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Something to look back on

12th September 2023

By Dr Simon Batchelor (Gamos Ltd., Loughborough University)

My phone often offers me reflections on the last ten years. It shows me photos I took on the same day 7 years ago, or a file stored on ‘OneDrive’ 3 years ago. In this blog I want to point to this day now (the one when I am writing), and predict that in 5 years’ time we, the MECS family, will likely see it as a milestone and want to remember it.

The team that leads MECS have been researching modern cooking in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) for nearly a decade now. Officially MECS started in 2019, but there was over 6 years of preparatory research, starting from 2012. MECS’ research has investigated the idea that a step change was needed in our approach to clean cooking and that leveraging gains in modern energy, found across the world, would enable this. Research that considered energy efficient cooking appliances, used in developed economies such as Electric Pressure Cookers, and the more flexible Induction Stoves (less efficient than the EPC but more efficient than a hotplate).

Are they relevant to LMICs and do they give tasty culturally acceptable food? Yes, they are and yes, they do. Can the strengthening of electricity grid generation such as the growth in Uganda from 600MW in 2010 to 2000MW in 2023, be leveraged to enable choice by users of modern cooking? Yes, it can. Improvements in electricity access found in Asia and Africa, sees large scale renewable energy driving the price of the grid electricity down, preparing for the tipping point of off-grid solar both in mini-grids, and in solar home systems. I should note that we continue to do work on fuels other than electricity, but bridging the disconnect between improvement in access to electricity and the work on clean cooking has been a major part of our research.

Image 1: Screenshot by Simon Batchelor, 2023. Fair Use Act.
Image 2: Screenshot by Simon Batchelor, 2023. Fair Use Act.

So why write a blog about this now?  Well, last week saw the introduction of the Global eCooking Coalition (GeCCo) at the Africa Climate Summit.  What is noteworthy is that this is about taking the ideas to scale and ensuring that eCooking moves from being a niche in Low- and Middle-Income Countries to being the norm, commensurate with the improvements in electricity access.  The ACW has seen the CEO of KPLC state that he hadn’t understood the potential of eCooking until quite recently, and now fully gets that it is cheaper and a win win situation – improving the demand on their system, and saving the user money.  The ACW also heard from President Ruto that he aspires to have 100% renewables on the grid by 2030, and 100GW of electricity by 2040 (current supply is 3GW). The trajectory is one of improving electric access with clean renewable energy.  So, I predict that in five years’ time, my phone will offer me the various announcements and WhatsApp messages of this day (assuming that WhatsApp is still running by then?!) , and I and others will be seeing them and marveling at anyone who ever ignored the possibility of eCooking.

My phone will also likely offer me the exchange last week between the private sector supplier of an Internet of Things (IoT) enabled Induction Stoves and Government representatives implementing a pilot (and for this one I am purposely keeping it unnamed). One of the stoves is synchronized in one area but not in another (both places having good telecom connectivity). So, the stove is being moved to the users’ brother to try to understand this particular problem.

Image 3: Screenshot by Simon Batchelor, 2023. Fair Use Act.
Image 4: Screenshot by Simon Batchelor, 2023. Fair Use Act.

The problem itself is not particularly noteworthy; it is part of a pilot and some teething problems are to be expected.  But why I think I will notice it when my phone offers a snapshot of that exchange in 5 years time, is that I will likely reflect on and wonder at these early days of digital metered monitoring leading to reach transparent accurate carbon verification.  Last month saw the announcement of the Fair Climate Fund and ATEC working in Cambodia and Bangladesh, ensuring that 70% of carbon finance reaches the user.  This is a paradigm shift from cooking being an ‘enduring problem’ to making it a vehicle to support the income and reduce the expenditure of households.  Enabled by digital monitoring, carbon finance will likely be leveraged over the coming years to ensure that even the poorest of households can utilize modern energy cooking services if they wish.

And finally, I received another WhatsApp thread, where colleagues and partners in Malawi sent me plots of data coming from solar home systems, that are being used for eCooking.  They also sent me this ‘back of envelope’ calculation (see Image 4 above, WhatsApp screenshot).  At 16 US cents per usable kWh that is less than the Kenyan tariff for the grid.  Now it doesn’t take into account the overheads, the costs of reaching consumers, etc. which can be quite substantial, but nevertheless I think in 5 years’ time, when the price of batteries has dropped further (batteries have had a 20% per annum learning curve over the last 10 years), and solar PV system costs have probably dropped further in price, I will look back on this exchange and wonder at why we were not more bullish about these possibilities for the off-grid sector.

So today, I see three things that are the fruits of a decade long thread of research, and I see that today is one more step for moving eCooking in LMICs from niche to norm (it is of course already norm in developed economies).  I wonder if my phone in 5 years’ time, with all the possibilities of what AI will look like by then, will recognize today’s exchanges as significant and offer them to me as a valued memory? 

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