Q&A: What have we learned about consumer preferences of cookstoves in Bangladesh?

CROPPED-DerbyElisabethWASHplus Project’s Household Air Pollution Specialist Elisa Derby recently participated in an online Q&A session hosted and facilitated by The World Bank’s Clean Stove Initiative. The Q&A session focused on lessons learned about consumer preferences for improved cookstoves in Bangladesh, through the WASHplus project, and in Indonesia through the World Bank’s Indonesia Clean Stove Initiative. Key findings from the WASHplus consumer preferences study and related excerpts from the Q&A are provided below.

Key Findings: Understanding Consumer Preference and Willingness to Pay for Improved Cookstoves in Bangladesh

Methodology

  • “Trials of Improved Practices” testing user reactions to one of five different improved cookstoves (ICS) in 120 households.
  • Three-day kitchen performance tests (KPT) in 116 study households and 24 control households.

Cooking Practices

  • A major obstacle was that the cooking time was slower using the ICS.
  • Households prefer to cook rice for the whole day all at once in the morning during the three-month winter, rather than throughout the day, as is customary during the rest of the year.

Cookstove Preferences

  • At least two stoves were perceived as preferable to traditional stoves during the trials.
  • None as then produced met all consumer needs, and none met sufficient consumer needs to completely replace traditional stoves.
  • A vast majority believed ICS produced less smoke than their traditional stoves.
  • Participants widely complained of the inability to cook large volumes of food in large pots.
  • The horizontal fuel entry of ICS was not desirable. 

Fuel Saving

  • Homes using four out of the five improved stoves were found to use at least 16 percent to 30 percent less fuel than the control homes over the course of the KPT. 

Willingness to Pay and Decision Making

  • Certain stove features were valued, but the monetary worth of the stove was dramatically undervalued (most estimated them to be 1/2 to 1/4 of their actual calculated value).
  • Householders realized that metal stoves are expensive, but they were not ready to buy them at market price.
  • When given the stove as a gift in one village, almost all participants chose to keep the stove over a market value cash buy-back.

To learn more about WASHplus’ consumer preference study, download the brief “What Do Cooks Want? What Will They Pay? A Study of Improved Cookstoves in Bangladesh” and the full report “Understanding Consumer Preference and Willingness to Pay for Improved Cookstoves in Bangladesh.”

Q&A with Elisa Derby: What have we learned about consumer preferences of cookstoves in Bangladesh?

Elisa Derby has worked in the cookstoves sector for over a decade and manages Winrock International’s household energy and health program, with projects and partnerships that reduce fuel use and exposure to cooking-related household air pollution. This work incorporates field-based capacity building, formative research, network building, knowledge dissemination, grants management, and direct implementation activities. She is the household energy and household air pollution specialist for the WASHplus project, and supports WASHplus consumer preferences, needs and willingness to pay research, and other activities designed to support the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves mission and goals.

Q: What do you think was the most unexpected result stemming from your study? And how do you think this finding will likely impact the market (stove manufacturers) and future development initiatives?

A: Our willingness to pay results were the most surprising result from the WASHplus study in Bangladesh. Only one out of 105 study participants given the option to purchase the stoves at market value did so, although of the remaining 15 households given the stoves as gifts and then offered the option of a cash buyout at that same market value, only three chose cash; the other 12 preferred to keep their stove. People valued the stoves when acquisition barriers were removed, indicating a need for better financing options.

Q: The WASHplus study adopted the Trials of Improved Practices (TIPs) methodology. What makes this innovative and could you please explain how this methodology works?

