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Definitions and Assumptions

28th June 2024

By Dr Simon Batchelor, Gamos Ltd. Loughborough University

This blog is a set of slightly random thoughts.  There are a number of important definitions and assumptions about cooking that we still need to wrestle with, both as MECS and as a global community and I have been looking for a way to bring them together in a nice coherent way.  However, I have failed to make a single coherent narrative, so this blog is a loosely connected ‘collection of thoughts’ that destabilise or open up some of the ways in which we think about these concepts, so we have something to refer to as we continue to evolve our thinking.

Defining cooking

When I visited my friend on Sunday, she was calling her kids in from the playground to eat their supper.  I suggested I should leave her to do the cooking, but she protested that wasn’t necessary as she wasn’t going to cook.  She then proceeded to get some bread, cheese, tomatoes, and herbs, and put them into the air fryer to make a sort of ‘pizza for kids’. I teased her that this was surely ‘cooking’? That led on to a discussion about kettles and pre-heating water for boiling and eventually to the question of when is cooking defined as cooking. As we move forward with eCooking, and the increased use of appliances like air fryers which can do quick instant meals, there will be challenges for us in defining what we mean by cooking and perhaps more importantly for the collection of survey data, what individual cooks define as cooking.

Making tea and coffee

Building on the above there is a whole subset of household energy consumption involving water heating for hot drinks and pre-heating water for cooking. In the recent surveys we have undertaken, when asked if the household uses eCooking for secondary or tertiary processes, many respondents will reply that they don’t, and yet they frequently have a kettle listed in their appliances. As I write, I am listening to the results of a survey in mainly urban areas of Uganda, and the speaker has just said that 85% of the respondents use an electric kettle. Many of them use the kettle regularly for hot drinks and in some cases pre-heating water for their cooking. They don’t, however, see this as ‘eCooking’…..and yet as researchers looking at the move from niche to norm, we do define it as a part of the eCooking/clean cooking transition as households move from stovetop kettles to electric ones. Of course, kettles are task specific appliances, and within eCooking there are many more examples.

Single appliance for all cooking?  

One of our key assumptions, which perhaps we should challenge or examine in more detail, is that poorer households can generally only afford one appliance, and therefore we should look for promoting one single appliance that can cook all foods. Electric Pressure Cookers are said to be able to cook 90% of meals found on the normal East African menu. However, it’s that last 10%, the chapati, the deep frying, that gets raised in discussions – are people going to light their charcoal stove just to do the chapati – and if they do doesn’t that create Household Air Pollution, and take away from the Tier 5 eCooking zero kitchen emissions? For this reason, it seems that BURN have added induction stoves to their portfolio, and ATEC have continued down the induction road in both Africa and Asia. Certainly many governments in Asia focus on induction stoves – as an appliance that can cook everything. Of course, the variety of the menu in Asia does tend to be broader than Africa.   So this assumption of ‘one appliance’ does seem to be prompting decision makers to promote induction with all the associated need for the new induction ready cookware, the lower energy efficiency (30% less efficient than an EPC on a breadth of meals), increased supervision on most long cook dishes when compared to rice cookers and electric pressure cookers, and the ongoing request from users for two hobs – so single appliance but really the ability to cook two things at once. Indeed, the speaker has just said that the limiting feature that people note in the survey is that an EPC is a single pot. We can discuss fuel stacking below, but the assumption that I wanted to challenge in this paragraph, is whether households will only have one appliance or two? How much do they really need, more than one heating device/surface? Could they have an EPC and Induction stove?

