“We have reached a tipping point” – so says Radha Mutiaha, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. What she means is that stoves and cooking are finally on the radar, attracting some big players, and for the first time investors are taking African markets seriously. Certainly, the support of people like Julia Roberts, Gisele Bunchen and Hilary Clinton has given the sector a certain glamour in recent years.

I’ve just spent a couple of days representing Practical Action at the Bonn International Cooking Energy Forum, and my observation is that the sector is changing in some really fundamental ways. Multinational companies are getting involved like Philips Africa, and Envirofit India. Social entrepreneurs have exciting plans – with the likes of BurnManufacturing planning to produce 14,000 stoves a month from a new purpose-built factory in Nairobi. Where it used to be NGOs who led the way designing innovative products to meet the needs of poor consumers, now that is increasingly being done by the private sector. With the right product, everyone seemed bullish. The problem does not seem to be one of selling stoves.

The role of NGOs is likely to have to change to one of market facilitator, and capacity builder, for example in supporting small enterprises so their products can meet new standards, and to help them be in a position to apply successfully for financing. There will be a continuing need for gathering evidence and raising awareness. While huge amounts are spent all over the world on campaigns to combat malaria and HIV/AIDS, and despite being the world’s 4th biggest killer and the cause of 3.5 million deaths a year, still only tiny amounts are spent on raising awareness about the dangers of smoke from cooking fires.

Two questions are still troubling me:

Is it enough? The challenges are enormous and no-one has yet ‘cracked it’ to create a really vibrant, growing cook stoves market. We are reaching millions, perhaps even 10s of millions, but not the 100s of millions that need to be reached every year.
Will the rural poor who don’t have any sort of stove and who don’t pay anything for their fuel be reached?