- 19th October 2022
By Dr. Richard Sieff (Research Consultant, MECS) and Dr. Anna Clements (Lead Researcher – Tanzania and Uganda, MECS).
The new MECS Electric Cooking Outreach (ECO) challenge fund report showcases the findings from seven community scale 6-month pilot studies, which significantly advance the case for electric cooking (eCooking) at scale by demonstrating that people are willing to use and pay for eCooking on a sustained basis. The strength of the ECO evidence base was considerably enhanced by projects using the same methodology: a tailored version of the MECS cooking diaries approach successfully adapted for the longer, larger and consumer behaviour focused ECO pilots. This commonality helped generate more comparable data, creating a stronger evidence base for informing policy. This blog highlights the key methodological learnings from the ECO pilots in order to inform future eCooking research at scale.
WHAT IS THE COOKING DIARIES APPROACH?
The MECS Cooking Diaries approach is a tried and tested mixed (quantitative and qualitative) method which involves recording energy measurements of the cooking fuels used and matching these recordings with diary data, where participants note down information such as what dishes they cooked, how, when, and for how many people. At its core, the methodology is a ‘before and after’ approach. A baseline cooking diary and energy measurements (phase 1) are first carried out to establish existing cooking practices before being compared with how people cook after efficient electric cooking appliances (EECAs) are introduced from phase 2 onward (Figure 1). Comparing the number of dishes cooked with each fuel in different phases allows the scale of eCooking uptake to be assessed and to understand which fuels are being replaced by electricity and for which dishes. Additional qualitative feedback on participants’ experiences of eCooking is captured via exit surveys, typically at the end of the pilot.
ECO COOKING DIARIES
The cooking diaries approach used in the ECO pilots differed from those used in previous MECS studies due to core differences in the setup and aims. The ECO pilots were far larger than previous MECS cooking diaries studies, with between 45-160 participants whereas earlier studies typically had 10-20 participants. The ECO pilots were also far longer than previous studies (six months rather than two) as the primary aim of the pilots was to understand consumer behaviour not menu compatibility; the rationale being you need time to make reliable assessments about behaviour change, seasonal trends, and evolving cooking practices.
Therefore, given the core focus on understanding behaviour and the willingness of people to use and pay for eCooking, participants were not asked to cook as much as possible on electricity (as with previous menu compatibility studies) but were free to cook using whichever fuels/appliances they wished. This type of cooking diaries study is therefore a more ‘real-life’ test of eCooking uptake However, projects could reduce some of the potential barriers to switching through activities such as appliance training and awareness raising.
To make these longer and larger studies less arduous for researchers and participants, a third phase was added which used the cooking diaries light approach where only cooking on EECAs was monitored (Figure 2). Most projects also used digital data collection platforms while some had dataloggers which helped in terms of verifying and processing the greater quantities of data and maintaining quality control. Incentives were also important to keep participants motivated to complete their diaries. Examples included discounted or free EECAs on satisfactory completion of the study and more regular incentives such as provision of household goods that didn’t affect menu choice (e.g., soap but not food/money). To assist ECO awardees and facilitate more consistent and comparable data collection, a four-part ECO webinar series on how to carry out a Cooking Diaries study was developed and delivered in 2020.
COVID 19 IMPACTS
COVID-19 and accompanying lockdown measures impacted and significantly delayed all ECO projects, which, being outreach studies, were highly dependent on community interactions. To mitigate impact, many projects developed methodological workarounds including: conducting activities (where possible) online or by phone; reducing the frequency of household visits; and leveraging the easier travel options and greater community trust of local project partners to carry out project activities within the communities.
ECO AWARDEE ADAPTATIONS
Several awardees innovated methodologically, adapting the ECO cooking diaries further to enable varied and multiple focuses and to suit specific project needs. For their phase 2, Practical Action Consulting subsidised electricity costs, asking participants to cook as much as possible on electricity. Phase 3 and 4 then returned to the standard ECO approach, with no subsidies and participants left to use the EECAs as much or as little as they wished. Comparison of eCooking uptake in phases 2-4 provided insights on the impacts of tariff variations (a key policy issue for the Government of Nepal) and the extent to which a full switch to eCooking might be possible.
Other awardees adapted by running ‘parallel cooking diaries’ in which some households used the standard ECO approach while a larger group used the cooking diaries light (i.e., phase 3 only). Although not as comprehensive as using the standard approach for all households, the approach was less resource intensive and enabled larger sample sizes (e.g., PEEDA’s 160 household outreach), with the cooking diaries light households serving to scale up the findings of the smaller standard methodology group. iDE’s pilot centred on marketing and so did not use the cooking diaries approach. Instead, iterative changes were made to marketing strategies to see which most impacted sales. A sample group of customers was then monitored to assess how appliances were used.
METHOD EVALUATION Overall, the choice of cooking diaries approach will depend on the broader aims the data serves and factors such as available resources. For the longer ECO cooking diaries, participant fatigue was widely reported and understandable, particularly given the impacts of the pandemic. However, the broad consensus from awardees was that the ECO cooking diaries approach, while demanding, provided very rich, valuable data. The Geres team stressed “the way we conducted the project and the huge amount of data we collected… I think it’s the right way to get the real situation in the field” The PEEDA/University of Bristol team similarly enthused “The amount of data is so rich. We will be hiring a researcher after the project is finished just to dig into the ECO data more”. Going forward, the adaptations made by the ECO projects are important methodological developments as they illustrate how future eCooking studies can have larger sample sizes and multiple focuses which can help further the evidence base for eCooking at scale.
Featured image, top. Collecting feedback during the exit survey (image credit: Winrock International, 2021).