DESIGN FOR DEVELOPING COUNTRIES | Cooking up a Recipe for Clean Energy Adoption in Rural India

McKayla Blanch
Jan 24, 2019 · 10 min read


Currently, air pollution in Delhi, India is topping the charts globally. The air quality index is listed as “very poor” and the amount of toxic particulate matter continues to rise, posing as a major health hazard. The poor air quality has led to an increase in the number of heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and premature deaths in India. A large portion of this air pollution can be specifically attributed to residential biomass burning from the neighboring states of Delhi, such as Punjab and Haryana. Biomass refers to burning wood, crop residue, or cow dung to heat homes or cook food. Women, especially in these rural areas, are the primary users of this type of fuel, using it to cook on their traditional stove tops. In India, a traditional cook stove is called a chuhla, and according to World Energy Outlook, an estimated 819 million people in India cook meals on these biomass-fueled brick or clay stoves.

As we started to dive deeper into this problem space and understand what alternative technologies exist for these women who are continuing to use these health hazardous stoves every day, we were amazed with our findings. The Indian government, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and private organizations have all been individually trying to address this problem since the 1930s. Improved Cookstoves (ICs), which were designed to increase cooking efficiency and release fewer pollutants, became part of several NGO development projects and are still being promoted today. However, research suggests that most of these projects to date have had extremely low rates of adoption. We quickly realized through our research that the chulha was much more than just a simple cooking tool for women, but rather has a long history and cultural context that is deeply ingrained in the issue.(We unpack this in our ‘Insights’ section)

Most recently, the Indian government launched a program in 2016, called the Ujjwala Yojana scheme, which aims at giving liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) connections to mostly rural women and their households that remain below the poverty line. LPG, also referred to as simply propane or butane, is a clean gas combustion and therefore much more environmental-friendly than the combustion of other fuels, such as biomass. Currently, 37 million households have successfully attained access to LPGs due to the government scheme. However, among this group, 5.5 million households have not actively switched to the everyday use of this product. A safer, cleaner fuel is sitting in these homes and yet many women refuse to use it or choose to use it as a hybrid approach, switching back and forth between their traditional stove and the LPG cylinder. This led our group to continuously ask ourselves throughout the design process…

How might we increase the long-term adoption of clean energy cooking products among all households in the rural states of India?

Our ‘How Might We’ Statement addresses 6 out of the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals


Zooming out. With such a wicked problem, we decided to zoom out and paint the broader picture of the issue at hand. To dismiss any biases or initial assumptions and make sure that as a team we were all on the same page and understood the full scope of the problem, we created a multi-level system map(Figure 1). This is a tool that helps teams look at the dynamics that form the large, historical context of the problem. This visual tool allowed us to identify leverage points within the system where proposed solutions would have the greatest potential for change. As we identified key stakeholders, we started to understand how they were directly or indirectly affecting women and propagating the sustained use of traditional stoves versus cleaner products (Figure 2).

Before narrowing in on a specific area within our multi-level system map, we conducted a series of interviews. We talked to two industry professionals who are extremely well-versed and educated on our topic area. We first spoke with Ben Underwood, Co-President of Resonant Energy, who lead the development of renewable energy projects, including a series of biogas projects in both Nepal and China. We then spoke to Dan Sweeney, a research scientist at MIT D-Lab, who is currently working on sustainable household energy projects in developing countries, such as India and Uganda. We also had the opportunity to talk with two women living in rural India, who would be potential users of our final solution.

Figure 1.Multi-level system map: Used to identify leverage points/ key opportunity areas within the system. Figure 2. Stakeholder Map

Zooming back in. These interviews helped fill in certain gaps and in turn helped us to narrow our focus. Looking back at the multi-level system map, we could now identify our greatest leverage point. We believed that looking at the most recent government intervention was where a real opportunity presented itself (Figure 3). Through the Ujjwala scheme, the Indian government is providing direct access to a better and cleaner product. There is a low barrier to entry because the product is already physically in over 30 million homes. But again, the problem is with the sustained long-term adoption of these units.

