Cooking up solutions to go ‘Beyond Fire’

Why does nearly 40% of the global population still rely on dirty fuels such as firewood or charcoal for cooking? It causes an estimated 4 million premature deaths a year, it puts significant strain on already stressed forest resources, and it is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in many countries. The situation is untenable, especially in those countries where population growth raises the demand for firewood beyond what is available. So, why has this not instigated clearer policies or led to more investments in appropriate new cooking technologies? And what are the most viable cooking technologies?

No fundamental change

Attempts to find a clean alternative to firewood and charcoal have focused on cookstove technologies. These ‘improved cookstoves’ have failed however to fundamentally transition the sector (AfDB 2015; GACC 2016b; ECREEE 2014). Factors relating to economic barriers have barely been addressed. Yet, they have severely hampered the large-scale uptake of clean cooking technologies. For instance, the private sector has not seen a sustainable business case in selling technologies, and customers have not had the incentive to purchase the often more expensive clean cooking appliances.

Cooking has also not been addressed from a long-term climate change perspective where developing countries and remote communities can break out of the fossil fuel trap.

Electric cooking, a viable solution?!

Recognizing that cooking on firewood and charcoal isn’t a lasting and acceptable path, Hivos and the World Future Council (WFC) investigated options to move towards clean and sustainable cooking solutions in 2016. The aim was not to find a marginally better solution for tomorrow but to look ahead for real changes over the longer run. ‘Beyond Fire: How to achieve sustainable cooking’, provides a comprehensive comparison of existing and alternative sustainable cooking pathways and calculates the costs range for cooking with various different appliances. However, at that time, most sustainable alternatives were still too expensive to compete with the traditional way of cooking. Last year, Hivos and WFC decided to redo the analysis focusing on electric cooking, resulting in a new report: ‘Beyond Fire: How to achieve electric cooking’.

This new report shows that the costs of cooking with electricity – both in mini-grid contexts and via solar home systems (SHS) – is now well within the range of cost-competitiveness of other cooking alternatives.

One of the reasons for the significant improvement in the economic viability of electricity-based options is that the costs of both solar modules and batteries have lowered considerably in the last years. Since early 2016, the costs of solar and storage systems have decreased by between 30-50%, and continue to decline as markets scale-up and technologies improve.

The report also compares higher efficiency cooking appliances such as slow cookers and pressure cookers. The researchers conclude that pressure cookers, despite their higher upfront costs, have a tremendous cost-saving potential in the long run. In a one hour period, they use just over one quarter of the electricity that an electric hot plate does and pressure cookers are even seven times more efficient in comparison over a 4-hour cooking period.

To conclude, using high-efficiency appliances can make electric cooking cheaper than what many households currently spend on firewood and charcoal. The World Bank’s bottom-up research from across Sub-Saharan Africa indicate that households spend on average between EUR 1 to EUR 31 per month on cooking fuels (World Bank 2014). With slow cookers and pressure cookers, household cooking costs would average between EUR 15 and 21 per month for SHS and between EUR 3.56 and 9.53 per month for mini-grids.  

The pathways to clean cooking

In order to really transform the cooking sector and put electric cooking firmly on the map, there is still a long way to go. We need to step away from making only incremental changes and start picturing a future without fossil fuels.  Imagine if donors and the private sector would join hands and set ambitious goals for clean cooking?  Here are some things they can do: 1) massively invest in pay-as-you-go (PAYG) systems for cooking; 2) make mini-grids economically attractive so people choose electricity to cook; 3) transform fossil fuel subsidies into mechanisms that support poor people to pay upfront costs for electric cooking; 4) listen to and include consumer perspectives; 5) open your eyes to behavioural aspects and new eating habits such as precooked or professionally cooked dishes, and 6) steer towards innovative and new options for cooking. Implementing these suggestions would bring us one step closer to finding a way out of the cooking crisis that continues to destroy the lives of so many women and children in developing countries. So, let’s get underway!

Download the full report.

Eco Matser is Program Manager Green & Inclusive Energy program at Hivos (


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