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Clearing the smoke

A story from Lusaka, Zambia

Story by Stockholm Environment Institute June 7th, 2016

2.6 billion people around the world and 700 million in Africa rely on fuels like firewood, charcoal and cow dung to cook their meals. In sub-Saharan Africa, smoke from cooking indoors with traditional biomass on inefficient stoves causes 600,000 deaths each year. As well as being bad for human health, traditional biomass often takes a long time to gather, denying time for activities like education and earning money. And because women and girls gather the bulk of the fuel and do the bulk of the cooking, it is their health and their prospects that are affected the most.

I’m Marie Jürisoo, a Research Fellow at SEI, and together with colleagues from Transformator Design, I recently did some fieldwork in Lusaka, Zambia, as part of a multi-year research initiative to understand more about behaviour and choice in relation to uptake of technologies. One focus of the initiative is on clean cookstoves, which, if taken up widely, could lessen the health, social and environmental impacts of using traditional biomass for cooking.

We interviewed people in 17 low and middle-income households in different areas in Lusaka. We used service design methodology for the interviews – a new approach in this field. The method is user-focused and aims to understand people’s needs and motivations to identify “pain and gain points” – what works for the user and what doesn’t along the journey of taking up a new technology. We used pictures in the interviews to trigger people’s emotions, and they were asked to situate their answers in a broader, everyday context along their user journey.

In every country, cooking techniques, habits, flavour preferences, and social conventions around meals are deeply embedded in the local culture. Most households in Lusaka are strongly attached to their traditional charcoal-fuelled stove – the mbaula. It is the preferred option for grilling maize, meat, or fish, and a handy tool when cooking foods such as beans that need to simmer for several hours. Unlike in rural areas, most households in Lusaka have access to electricity, but only a small proportion uses it for everyday cooking because of the cost. But regardless of income almost all households have at least one mbaula in their kitchens, and the majority uses them every day, while richer people bring it out on festive occasions.

Owing to regular power cuts in Zambia, those households that sometimes or always cook with electricity are finding it tough to plan when to cook. And as charcoal has become more expensive, and its price and quality fluctuate, many people are looking for alternative cooking solutions.


One option is a modern stove that burns granular wood fuels, most often pellets or wood chips. Such stoves are widely available in Lusaka and come in a range of models to suit different income groups. People are driven by a range of different factors when purchasing and learning to use the stove, and our research identified key behavioural drivers. We grouped the users we interviewed into three categories: the “money saver”, the “labour saver” and the “early adopter”.


the money saver

Mrs Zulu is typical of this group, and is mainly motivated by saving money and freeing up time to earn extra cash. Mrs Zulu lives in Chipata compound with her husband and their three children, and they dream of one day buying their own home. The children go to school, and a major monthly expense is buying charcoal for everyday cooking. Mrs Zulu invested considerable time in learning how to use the stove, making sure that she learned the correct dosage of pellets, and she consults the user manual and the company that sold the product. Since buying it five months ago, she uses it on a regular basis and buys pellets from her local vendor as often as she can afford it. Mrs Zulu is likely to remain loyal to the product if the stove delivers on its promise to save money. According to Mrs Zulu “cooking on pellets is cheaper than cooking with charcoal”. She also felt the stove gave her independence, saying, “finally I will not be in the hands of charcoal vendors”.


The labour saver

Faith was typical of this type, and was attracted by the prospect of a fast, clean stove that leaves more time for her to get on with other things. Since rolling blackouts started in early 2015, she has been looking for a way to do fast cooking even when the power is out. Faith lives in Emersdale with her two children and two dependents. Her husband died several years ago. She is a head teacher at her school and the extra responsibility at work means that she spends at least 10 hours away from home every day. She has used her new stove for almost two months. So far, she likes that it gives her control over what time of day she cooks, and that she can cook quickly and cleanly. Faith said, “Now I will not have to wait for the power to come back on, and my hands won’t get dirty from handling charcoal.” Faith had a colleague who also bought the stove who she could share experience with and turn to for advice if there was a problem. People like Faith who prize convenience are likely to give up the stove if the learning process is too bothersome.


The early adopter

One interviewee, Matilda, said “I wanted to experiment – that’s why I bought it.” Matilda lives in Matero compound with her mother, aunt, husband and their three young children. She and her husband support the family by doing various odd jobs. They rent their living space and share the house and attached courtyard with several families. Matilda first heard about the new stove when she passed by a local shop that sold it. When the sales person showed her how to cook on it she thought it looked exciting and decided to buy it. Matilda also values the status that comes with having a new stove, claiming that “I only cook outside where my neighbours can see me. My friends are very impressed. They come by and admire the stove.” People like Matilda are often happy to promote the stove, but don’t necessarily invest a significant amount of time in learning how to use it, and, according to sales representatives, seldom come back to buy pellets.


It is far from straightforward to encourage people to choose to use a new technology and stick with that choice over time, so users have to be motivated, and a new stove has to demonstrate that it lives up to expectations the buyer had of it on the day of purchase. And the expectations are high, especially for cooking performance.

When a stove doesn’t meet these expectations, people will often abandon it. For example, it must enable the cook to prepare an array of dishes. One woman in Lusaka said, “I cannot grill maize on this”, indicating that she is likely return to more familiar ways of cooking. A good stove must also perform a range of tasks. Another user rejected the pellet stove, saying “It is very cumbersome to do slow cooking on it as I have to re-fill pellets several times”. Another said, “I couldn’t figure out how to use it.” Fuel supply is also crucial: pellets need to be readily available and sold at an affordable price. One interviewee reported that “my pellets have finished and I don’t know where to buy new ones.”

One thing that’s clear is that bringing about changes in behaviour can be difficult, especially in areas like cooking that have such deep cultural roots.

Click here to find out more about the SEI initiative on Behaviour and Choice.

Learn more about the SEI  Initiative on Behaviour and Choice
Footnote: Photos: Marie Jürisoo (SEI), Nicklas Lemon, Per Brolund, Sophie Andersson (Transformator). Story: Ekaterina Bessonova, Marie Jürisoo,Tom Gill. Note: the names of the interviewees have been changed.
Lusaka, Zambia