Why the Caterpillar Foundation Is Worried About Dirty Cookstoves

Clean cooking fuel isn’t one of those marquee philanthropic issues, but it’s important to the estimated 3 billion people—nearly half of the world’s population—who cook their meals over charcoal or wood fires. Prolonged exposure to cooking smoke often leads to deadly illnesses.

This kind of problem—big and deadly, but solvable—is exactly the sort of challenge that appeals to the Caterpillar Foundation, which recently awarded $1 million to the United Nations Foundation in support of its Clean Cookstove Initiative. The funds will support work in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, and are part of a larger, $11 million give for work in Africa announced earlier this month. 

The United Nations Foundation estimates that of the 3 billion people currently cooking with "dirty" fuel, approximately 1.9 million will be dead within the next year as a result of prolonged exposure to cooking smoke.  

Not surprisingly, women and girls in developing countries are disproportionately affected, as they often spend several hours each day preparing meals for their families. Women and girls are the most vulnerable to serious illnesses and death from prolonged cooking smoke exposure.

The UN Foundation’s Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves aims to light a fire under the development and adoption of new cleanstove policies and to incentivize manufacturers to produce clean-burning stoves that are affordable for people living in extreme poverty.

Manufacturing affordable stoves is one of the most pressing issues. Folks living in extreme poverty are supporting their families on less than two dollars a day. Buying a clean-burning stove that may be cheap by developed world standards, say under $500, is simply not feasible for them.

There are also standards and distribution network issues to overcome. No standards currently exist to differentiate between what is considered a clean cookstove and a dirty stove in developing countries. And distribution networks to get these clean cookstoves to where they're needed are virtually non-existent.

The UN Foundation is betting on manufacturers stepping up their game, and is working with them along with 20 other partner organizations to reach the Alliance’s goal of installing over 100 million clean cookstoves in developing countries around the world by the year 2020. As far as distribution integration goes, the Alliance plans to make use of existing international aid efforts to help toward that end.

This all sounds well and good, but advocacy, public policy work and trade incentives are only one piece to the clean cookstove puzzle.

In the past, women and girls that have been using charcoal or wood to cook for years have been reluctant to adopt new cooking practices. Additionally, they often fail to recognize the dangers of long-term exposure to cooking smoke. With the Caterpillar Foundation’s support, the United Nations Foundation has a solution to that problem and is planning to involve women and girls in Africa in the design, sale, and advocacy of clean cooking stoves. Radha Muthiah, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves said, "With the Caterpillar Foundation's support, we can better integrate women into the value chain and, in doing so, improve the health and well-being of women across Africa."

The Caterpillar Foundation has been around since 1952, awarding over a half-billion dollars in grants and aid toward education, environment, and emergency relief programs. The foundation’s most recent efforts are heavily focused on empowering women and girls, who are integral to helping break the generational poverty cycle.