of cooking and implications of cooking with different fuels, but also explored the space of the kitchen, the agency that PwD have and their contribution to family life, their roles in decision-making processes around cooking and fuel/technology transition/acquisition, and their individual concerns, challenges, and perceptions.

The iDE’s report raised some interesting findings, most notably that concerns experienced by younger PwD or those born with a disability are not the same as the elderly who have age-related disabilities. For example, agency in decision-making is experienced differently. Whilst the elderly felt a loss of confidence in the household decision-making around cooking and fuels, young PwD felt confident to share opinions and input in the decision-making process. However, final decisions are still the domain of the primary income earner. Convenience and time were factors that participants reported drove their choice to use gas (LPG) or electricity to cook, but affordability means that low-income households struggle to justify the transition to modern energy cooking services due to the perception of high electricity costs and the initial investment required for appliances, connection, etc, especially with the flooding of low-quality appliances in the market and lack of after sales services. Access to LPG is far quicker and easier for PwD compared to that of wood/charcoal which requires more intense physical labour and often means that PwD rely on family members or friends to do the collecting of fuels for them. Finally, the research found that younger PwDs show greater enthusiasm for seeing modern energy cooking solutions than the elderly, and regularly use YouTube and Facebook as resources for learning to cook new dishes or learning new techniques.

What the iDE report has so carefully and sensitively highlighted is that as researchers, we need to better understand the cultural context and space in which PwD operate, and that their lived experience vastly differs not only at the macro level (i.e., country to country, culture to culture), but at the very micro level – from one household to another, from disability to disability, from young to old. Not only are we aware of the double burden women face, but isolation and discrimination as a result of disability compounded by lack of access and limited (or no) income means that PwD are often further on the margins and at risk of being left behind. Additionally, broader considerations around access (to energy, electricity), decision-making, space, finance, and accessibility need to be considered in implementation to ensure just and fair modern energy transitions.

Finally, what the iDE have also done is to provide us with opportunities for the way forward:

  • Further research into other categories of disability to be conducted;
  • Set up campaigns – especially aimed at young PwD – to increase awareness of electric cooking (eCooking) as a clean cooking option;
  • Promote safety of eCooking in these campaigns (insulation prevents risk of burns) and highlight the health benefits to household members;
  • Demonstrate clearly, in these campaigns, the time and cost benefits of eCooking compared to cooking with biomass;
  • Work with supply chains in marketing the convenience and ease-of-use of modern automated electrical appliances that don’t require continual monitoring to PwD;
  • Use social media platforms,such as YouTube and Facebook, and collaborating with bloggers with disabilities to promote the benefits of mecs modern energy cooking services to PwD, including videos on usability of electric cooking appliances.


Featured image credit: iDE, 2021.