Clean Fuel Stacking

Indeed could households have an EPC with an induction stove, LPG gas, biogas or bioethanol? In the ESMAP (MECS) 2020 report, we pointed to the efficacy of eCooking stacked with LPG as a cost effective strategy. It works well, not just in terms of them both being Tier 5, so maintaining the HAP free kitchen experience, but also in giving that full flexibility to cook any meal.  A clean cooking fuel stack. (video 3 mins) also potentially gives the household back-up should there be power outage, and yet if used effectively it enables the major energy efficiencies of an EPC to be used with the associate cost savings.  How should we be talking about this? In our attempt to bring eCooking to the foreground as a positive choice, we regularly signal the vulnerability of countries to the global price fluctuations of LPG. COP26 called for a removal of inefficient subsidies on fossil fuels, which will likely lead to increased LPG prices (globally). We see that countries will have to have a multi-fuel clean cooking strategy for transitions.  So, an EPC/LPG or Ethanol clean fuel stack will likely be a good transitional strategy for households as they learn how best to use the EPC and as they seek to retain a breadth of choices that mitigates their own vulnerability to price rises of either electricity or LPG/ethanol. However, the question remains as to whether households can afford to purchase multiple devices as discussed above? There is some interesting work within the Ayrton ENACT programme with ICLEI where Wana Energy Solution in Uganda are offering a combination of LPG and EPC in informal settlements.

Not so clean or cleaner fuel stacking

While households might not be able to afford two tier 5 devices, they may keep their old stove, and use their new MECS alongside their older stove. That could be an inefficient wood or charcoal burner, or it could be an improved Tier 3. I remember some research from Ghana that showed that while improved Cookstoves were used by those still using wood, those who stated that LPG was their primary fuel, used traditional inefficient traditional stoves for their backup.  Having made the step to LPG they didn’t then see the need to get an ICS even though they only used their LPG just over 50% of the time, and their traditional stoves 40% of the time. If for 40% of the time they are generating emissions and black carbon, the HAP mitigation effects of the LPG use on the health of the household will be overtaken by the ongoing use of the traditional stoves.  This recent paper by Puzzolo et al (2024) looked at stacking with LPG, and is clear on its health effects.   40% of the usual smoke is still enough to have a health impact similar (but not quite) to 100% use! So, the issue requiring clarification is how we document and report fuel stacking?

Data collection on fuel stacking

Most national surveys on cooking ask “What is the primary fuel used for cooking.” The answer to this question in national surveys is what fuels the reporting on SDG 7.1.2. So, if they report LPG as their primary fuel the household is logged as having access to clean cooking. As discussed above, the health impacts of such primary use may be overwhelmed by the secondary and tertiary use of traditional and polluting fuels. So how can we best document households’ use of secondary and tertiary fuels. The multi Tier Framework survey captures this, but these are expensive cooking orientated surveys. The DHS and LSMS are regularly carried out and have committees defining what questions should be in and which not. Can the DHS national surveys be designed to catch such data without adding multiple questions and making the whole survey too long (some people think it’s too long already!). I think this is a key challenge for us – how to measure fuel stacking cost-effectively?

National gains in eCooking

So that question of fuel stacking affects how countries will track the uptake of eCooking. In the development of Kenya’s eCooking strategy, the baseline documented how those using eCooking for their primary use was less than 1%, while those using for primary, secondary and tertiary were at 6%, and those having an appliance in their house (but not necessarily using it) was 25%. eCooking appliances will find their way into the choices that households make, but how will this be tracked and how can policy makers take it into account without having to commission in depth surveys? We have noted that SDG 7.1.2 is predicated on ‘primary’ cooking – can we change this assumption/definition?

‘Access’ to clean energy

Finally, and by no means has this been an exhaustive list, just an ‘off the top of my head’ blog from myself, when does a household have ‘access’ to clean energy for cooking.  From one point of view, if the household has an appliance, then they have ‘access’.  This is different from use, even the tracker indicator for SDG 7.1.2 refers to the primary fuel used for a majority of a household’s cooking.  However, our programme objectives are about giving households ‘choice’, and a choice is fulfilled if the appliance could be used….ie its affordable, available in the market, matched with awareness by the households, etc.  So, making the choice a possibility, is a win for the programme.  When reporting to our funders we have an indicator ‘Number of countries planning policy, action or programmes that provide this additional choice by expanding supply of modern cooking services’. In addition, however, what our funders are also interested in is whether people are exercising that choice and changing their behaviour as they become able to access these services.

I accept that this blog has not been very coherent and structured, but at least we have now raised some issues, and hopefully this is a good discussion starter for our team and our partners.


Featured Image Credit: Image by benzoix on Freepik.