Tailored cooking solutions to close the gender gap

An IIED study in Kitui, Kenya, explores how understanding households’ cooking needs can help improve the uptake of improved cooking devices and promote gender justice in the cooking space.

Enzo Leone's picture
Blog by 
Enzo Leone
Enzo Leone is a researcher in IIED’s Shaping Sustainable Markets research group
11 April 2022
Woman bends over to put a small plastic cup in a cooking pot, which is on a stove.

Woman uses an improved charcoal stove in Kenya (Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In rural Kenya, more than 84% of households cook with firewood. Respiratory diseases are among the country’s top ten leading causes of death, and women and girls – who do most of the cooking – are exposed to dangerous smoke every day. They are also responsible for collecting firewood, and usually have to carry it over long distances, a time-consuming practice that exposes them to gender-based violence.

Having access to affordable, healthier and cleaner cooking solutions is one way to mitigate these hazards while also addressing environmental issues.

Our work in Kenya with partners Caritas KituiAccess to Energy Institute (A2EI), African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) and Modern Energy Cooking Services (MECS) is contributing to the wider work around this subject and looking at how can we balance out the underlying gender inequality in the cooking space to promote gender justice in rural communities.

Understanding marginalised communities’ energy needs

We used the Energy Delivery Model – a participatory and inclusive planning tool developed by IIED and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) – to investigate the cooking landscape in three Kenyan sub-counties: Kitui Central, Kitui Rural and Mwingi Central.

Our study included a comprehensive data-gathering exercise with 150 women. Through household surveys, community workshops and a detailed daily recording of the meals they cooked over six weeks, we were able to understand different households’ cooking needs and explore ways to improve conditions for women and girls.

Cleaner cooking options

We considered three cleaner cooking solutions:

  • Improved charcoal stoves which, compared to traditional charcoal stoves, consume less fuel, reduce the cooking time and produce less smoke
  • Liquified petroleum gas (LPG) stoves, which are cheaper and quicker to use than charcoal stoves, and
  • Electric pressure cookers, which use little energy and significantly simplify cooking.

Stove stacking

We found that stove stacking – using combinations of old and new cooking systems – was common. Households incorporate the new devices into their cooking routines to respond to different needs, and most continue to use their traditional biomass stoves alongside the improved ones.

For example, families who invest in electric pressure cookers usually continue to use LPG or improved charcoal stoves to cook light meals for breakfast such as eggs, pancakes and chapatis, and to warm up water and pre-cooked food, saving the pressure cooker for heavy evening dishes when the whole household is present.

Likewise, families who switch to LPG stoves tend to use them for breakfast but often still use improved charcoal or traditional stoves to cook other meals.

View a presentation by IIED's Enzo Leone on improving the strategy and uptake of cleaner cooking in Kitui county, Kenya. This is also available on IIED's SlideShare channel

People-centred solutions

To encourage families to move away from more polluting stoves, we must first understand their needs. Every family is different, so households need tailored cleaner cooking solutions that they can both afford and incorporate into their cooking routines.

Otherwise, ‘solutions’ are bound to fail, either because people cannot afford to buy or run the new devices, or the devices do not fit into their cooking habits.

Households also need a network of supporting services within their communities so they can buy fuels and devices, and repair them when needed. This tailoring process – marketing different appliances in different ways to different households – requires deep study over a longer period of time.

Our study preliminary identified three distinct household groupings when it came to uptake of alternative cooking technology.

For lower-income families in remote areas who rely on firewood and have little or no spare money for new cooking devices or fuels, improved charcoal stoves are a good option. Charcoal is usually readily available even in places that are far from the electricity grid and LPG refilling stations.

For households not connected to the grid – or facing frequent power cuts – that already buy charcoal or firewood, LPG is a solution. As these families already pay for fuel, they are more willing – and able – to spend money on alternative fuels to speed up the cooking process.

Finally, electric pressure cookers are a good option for households that have a reliable power supply and a higher fuel expenditure. As they already have high outgoings, they tend to be both willing and able to spend money on a more expensive device that will simplify their cooking.

Watch a video about clean cooking in Kitui, Kenya. This is also available on the Global Business YouTube channel

Adjusting the gender balance?

More than one-third of households that started using an electric pressure cooker or LPG stove observed that men took a more proactive role in cooking chores. As well as being attracted to the technical aspect of these devices, they were more likely to use them because they are cleaner and/or easier to use.

Our initial findings show that studying households’ cooking routines can help us better understand how households’ cooking habits, fuel requirements and socio-economic situations drive different device use. And can also help develop cooking solutions that are appropriate for local contexts.

Furthermore, ensuring families have access to improved cooking devices could help address the gender imbalance in cooking spaces, while also helping communities achieve climate targets.