More than 3.5 million people die prematurely each year from indoor air pollution caused by using solid fuels such as wood and animal dung for cooking and heating. Sixty percent of those who die are women and girls. In households that cook with solid fuel, girls spend up to 18 hours a week, on average, gathering fuel. In all, some three billion people in the world have no access to clean cooking solutions.

Some individuals and enterprises are able to see real humans beyond those statistics, and design and successfully implement strategies to meaningfully address those problems. One example is ATEC Biodigesters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which has for the past three years helped hundreds of Cambodian households emerge from the health traps in and around their kitchens. An estimated 14,000 Cambodians — mostly women — die every year of smoke-related illnesses, according to Ben Jeffreys, CEO of ATEC Biodigesters. ATEC’s solution is its “biodigester,” which converts animal, green and kitchen waste into smoke-free cooking gas and fertilizers.

The biodigesters include a biogas rice cooker, and cost between $500 and $650 each. Microfinance makes them affordable with monthly payments of $30 over two years. Jeffreys explains the math: The households save about 20 hours a week they earlier spent on collecting firewood, and the biodigester also produces some 20 tons of fertilizer annually. The combined savings are worth about $30 a month for each household, and their investment in the biodigesters leaves them with a net surplus of between $5,000 and $7,000 over its 25-year lifespan.

At last count, the company had sold 600 of its systems in Cambodia. Its long-term goal is to deploy a million biodigesters in five countries by 2030, including Myanmar, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Spreading the Word

Enterprises like ATEC Biodigesters could of course find valuable support from advocacy groups in expanding adoption of clean cooking solutions. One is the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C. and hosted by the United Nations Foundation. Founded in 2010, it promotes awareness and adoption of clean cook stoves and clean fuels through its network of more than 1,800 partnerships that include NGOs, private sector enterprises, donors and academia.

The work canvas of the Alliance is spread across eight countries: China, India, Bangladesh and Ghana, Guatemala, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda. So far, it has helped distribute more than 116 million cook stoves in its markets, of which some 80 million are either clean or fuel-efficient.

According to Dymphna van der Lans, CEO of Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, most of the cooking still continues to be done by women in the in countries in which her organization is active. “If you think about the impacts of women cooking for their families over open fires, they’re doing it in really horrible circumstances, with indoor air pollution just incredibly impacting their own health and their family’s health,” she said. She summarized her current mission: “Just take that simple belief that women shouldn’t die from preparing food for their families, then make sure that issue reaches a global audience.”

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton