Energy access

Holistically representing women

Given the benefits of improved health and reduced cooking time, women are assumed to unequivocally prefer clean cooking fuels. Now research indicates that women using firewood and those using cleaner alternatives both believe their cooking fuel supports their well-being in several ways, suggesting more complex trade-offs in fuel choices.

The most recent 2020 Sustainable Development Goals progress report notes that 2.8 billion people remain without access to clean cooking fuels and that number has largely remained unchanged over the past two decades. At this rate, 2.3 billion people would still be without access by 2030, which is one third of the global population and predominantly women and children1. This suggests that assumptions for how to deliver reliable and equitable access to clean cooking fuels are not capturing the realities of the world’s impoverished. Writing in Nature Energy, Yuwan Malakar from the University of Queensland and Rosie Day from University of Birmingham provide a compelling reason for these failures in existing approaches — they are based on overly simplistic assumptions that do not holistically capture the concerns of, nor even speak to, women who often make cooking fuel choices2. In fact, they found that some women choose firewood, a less clean option, even when liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), a cleaner option, was available and affordable to them.

Credit: Dinodia Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

Malakar and Day uncover this glaring omission in women’s perspectives through a surgically crafted qualitative research design that compares four very similar Indian villages. While all villages were similar in electricity access, socioeconomic status, predominant occupations, cultural practices and education, two villages kept using firewood, while two switched to LPG. This allowed for a very sharp analysis focused on women’s perceptions, in their own words, while also accounting for the economic concerns often assumed as paramount in decision-making.

In contrast to prevailing assumptions, Malakar and Day found that fuel choices are not just based on health and economic considerations. For example, those who choose firewood note that fuel cost is a factor. However, they also prefer cooking with firewood because they preferred the food taste, even though they recognize some of the detrimental health issues. Those who choose LPG note health and economic considerations, but also acknowledge poorer taste and the risk of explosions. In other words, Malakar and Day observe a multifaceted array of factors driving fuel choices, of which health and economic factors are only a part.

In addition to prevailing focus around individual and family factors, the researchers also found that several social factors influence fuel decisions. For instance, women who use firewood note the opportunity to follow ancestral traditions and strengthen social bonds with other women as they collectively gather wood as key factors; women who use LPG note improved social status as a key factor. Thus, in this multifaceted set of preferences, women consider not just their individual or family circumstances but also circumstances emanating from the wider social system around them.

This masterful work has several important implications. First, rather than assuming that there is one dominant consideration, fuel choice needs to be modelled as a trade-off. Malakar and Day convincingly show that cooking fuel choices are a function of a multifaceted set of concerns that involve not just health and economic factors, but also family and even larger social considerations. For instance, LPG users seem to trade-off taste for health and social status, while firewood users trade-off health for taste and fuel costs. This perhaps necessitates a multi-objective modelling approach that can better handle these observed trade-offs in cooking fuel choices3.

Second, fuel choice models need to include contextual measures. Only recently has research recognized that social factors such as power relationships4, equity5, barriers to knowledge access6, government regulations and norms7, trust8 and cultural beliefs9 can inform the placement, design and use of infrastructure systems. Yet, Malakar and Day show that such work is not permeating into our analyses of cooking fuel choices. That such factors weigh prominently in their observations suggest these contextual factors need to be more centrally included in future analyses to more accurately understand fuel choices (and trade-offs).

Third and more generally, there is a need to scale and synthesize qualitative research. While there have been frequent calls to bring more qualitative observations into energy research10, this has not yet adequately occurred. Perhaps this is because qualitative data itself is nuanced and understandably anonymous or confidential, so researchers have not identified ways to replicate and triangulate qualitative work across contexts. One important advancement of Malakar and Day’s study is the transparency by which they share their methods. They present in extensive detail and make available their protocols and discussion guides for their focus group data collection in both the study’s Methods section and Supplementary Information. By focusing on sharing protocols rather than confidential data, qualitative studies can increasingly use common methodological approaches. This would then allow for syntheses across these similarly conducted studies to glean more generalizable insights into how people actually make cooking fuel choices.

Overall, Malakar and Day leave the reader with an important and sobering question: are we truly speaking to and for the women who are intended to benefit from clean cooking fuels? More sharply, are they being treated as uniform data points and statistical aggregates or as people with nuanced preferences and contexts? Malakar and Day’s work pushes researchers to be truer to the multifaceted considerations, social context and inherent trade-offs that women have to make in their cooking fuel choices. If this clarion call is taken seriously, perhaps this next decade can more drastically advance and better tailor cleaner cooking fuel usage than the last two.

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Correspondence to Daniel Erian Armanios.

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Armanios, D.E. Holistically representing women. Nat Energy 5, 939–940 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-020-00729-x

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