Addressing Clean Energy Access in North-East India

Abstract

While cooking has been around for a long time, clean cooking has remained outside access to large sections of populations even today. Cooking on inefficient and unclean stoves causes losses in terms of health, education, gender equality goals, among others. Greenway’s improved biomass cookstoves have helped enhance access to clean cooking solutions in rural India since 2011 in close to a million households. Prototyping and consumer feedback have been important parts of this process, and consumer finance was a challenge that was addressed in an innovative way.

Access to Clean Cooking and Supportive Technologies in Rural India

The act of cooking is about as old as the invention of fire itself. However, clean cooking as an idea is still new and is only just gaining some momentum, now in the 21st century. While technology progressed and modernised most human activities, cooking still uses extremely rudimentary techniques and the most unclean and inefficient fuels for over 3 billion people worldwide, out of which close to 800 million are in India. Among the top 20 access deficit countries, India bears the highest burden. Cooking on open fires and traditional mud stoves causes household air pollution (HAP) which is responsible for 4 million premature deaths annually out of which close to 500,000 are in India. Since women are primary caregivers, children below 5 years of age also suffer due to HAP and develop respiratory problems.

While there are multiple options in terms of clean cooking technologies, access to these solutions is a staggering challenge. Collaborative efforts involving stakeholders such as innovators and entrepreneurs, end users, governments, non-government organisations, credit and finance institutions, etc. to drive progress in deepening and widening access to clean cooking solutions is key. There has been considerable discussion regarding improved access to clean cooking solutions such as LPG connections provided through the PM Ujjwala Yojana in India. While it is true that subsidies helped drive connections to rural families, supply of LPG refills is still not as assured, nor affordable. Energy security continues to be a challenge faced by millions of households which is why families depend largely on traditional fuels and technologies. It is therefore important for all the components of the fuel stack be clean.

In the social context, women in particular stand to lose a lot for lack of access to clean cooking solutions. In India, like in most societies, women bear the maximum burden of chores like cooking and collecting firewood. Firewood collection requires women to walk through dense and remote forests for long hours which also makes them vulnerable to sexual violence. For young girls, it also means losing out on school hours and deprives them of educational opportunities. In India, women and children spend about 10 hours a week collecting firewood, while cooking on inefficient cookstoves takes 3-4 hours per meal. The amount of smoke inhaled by women in that time is equal to smoking 20 cigarettes. Pregnant women being exposed to this smoke leads to complications such as decreased lung function, low birth weight for the foetus, and in many cases, stillbirth.

To that end, Greenway, a mission-driven social enterprise, designed a reliable, affordable, accessible clean cooking solution in the form of an improved biomass cookstove that improves efficiency of existing solid fuels such as firewood, dry dung cakes and farm residue. It is equipped with a patent-pending air regulation technology which optimizes the air supply to the flame and thereby ensures a more complete combustion of the fuel being used which leads to remarkable reductions in smoke emissions. The design of the stove also reduces radiation losses, which reduces the time taken for cooking. With a thermal efficiency of 32%, Greenway stoves reduce smoke emissions by up to 70%. Improved combustion of the fuel also leads to reduction in fuel consumption by about 65%. The stoves have demonstrated 1.2 to 2.4 tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions per year. The combined impact of this helps make significant progress along multiple targets of SDG 7 (access to clean and affordable energy for all), as also 3 (good health and well-being), 5 (gender equality), and 13 (climate action).

The enterprise was started by a team of engineers towards the close of 2010 after extensively touring the country to identify the extent of the problem of clean energy access, the existing solutions, their limitations and the needs and demands of the consumers. It took them several attempts at prototyping, field-testing, incorporating user feedback in the design to come up with what became the Greenway Smart stove. Since then, Greenway also successfully designed the Greenway Jumbo stove, established a manufacturing unit in Gujarat, and has distributed over 850,000 stoves across India, as also in Nepal, Bangladesh, Mexico, Uganda and Zambia. This was achieved by building effective partnerships with various stakeholders such as microfinance institutions, small banks, local non-government organisations as implementation partners, corporate entities willing to back clean energy and gender-focused initiatives as part of their corporate sustainability obligations.

Greenway in North East India

In 5 out of the 7 North-Eastern states, percentages of households with clean cooking solutions are less than the national average. Greenway has been able to address the lack of clean cooking solutions in Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya through government support as also CSR initiatives of corporate entities. When the Assam nodal agency of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy put out a tender for a pan-state cookstove distribution project, Greenway got a contract for over 7,000 cookstoves on a subsidy model with the assistance of local NGO partners: Barak Vision and Assam Gandhi Smarak Nidhi. Greenway partnered with Directorate of School Education in Nagaland to deploy 4,250 cookstoves in government schools to cook midday meals. In Meghalaya, Greenway partnered with the state government’s Community and Rural Development Department to distribute 9,500 cookstoves with local assistance from Bethany Society. Greenway has been very fortunate to receive the support of the communities it has worked in. One of our customers Aniruddha Dutta from Golaghat, Assam talks about his apprehension about the product but how the experience exceeded his expectations, “At first, I thought it was just another product but a small adjustment changed our lives! I encourage others to try it without hesitations and they will not regret their decision.”

One of the most important issue for the customer base that Greenway caters to is affordability. Given that the people who still rely on solid biomass fuel for their cooking and heating needs are among the most vulnerable communities in the country with limited or no access to formal credit, it was incumbent upon the company to address that gap. Thereafter, consumer finance was initiated for stove purchases on Greenway’s balance sheet. The programme which showed potential in some southern Indian states, was later extended even in Nagaland. The success of this programme metamorphosed into a new initiative called ‘Easy Own’ in late 2018 wherein the credit scoring process was formalized and automated. It has expanded to include various consumer appliances through onboarding of leading market brands for the benefit of the consumers.

The Tracking SDG 7 Report 2019 has estimated that at current rates of access expansion and population growth, around 2.2 billion people will remain without access to clean cooking solutions even in 2030. India has a significant role to help expand clean energy access and Greenway considers itself responsible in helping minimise energy poverty, combat climate change, minimise health risks for women in the most vulnerable areas and demographics. Clean cooking is a basic human right and should not be denied for any reasons!

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Saanaee Naik, an MA in Political Science from Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Delhi, is currently working as an Impact Associate with Greenway Appliances, a mission-driven social enterprise making pathbreaking interventions in the area of clean cooking for rural households in India and abroad. She will be available on saanaee.naik@greenwayappliances.com for more information and interaction. You can read more of her on medium.com, Tracking Stacking – Clean Cooking Solutions in India.

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