Cooking or Killing?

Country’s energy access policy remains gender blind

07 Mar 2018, 16:59 | updated: 07 Mar 2018, 17:03

Plaban Ganguly

Household air pollution caused by the use of traditional unhygienic bio-fuels in kitchens without proper ventilation has been billed as one of the prime reasons for high prevalence of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in rural Bangladesh. Rural women usually cook indoor using an open-fire traditional cooking stove at a small kitchen with biomass fuel such as wood, cow dung and charcoal, without or insufficient ventilation that expose them hugely to COPD.

According to Poor People’s Outlook (PPEO) 2017, a global research conducted by Practical Action, this indoor air pollution affects the health of more than 137 million people especially women and has led directly to an estimated 78,000 deaths annually.

A shift away from traditional cooking methods allows a significant saving in women’s time. Moving to people’s preferred cooking scenarios will reduce the time spent largely by women on cooking, collecting, and preparing fuel by roughly 47 per cent each week, from 5 hours 40 minutes to 2 hours 45 minutes. Nationally, this adds up to more than 22.6 billion hours annually that could be better spent in other ways.

Bangladesh is aiming to be a middle-income country by 2021. This robust growth in economy presumably comes with energy crisis. Government is urging the citizens to be ‘energy-smart’ but not putting enough attention to women, particularly in rural areas, who are primarily responsible for cooking for the family. Gendered household roles in rural areas are the norm in Bangladesh and are likely to remain relatively static. Overall, country’s energy access policy remains gender blind, however, with no specific governmental efforts to mainstream gender concerns.

According to PPEO 2017, more than 90 per cent of Bangladeshis, an estimated 27 million households still primarily use poorly performing biomass stoves to cook. Improved biomass stove penetration is very low, with just over 510,000 thoughts to be in use. Biomass is the dominant cooking fuel, with rural populations mainly using crop residues (45.6 per cent) and wood (44.3 per cent).

The Government’s clean cooking action plan targets 100 per cent improved cook-stove use by 2030, requiring the dissemination of at least 30 million stoves. But the actual scenario is, the cook-stoves sector is small, though there are now a handful of local companies manufacturing higher tier biomass stoves, the largest of which has a monthly production capacity of 3,000 stoves. There have recently been calls to bring this forward to 2022.

While much of Bangladesh’s microfinance sector focuses on women, who constitute the majority of borrowers, they hardly finance women for energy access and clean cooking. Loan agreements for solar systems through IDCOL are made with household heads, who are mostly men. While this removes an element of control from women in regards to energy, and potentially leaving them with additional accessible income.

Energy access policy and financing attention has been overwhelmingly focused on solar home systems in Bangladesh. Some cookstoves programmes have been able to access carbon finance, but this has not been a major financial contributor thus far. Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves notes that small manufacturers’ challenges overwhelmingly are around working capital and marketing investments required to build consumer awareness and demand for their products — an area where many SMEs lack experience and expertise.

Working capital is a priority for existing producers, as well as grant and equity capital, and will pave the way for the hundreds of additional small businesses needed to create a thriving market of financially viable clean cooking companies.

Government should invest in market activation strategies to help boost demand and support the growth of emerging businesses of clean cook-stoves throughout the value chain in clean cooking. This could involve raising consumer awareness and demand through energy literacy programmes, while also building the business skills and capacities of companies.

This complex picture is simply more reason to better understand, target, and address the gendered dimensions of energy in Bangladesh. Financial support is required to push for gender audits of energy policies and regulations, which must be not only gender aware but also explicitly address inequalities and the differentiated needs and priorities of women and men. This is particularly important for investments in productive uses of energy and for accelerated progress on clean cooking fuels and technologies.

* Writer is a Development Worker