A: The USAID Mission in Bangladesh enlisted WASHplus to help it assess consumer preferences and identify types of stoves that would be a good fit for its cookstove promotion program, as a follow-on activity to a cookstove market assessment already undertaken. Because cooking is such a personal experience and so integral to daily life, there’s no better way to get feedback on a particular stove type than to ask potential consumers to bring the stove into their homes and assess it as they go about their daily routine over a period of weeks. TIPs is an established qualitative methodology in the WASH sector and invites participants to interact with researchers and identify, discuss, and resolve barriers to using the new technologies through semi-structured “elicitation” questions. We gave each household one of five imported ICS models to evaluate, and used both qualitative and quantitative methods to gather data. The latter included monitoring wood and stove usage via KPT and stove use monitoring sensors for both traditional and improved stoves, as well as household air pollution in a subset of homes. We ended the trials with two different perceived value and willingness to pay approaches.

Q: How do you select five imported ICS models?

A: We chose the stove models based on regional availability, performance, and characteristics. All models were produced in China or India; only the Grameen Greenway stove was currently available for purchase in Bangladesh at the time of the study, albeit in small quantities, but others had potential to be manufactured and/or assembled in Bangladesh. They all met a minimum of Tier 2 fuel efficiency according to ISO IWA 11:2012 guidelines (the Tier 0 traditional baseline in Bangladesh is a hand-built, sunken-hole mud stove). Stoves were selected by characteristics (chimney/not, fan/not, portable/not), not by brand, to represent a range of stove types. An added benefit of using imported stoves with which consumers were not familiar was the avoidance of any influence of brand loyalty. Several of the manufacturers have made modifications to their stoves in response to consumer feedback from our study, and are exploring or already pursuing expanding their markets into Bangladesh. 

Q: Is there room for adoption of dedicated devices that would be efficient for specific tasks such as  water boiling or rice cooking? In other words, could the future be towards several types of efficient task-focused devices rather than trying to go for the “mythical” do-it-all-cleanly-and-efficiently-while-customer-friendly stove?

A: As a follow-up activity to the consumer research, we’re now doing customer segmentation and market strategy work in Bangladesh and one recommendation from that research is bundling the improved cookstoves with products like electric rice cookers, as the combination would then be expensive enough to trigger microfinance options, and the products would complement each other nicely, as the rice cooking is the weak point of many of the improved stoves. This is of course only possible for homes that are electrified, one of several customer segments. In my own kitchen I have an oven, stovetop, microwave, toaster, and coffee maker, and have been thinking of investing in a slow-cooker; I’m clearly no believer in a mythical do-it-all technology! 

Q: Is water boiling a main task in Bangladesh? It is an interesting finding in Indonesia. Almost all households only drink boiled water (this a common practice in China, too).

A: Unfortunately (for other health considerations!) boiling water for drinking or bathing is not common practice in Bangladesh.

Q: Bundling products with complementary functions sounds good. But I wonder how many households will invest in such bundle. If bundling products is not targeting poor households, then the households who choose the bundle probably don’t need microfinancing either.

A: For better or worse, there are many segments of “poor” in Bangladesh, and the poorest of the poor don’t usually have electricity, so the rice cooker bundling is a moot point for them anyway. Fortunately, we won’t have to just speculate how/whether this will work, as the WASHplus research findings and market strategies are directly feeding into the USAID’s Catalyzing Clean Energy in Bangladesh program, so they’ll be able to report back to us how/whether this has worked in the next couple years.

Q: Was the finding regarding “unwillingness of customers to chop wood” reported to stove manufacturers/designers (e.g., the tech. people)? What is their reaction to this issue? This is major in my mind, as it goes directly towards adoption and actual use … because the trend in adoption overall is towards devices that make life easier and (possibly more pleasurable), not that do good only if you follow a certain set of rules. And there may be some unintended consequences on the social side of this increase need for chopped wood.

A: Yes, all of our findings were shared with manufacturers. Fuel processing is always an especially challenging factor. We know that we get the most complete combustion and therefore cleanest burn from fuel with high surface/mass ratios, but of course any user would rather just throw a big log in the fire, not have to chop up the fuel or continuously feed it. I know many in our sector have high hopes for a fuel processing service solution—wherein entrepreneurs can make a living processing wood, or selling processed wood to users who then get a cleaner burn. I wish I had the answer!

