Cookstove research takes CU Denver to India

September 21, 2016

What makes Gregory Simon, PhD, sit up straight, lean forward and talk with passion about his research is a convergence of cultures, environments and peoples.

“Decisions that are made by global investors sitting in skyscrapers in London can be undone by women in saris standing in their kitchens in an Indian tribal village,” Simon said. “I love that. It’s very geographical.”

Gregory Simon
Gregory Simon, PhD

Simon, an associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, is referring to his research looking at the efficacy of cookstove programs in two Indian states. He has recruited five graduate students to work with him on the project. It’s a terrific opportunity for faculty and student collaboration, and even more important, the results of the research could potentially redirect how millions of dollars are being spent on sustainable global development. 

‘Imagine a campfire in your home’

Simon’s research took off in fall 2015 when he received a National Science Foundation grant to work with climate, environmental and health scientists in a study of cookstoves.

In about one-third of the world’s households, a woman cooks inside her home using wood, crop waste or charcoal as fuel. “Imagine a campfire in your home every day, burning where you are living,” said Isaac Rivera, one of Simon’s students. “Walk inside that hut and immediately your eyes start to water and you can’t breathe. It’s mainly the children and women who are suffering.”

Traditional cookstove in India.
Indian woman using new cookstove.

In  recent years, the push to improve indoor and outdoor air quality by bringing more efficient cookstoves into rural homes has been a “hot topic,” Simon said. Millions of stoves have been distributed across many developing countries, including India. Many of the cookstove programs are funded by more developed countries (England, for example) fulfilling a mandate to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by investing in clean cookstove programs in other countries (India, for example). Simon and his students are examining how the influx of carbon financing is influencing the use of cookstoves.

“It’s a perfect project for geographers who think across country borders,” Simon said. “The money is coming from outside the country, but is it creating change for good or not?”

Who can say no to better cookstoves?

In fall 2015 during his graduate student seminar, Simon recruited five students to participate in the research. Rivera had worked on different cookstove projects for several years before applying to graduate school at CU Denver specifically to work with Simon and to look at the ethical dilemmas posed by development projects such as hand-out cookstoves.

“Better cookstoves—who can say no to that?” Rivera said. “But it isn’t always as it seems.”

Marcelle Caturia listens to Indian women offer feedback about cookstoves.
Indian village in Andhra Pradesh

Student Marcelle Caturia signed on for the project because she had already traveled internationally and she was intrigued by the notion that women face the same daily domestic challenges, no matter the country. “It falls to women to keep the household together, feed the family and care for everyone’s health,” she said. “Geography can look at what makes places different, but in this case, I was interested in discovering what different places have in common.”

In February 2016, four students traveled with Simon by plane, train and a four-hour Jeep ride to reach villages in rural Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh where they would meet with two non-governmental organizations tasked with distributing cookstoves to local villagers. This was the first of two trips, designed to develop their “ground game” and determine the questions they must answer:

  • Does a new cookstove change the quality of a family’s life significantly?
  • Are people healthier with new cookstoves?
  • Does the region experience true social and environmental benefits?
  • Do people actually continue to use the cookstoves over time?
Emily Anderson prepares food for cookstove.
Students and villagers prepare nuts for drying and cooking on stoves.

Student Emily Anderson came to India with a feminist perspective and a willingness to question whether the hand-out cookstoves are, in fact, “empowering” as their promoters claim. “Maybe women with the cookstoves do have some more time and better health, but extra time just means more time to work,” Anderson said. “The women will not be truly empowered until there are additional cultural and social changes in their communities, so it’s going to take more than one cookstove.”

In one way, the women of the village have tremendous power. “If the mission is to get stoves into homes, how can you say ‘mission accomplished’ if six months later people are not using them?” said Simon. “If the woman of the home doesn’t like the cookstove, she will dump it and the health and environmental benefits will evaporate.” 

Immersed in the research

Since they returned from India, Simon and the students have been designing a cookstove survey which will be administered by Indian workers to thousands of households. The information Simon’s team collects will be a service to the Indian people, to the NGOs and to the country. Overall, the team hopes to identify positive outcomes and success stories, while also exposing important obstacles and challenges, which the team hopes will serve as a cautionary tale for other projects.

The research also serves the students who are getting hands-on experience, learning as they go. Student Brendan Berve had no research opportunities as an undergraduate. “Now I’m working in real-life research, not just reading someone else’s work,” he said. “That’s preparing me for the next professional step.”

“We are immersed in this project,” added Anderson. “We are figuring it out as we go along, so sometimes there is uncertainty, but that’s actually empowering.”

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Caturia found her likely thesis topic in the cookstove project. She plans to focus on what things women and families relinquish when they adopt new technology into the household. If food doesn’t taste the same when cooked on the new stove and the family complains or won’t eat, that will affect the success of the project. “We hear a lot about the benefits of cookstoves,” Caturia said. “But if you want new technology to stick, you have to also look at the costs—both tangible and intangible.”

Simon and the students will return to India in January 2017 with the initial findings from their survey. At that point they will also be able to observe how the cookstove projects are evolving. They will be able to observe whether, as Rivera puts it, “the cookstove is being used as it was intended or is being used as a flower pot.” Eventually, Simon says, he and the students will publish a paper together. He praises the students who bring their own questions and unique “geographic lens” to the project. “I am learning from them and they are learning from me,” he said. “And we are all learning from the research.”