Today, about three billion people still cook and heat their homes with traditional stoves and solid fuels worldwide. These fuels and stoves are major contributors to household air pollution in the developing world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), household air pollution causes 4.3 million deaths annually. Cooking is primarily done by women, and so women and children bear the health burden associated with burning solid fuels as well as the hazards associated with collecting fuels. Cleaner cooking fuels and cookstoves, which would reduce harmful health impacts, have been identified as an important area of international development.

A series of recent studies on the health benefits of ethanol-fueled cookstoves have provided evidence that ethanol is a cleaner, healthier alternative for families still cooking with traditional biomass. Many of these studies involved Project Gaia, a U.S. nonprofit dedicated to promoting clean cooking fuels and cookstoves worldwide. The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) first showcased Project Gaia's clean-burning ethanol cookstoves back in 2016.

Since 2013, Project Gaia has supported research by Dr. Christopher Sola Olopade, Professor of Family Medicine and Medicine and Clinical Director of the Global Health Initiative at the University of Chicago, on household air pollution and ethanol-fueled cookstoves. The nonprofit has so far contributed to four published studies by providing technical assistance and ethanol-fueled cookstoves for the research projects. Overall, Dr. Olopade’s research has shown that ethanol fueled cookstoves have a positive impact on household health.

One notable study, “Pregnancy outcomes and ethanol cook stove intervention: A randomized-controlled trial in Ibadan, Nigeria," shows that infants born to women cooking with ethanol have higher birth weights than those born to women cooking with firewood or kerosene. The study also demonstrated a higher average gestational age and lower perinatal mortality among ethanol cookstove users. In addition, Dr. Olopade’s findings suggest a lower level of preterm delivery and miscarriages among women using ethanol fuels, though more research is needed. Strikingly, after the study was completed, 83 percent of participants continued to purchase ethanol and use the ethanol-fueled cookstoves with their personal funds.

Other studies in cooperation with Dr. Olopade have proven ethanol-fueled cookstoves’ potential to mitigate cardiovascular health risks and chronic hypoxia, and indicated that household air pollution can affect placental growth and function.

Ethanol-fueled cookstoves can also play a positive role in mitigating climate change. Burning solid fuels generate emissions that are powerful contributors to climate change, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), which are a set of gases and particulates that are primarily responsible for the half of global warming not caused by CO2. The most significant SLCP generated by burning solid fuels is black carbon, and households in developing countries are responsible for about 21 percent of global black carbon emissions. Ethanol-fueled cookstoves greatly reduce the emissions of short-lived climate pollutants.

In addition to assisting Dr. Olopade’s research, Project Gaia has carried out its own research into the feasibility and benefits of alcohol fuels for household use. In 2005 and 2006, in order to test whether ethanol-fueled cookstoves could be a viable option for traditional stove users, Project Gaia conducted its first indoor air pollution study in refugee camps in Ethiopia. According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, 98 percent of Ethiopians use solid fuels for cooking and more than 45,000 of them die each year because of household air pollution.

The Project Gaia study measured and quantified levels of household carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter from the use of both firewood and ethanol-fueled cookstoves in the camps. Additionally, two former staff members of Project Gaia collaborated with the Former Women Fuelwood Carriers Association (FWFCA), a local women’s cooperative in Ethiopia, to measure the benefits of ethanol-fueled cookstoves for women. They presented the results to the World Health Organization (WHO). Project Gaia concluded that “Ethiopia has a high use of charcoal (and firewood), which causes CO poisoning and a low birth weight of children.”

Currently, Project Gaia is involved in two health studies funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). One is again with Dr. Olopade based on the work he did in Nigeria. The second is a case study undertaken by a former staff member of Project Gaia that focuses on the local production of ethanol and how micro-distilleries are producing ethanol from local waste products to ensure a sustainable supply of ethanol in Ethiopia.

Part of Project Gaia’s mission is to ensure that both alcohol fuels and clean cookstoves are sourced locally by working with local entrepreneurs and helping them establish alcohol fuel and cookstove businesses. Such an effort would be impossible without support from stakeholders, including local fuel companies, sugar companies, and governments. Scientific studies can help mobilize this support by raising awareness of clean cooking technology. The studies are also very helpful in quantifying the impacts of an intervention and in informing various stakeholders of the benefits and challenges associated with cooking technologies.

Project Gaia works in multiple countries including Ethiopia (where its flagship program is located), Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania. It is also supporting projects in Haiti, Mozambique, Madagascar, and India. It has helped 29,218 households adopt ethanol-fueled cookstoves, in part by continually working to lower their price, making them more practical for low-income households to acquire.

An ethanol clean cook stove currently retails for $55 to $65 for a double burner stove and $35 to $40 for a single burner stove. Now, Project Gaia has a more economical option: a stove manufacturer that it works with has created an economy stove, which retails for $20 to $25 for a single burner. The stove is now readily available for purchase. Another benefit of the new cookstoves is job creation; the economy cookstoves are shipped as a flat pack and can be assembled locally by local workers.

In addition to bringing down the costs of cookstoves, Project Gaia faces additional challenges from diverse local regulations on clean fuels. Some countries have regulations on clean fuel initiatives, but others have no framework. Without legal guidelines, Project Gaia can struggle to establish a local clean fuel business. Furthermore, in some regions, like Zanzibar, fuel supply is controlled by the government and it is difficult to guarantee a consistent and robust fuel supply chain locally.

But Project Gaia isn't giving up. It is clear that ethanol-fueled cookstoves can provide significant benefits to household health and women’s empowerment. And, by assisting in the establishment of local supply chains, Project Gaia can help ensure that the technology, fuels, and cookstoves are locally owned—providing jobs and other economic benefits to the local community.


Special thanks to the Project Gaia team for contributing to this story.

Author: Jieyi Lu