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It’s as simple as a stove

August 30, 2012

How one appliance can saves lives, empower women, and reduce pollution in the developing world.

By Mimi Alemayehou

Nearly every mother’s daily routine includes making meals for her children no matter where on this planet she happens to live. In the U.S., we have a range of easy, efficient appliances to choose from when preparing a meal – stovetop, oven, or a microwave, not to mention a variety of pre-packaged ready meals. But in many developing countries, where there is no access to power or not enough money to buy an appliance, cooking often entails the most basic of instruments – an open flame and a makeshift stove.  These are not only difficult to manage; they are dangerous, bad for the environment and a major global health problem that demands urgent attention.

Currently, three billion people in the world use inefficient stoves to cook their food. World Health Organization data shows indoor air pollution kills two million people every year and even more are harmed by accidents. In fact, indoor air pollution is the fourth biggest health risk in developing countries.

Not surprisingly, women experience many of the direct health effects of inefficient stoves, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, cardiovascular disease and lung cancer, to name a few. All painful and debilitating diseases and afflictions.  Young children and fetuses are also particularly vulnerable. The World Health Organization estimates that half of all deaths among children under five from acute lower respiratory infections are due to indoor air pollution from household fuels, such as wood, manure and coal.

In addition to the health effects, the hours that women and children spend collecting fuel for these stoves is time they could be spending bettering themselves through education and even developing small businesses for additional household income. Getting ahead.

On a recent trip to Ethiopia, OPIC CEO Elizabeth Littlefield and I personally witnessed women – both young and old – transporting heavy bundles of firewood on their backs from a nearby village on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. What looked like an excruciating and laborious chore was ultimately just part of daily struggle to heat their homes and provide a source for cooking family meals. In some areas of conflict, women and girls are at great risk of being attacked when they venture out to gather fuel and firewood.

Along with the potential health effects of inefficient stoves, the methane and carbon emitted can impose negative impacts on the environment.

Thankfully, there is some progress underway that demonstrates a promise for those who currently lack access to products that can help foster cleaner and safer cooking.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves – a public-private partnership led by the UN Foundation — has a goal of having 100 million households adopt clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels by 2020. Contributing to this goal, OPIC recently committed a $10 million loan to Seattle-based MicroEnergy Credits to help assist qualified microfinance institutions launch and expand clean energy lending programs. The programs aim to significantly increase the availability of microfinance capital for low-income populations to afford quality clean energy products such as energy efficient, clean cookstoves.

Microfinance institutions that partner with MicroEnergy Credits use carbon finance to cover the upfront costs of offering microloans for clean energy products. They also reduce the cost of accessing efficient and renewable energy to households. Individuals who receive microloans to purchase clean cookstoves not only benefit from improved health due to reduced indoor air pollution, they also benefit the planet.

Clean cookstoves are one of the most important and overlooked aspects of the international effort to improve health, empower women and girls, and address climate change. It is critical that we come together to collectively raise awareness that something as simple as a clean cookstove can do so much toward eliminating some of the challenges that face so many people – especially women and girls – in the developing world.

Mimi Alemayehou is the Executive Vice-President of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). OPIC is the U.S. Government’s development finance institution.  It mobilizes private capital to help solve critical world challenges and in doing so, advances U.S. foreign policy.


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