Friday, May 1, 2009

Barbeques, Grills, and Improved Cookstoves

Last Sunday’s supplement ran an ad which really stuck with me, so much so that a few days later, I went back to my recycled newspapers to confirm my recollection: Wal-Mart is selling spiffy, stainless steel backyard BBQ gas grills for $298. Such grills have long been a suburban status symbol of macho domesticity, much evolved from the little kettle-style charcoal burning versions of my childhood. My first shock was that they’re so cheap (thank you, China) that all elite symbolism has passed. Now average people with backyards who shop at discount stores can afford this luxury, and fuel it with a tank of propane gas, advertised for $17.82.

My second reaction is looking at this snazzy item through the lens of third world cooking; in my role as Director of Communications for GreenMicrofinance, I have learned a great deal about life without the infrastructures we in North America take for granted. GMf’s mission is to bring clean energy, environmental benefit, and poverty alleviation to the world’s 2 billion people without access to modern energy systems. Most of these households cook over foraged wood or dung in open fires; given population expansion, this requires ever more time to gather, since close-by supplies are exhausted. This is not exactly Martha Stewart’s domain. Not only is the direct burning of wood, dung, and crop residue extremely inefficient, it is highly polluting, resulting in respiratory disease as well as black carbon emission. It’s exactly the kind of outdoor “campfire” that in the affluent world has been replaced first by kettle barbeques and as we all became more affluent, gas grills.

Slightly better off families in the developing world can afford LP, liquid petroleum – generally all imported and way beyond the means of a Bottom of the Pyramid family. So the type of grill Wal-Mart is selling is actually a high-end third world stove. The irony, of course, is that for Wal-Mart’s customers, this is not a primary cookstove. It is just for recreational warm weather backyard barbeques. The indoor range, gas or electric, serves that duty.

One breakthrough for perpetually impoverished developing world households is improved cookstoves, paired with gas produced by a family’s biodigester. A slightly higher tech version of composting, these cisterns have a seal, so the waste which is dumped into them is processed anaerobically. Within a month or so, the biodigester yields methane gas along with very rich fertilizer. There are hundreds of different types of stoves being designed and marketed in the developing world. While very simple, they accomplish a great many improvements. They consume less fuel, making them less expensive to run. They utilize locally produced gas (ideally the “in-house” product!), eliminating the time required foraging for wood and dung. And since they are more efficient, they produce less pollution, resulting in improved health for both users and the planet.

The cost of a typical improved cookstove which can provide so many beneficial health, environmental and economic impacts? About $20 - beyond the budget of most Bottom of the Pyramid households….

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