Sunday, June 26, 2016

How clean energy and women empowerment go hand-in-hand

Like most, I was ignorant until recently about the term clean energy. Being an electrical engineer and researching in the field of electricity via renewable sources, it only occurred to me recently that when people speak of clean energy, they usually refer to electricity and water. They often forget that a large part of the world: mainly south/ southeast-Asia and Africa struggle with clean COOKING energy. The poor and the rural often rely on wood, coal, crop residues or animal excreta for fueling their cook stove. This may lead to health ailments and birth defects of progeny. Recently during a talk at the institute I work in, on being asked why such hazardous practices have not been reformed yet, the speaker simply replied, "Because most of the users of such cook stoves are women!"

Even though the middle class and above has seen tremendous improvement in gender equality, it is yet to make its mark in politics. Due to a minority of women in the political field, there is hardly anyone to advocate for women in the poor/rural population who spend most of their time/energy collecting polluting fuels for their cook stove and cooking on them. There are lot of promises by the politicians on "power for all", lower rates for electricity and alerts to consumers in case of load shedding. Similarly, there are campaigns and voluntary work on education for all. But there are hardly any articles written on a certain village achieving clean cooking technology or the government providing subsidy for cleaner but more expensive cooking fuels to the poor.

There are exceptions of course. Global Alliance For Clean Cookstoves is targeting not only to achieve less polluting technologies for cook stoves but taking initiatives to train women and help them participate in national awareness campaigns in South Asia and parts of Africa. It is also working towards building capacity for enterprises and providing financial support to women entrepreneurs self-employed in clean cooking technology. Closer to home, i.e. India, the Surya Stove by Nishant Bioenergy runs on powdered biomass such as sawdust and has an automated fuel feeding and ash cleaning system. Project Surya is targeting the use of biofuels and solar energy for improved cooking stoves and exploring if rewarding women directly with funds from carbon markets will help in wide adoption of the stove. A startup called BioLite based in New York is using smart wood-fuel stoves to produce enough heat to cook food as well as convert the remaining to electricity. One of my colleagues has his own charcoal and non-charcoal briquettes enterprise producing fuel for room heating, water boiling and even large-scale cooking. (Visit: Namuna Biomass Homepage). They use agricultural and forest residues for briquette production. To produce charcoal, they create local enterprises consisting of poor families and purchase loose charcoal from them to make it densified. The enterprise is also training locals to convert invasive weed (Banmara) into fuel. Likewise, there are several other organizations/ individuals who are attempting to improve the clean cooking technology industry and involving more women in doing so.

The above is not based on extensive research but based on results fueled by my curiosity on why women play such an important role in clean energy. Despite people's best efforts, clean cooking energy and women empowerment have a long way to go. Until then, all we can do is make people aware of the perils of open stove cooking and hope that the government will pay a bit more attention to it as well.