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Electrification and cooking: A case of mutual neglect?

8th February 2022

By Prof. Peter Newell and Frederick Daley (University of Sussex).

The multiple benefits of moving towards cooking with electricity are increasingly well known. For years there have been successful drives towards electrification on the one hand and clean cooking on the other, but e-cooking has not yet taken off at the scale or space hoped for. Why?

In search of an answer, in this working paper Peter Newell and Freddie Daley at the University of Sussex explore the political economy of e-cooking: the actors, institutions and relations of power that are holding back as well as those seeking to bring about an electric revolution in cooking. Such an approach helps to fill gaps in our understanding of why, given its potential, e-cooking is still at such an embryonic stage, and helps identify key intervention points for accelerating the transition to e-cooking. Political economy analysis can help to: (1) Understand how and why the mutual neglect of electric cooking has occurred by analysing and explaining existing configurations of institutions, ideas, power and influence. (2) Explore alternative political pathways to their uptake and support that might be possible in the future by exploring strategies for realising the potential of electrification for modern energy cooking services. In this briefing paper they capture the essence of their findings. 

Explaining mutual neglect

Efforts to raise awareness about these innovations, their affordability and co-benefits are being led by actors like SEforALL through their clean cooking data platform and co-benefits toolkits working alongside the WHO. Yet while considerable progress is being made in electricity access through grid extension, mini-grids and Solar Home Systems, in many cases these are designed to only be able to deliver lower power end-uses (lighting, radio, mobile phone charging) and often overlook the role of cooking as a source of consistent demand for electricity, both now and in future energy forecasting and planning.

The lack of integration to date is a function of cooking and electrification being on ‘divergent’ tracks, with the latter progressing much faster than the former. There has been a dearth of financing for clean cooking, whereas there has been much more momentum around electrification. The stakeholders in each sector are also very different. With electrification, there are fewer key actors, but they are located in Ministries of Power or Energy, for example, which historically wield more political influence; whereas with cooking there are a multitude of actors, spread over a range of different institutions and offices and a lack of coordination between them over matters of technologies and diffusion.

The clean cooking sector, of which e-cooking is a part of, is fragmented and dispersed, in part because it cuts across many departments. One of the roles of initiatives such as SEforALL, therefore, is to ‘build bridges’ between them by, for example, building a common tool and platform for cooking and electrification to ensure that e-cooking does not ‘fall between the cracks’. It is often seen as a local environmental, health, gender or climate issue whereas in reality it is all of those things. There have been attempts to improve coordination between actors, but with limited results to date.

Incumbent interests in the cooking sector also resist systemic change. Dominant actors in the current cooking and broader energy regime seek to protect their power (and market share) by shaping policy and seeking to restrict opportunities for new market entrants by both adding to and creating novel barriers to entry. Proposals to redirect existing expenditures on biomass fuels into payments for cooking services threaten incumbents that benefit from those support mechanisms such as the charcoal industry. Alongside this, there is a less visible political economy at play around the delivery and installation of stoves, repair and upkeep and the ‘murky’ political economy of deal brokering and rent extraction.

Exploring alternative pathways

Building a better narrative about the costs, benefits and possibilities of different pathways. These need not just focus narrowly on cost, but also emphasise human benefits and engage with the actual practices and social and cultural contexts of cooking. One of the key issues confronting advocates of electric cooking is the perception that other near term solutions and transition fuels are preferable politically and more socially acceptable than electric cooking, which depends on longer time frames for grid extension and connection, even if off-grid options are viable.

Delivering proof of concept: Showcasing viable business models for e-cooking is vital to their success. There is potential for utility companies and private businesses to provide a suite of clean technologies, or a ‘clean stack’, to meet different needs at a range of price points. There’s also scope to bundle products together to target a variety of end users and decision makers in a ‘clean stack’ which could be as part of a ‘portfolio’ approach leveraged by utilities with excess generating capacity to stimulate demand. Getting all elements of the business ecosystem right (financing, supply chains, enabling policy environment etc) is crucial and financial institutions need to provide finance solutions and mechanisms to offset the potentially prohibitively high up-front costs of this ‘clean stack’ and support the development of the value chain. Building innovation networks is also key to supporting transitions around e-cooking and building momentum behind different business and service models.

Supporting the beneficiaries: There is a need to build coalitions of the ‘winning and the willing’ behind an e-cooking transition to challenge and overcome issues of incumbency within the cooking space. This might include getting trade unions behind proposals to build jobs and industrial capacity behind solar cooking, resourcing and amplifying the voice of the beneficiaries of solar cooking, such as manufacturers and retailers of e-cooking appliances, and crafting targeted consumer messages to engage the diverse demographics required to stimulate e-cooking transitions. Building alliances and coalitions based on an appreciation of these shared interests will be crucial to advancing e-cooking. Cultivating and encouraging the creation of transition intermediaries within the e-cooking sector could also help garner new collaborations, facilitate technology transfer and overcome the fragmented and siloed nature of the e-cooking sector.

Using levers of state policy: We know that ambitious policy goals that set the direction of travel can serve to catalyse innovation and finance. For example, the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) has developed a dedicated electricity tariff designed to incentivise electric cooking with a 20% discount for consumption above 150 kWh/month. Tanzania has also made a national commitment to support clean cookstoves and fuels. The work that SEforALL and others are doing on ‘integrated energy plans’ and ‘Integrated electrification pathways’ which includes stronger commitments to clean cooking, including e-cooking, can play an important role in building policy capacity which integrates the two agendas.

Improving coordination among international actors. As more actors engage with e-cooking, there is a need to coordinate efforts, pool funds, minimise duplication and establish divisions of labour that play to respective strengths. Donors have a key role to play here in supporting infrastructures, as well as providing and levering further finance and supporting policy innovations around renewable energy and e-cooking, and most importantly connecting and integrating these two policy objectives.


Featured image, top: an electric pressure cooker (credit: Jon Leary, MECS).

Opportunity: Women in Modern Energy Cooking (WMEC) initiative launched