Q: Based on the study, what do you think is the biggest challenge/barrier in promoting ICS in countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia? Was the lesson learnt from your study applicable for other developing nations as well?

A: I think the biggest challenge in our sector, regardless of where cookstoves are promoted, is that we don’t have biomass solutions that both burn cleanly (read: meets WHO air quality guidelines) and that users like to use and prefer over their traditional stove 100% of the time. So we see a LOT of stove stacking, and the benefits of ICS are watered down at best and completely negated at worst. But it’s entirely rational—if you spend 5-7 hours/day cooking, of course you’d rather do it on the easy-to-use stove than the “allegedly better but annoying to actually use” option, even though the latter may provide health benefits down the road. Everyone loves cooking on LPG (and I posit in most cases would do so almost exclusively were it not for cost), and I firmly believe that universal clean fuel access should be our end goal, but we need many really good biomass solutions in the meantime that cooks will use consistently, correctly, and exclusively, and we’re just not there yet. I’m grateful for the R&D funding that’s been brought to the table in recent years to support that work.

Q: I would be interested in hearing from the Bangladesh experience about distribution channels that were used to reach users in remote areas, in particular women. For example, there is an organization called Solar Sisters that is operating in several African countries, which trains and hires women entrepreneurs from the community to market and sell stoves. It seems like an interesting approach. What good steps and strategies were used to reach the end user beyond broad marketing?

A: As the WASHplus Bangladesh activity was a research study involving imported ICS not currently available in Bangladesh, we did not rely on any distribution channels, rather we selected the 120 participant households and brought them the stoves ourselves. Previous ICS promotion supported by the Government of Bangladesh has relied primarily on sanitation shops and NGOs for distribution. I expect that the USAID Catalyzing Clean Energy in Bangladesh project (which will be the implementation follow-on to the WASHplus research) will expand their distribution networks, and the Solar Sisters model may be a good fit—I’ll pass on the suggestion!

Q: Could you please share some key lessons learnt from your project, or essential take-aways, especially on those topics that have not yet been discussed in the above thread? Anything that might be helpful for future project development and design, social marketing, awareness campaign is warmly welcomed.

A: Some important take-aways from our research in Bangladesh is the need for larger and higher fire-power stoves for Bangladesh, and given the prevalence of mixed fuel use we also recommended the development of a mixed-fuel stove. Happily, several of the manufacturers we worked with have come out with larger/higher fire-power versions of their stoves to better meet Bangladeshi needs. Prakti has received Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves funding specifically to develop a mixed-fuel stove for Bangladesh, which is already in prototype stage. Finally, I would say our findings underscore the need I think we all recognize for consumer-centered design, to really meet consumer needs while still achieving emissions reductions and efficiency goals.

The other take-away from our work in Bangladesh that we haven’t gotten into on this thread is the issue of quality control and durability. By way of background, Bangladesh has a long history of improved stove promotion over the decades, primarily focusing on variations of one type of artisanal clay (and more recently cement) chimney stove, generally called the Bondhu Chula, of which there are an estimated 500,000 still in use. We performed controlled cooking tests on both the imported and (expertly constructed) Bondhu Chula stoves, and they all demonstrated significant efficiency gains over the traditional stove. All of the chimney stoves were very successful in venting the smoke out of the kitchen. But in the field we saw a LOT of very smoky Bondhu Chulas. This is likely in part due to varying quality control prevalent with artisanal production. That said, even expertly constructed Bondhu Chulas depend on the user to keep the stove well-maintained.

The challenge with any chimney stove is that when not cleaned regularly, they can redirect all the smoke (maybe just as much as the traditional stove generates) back into the cooking area. In Bangladesh there isn’t a culture of chimney cleaning, and given that the Bondhu Chula has a cement chimney that must be cleaned from the top (unlike metal chimneys that you can clean just by banging on the side), and many homes have thatched roofs, this kind of cleaning can be next to impossible. So field testing for chimney stoves over time is really critical, especially in Bangladesh.

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