Figure 3.Highlighting our opportunity area within our multi-level system map. (Click to enlarge)

Dan Sweeney and Ben Underwood both touched upon the barriers to government-led projects. They explained how oftentimes government initiatives don’t have the time or money to implement a proper feedback loop. This sentiment was reaffirmed when talking with women in India who are currently connected to LPG cylinders. These women expressed a clear feeling of lack of ownership. They felt as if the government had simply dropped these units in their homes, never involving them in the process or teaching them the true value of its’ adoption. Therefore, they have no allegiance to its use and no plans to maintain it or refill it.


By talking with industry professionals and a small sample of women currently living in poverty-stricken areas of India, and by learning about past initiatives where the adoption of clean energy options has ultimately failed, we gathered four key insights. We believe these insights address the visible and non-visible barriers that hinder the successful adoption of clean energy products, such as LPGs in rural India. While other aspects have been addressed throughout our research process, we believe these four get to the root of the issue and explain why women are averse to changing their current behaviors and practices in the kitchen.

Time Poverty — Many women are spending over half of their day traveling long distances to collect wood as fuel for their traditional cookstoves. The act of collecting wood brings women together and has been recognized as having certain social benefits. Women have been observed to sing and laugh and even complain about their husbands during the journey. In a surprising way, it creates safe female social spaces that put them in charge. Even though there is a level of freedom and sociality, the treks can be treacherous and very grueling. Rural women and young girls are solely responsible for all the household chores and several other types of unpaid work, which occupy a large portion of their day. We concluded that this type of routine schedule, with no room for real leisure, doesn’t allow women the time to invest in themselves and their overall growth and self-improvement.

Economic & Independent Opportunity — In addition to collecting wood for their homes, many women barter and sell it to meet the needs of their families. They sometimes sell cow dung cakes as well. This practice is one of the few forms of currency that women control in these rural areas. Therefore, these outside activities related to the traditional cookstove are tied to economic empowerment, which many rural women have not been able to find elsewhere.

Gender Disparity — Husbands are the sole earners in these rural households. Due to long history of patriarchy and also low literacy levels in certain northern states of India, men still enjoy control over the major purchasing and other key decisions of the rural household.

Lack of Human-Centered Design — As mentioned previously, one of the issues with government-led initiatives is the failure to implement a feedback loop. The reason that many of the clean energy products haven’t been adopted is because there is a lack of human-centered design. No solution thus far has actively engaged the potential user throughout the design process, from beginning to end. For example, Dan Sweeney, who was recently in India doing field research around this specific problem space, said that even though he was in these rural settings, he still felt distanced at times from the problem, alluding that the input he was receiving was not fully authentic or transparent. The research assistants he was provided with from the local villages were mostly men and he was rarely given the opportunity to communicate directly with the local women. Through our research we have recognized a pattern of women being left out of the central design and decision making processes, who are then asked to readily adopt new solutions and ridiculed when they don’t obey or follow suit.

The development of these insights put everything into perspective for us. By mapping out these important pain points, we were able to collectively agree on what a potential solution mustachieve for women. Our solution will…

1. Empower rural women and give them enhanced agency and voice within their communities

2. Foster collaborative decision-making & better communication between spouses

3. Be accessible (Technological, Financial, etc.)

4. Be flexible in regards to time and specificity towards women’s priorities


To increase the long-term adoption of clean energy cooking products (LPG) among households in the rural states of northern India, we drafted a service blueprint for a Sustainable Advocacy Program named ‘Agnee.’ Agnee stands for fire in Hindi and symbolizes power in ancient and traditional India.

The goal of this program is to empower rural women and give them enhanced agency and voice within their communities. The big idea is to release rural women from the burden of having to travel far to collect wood and the exhaustion of their daily cooking-related activities and schedule. They will have the opportunity to intimately learn and work with sustainable role models in their village as well as leaders in the financial, educational, and governmental sectors who believe in the advancement of women in rural areas.

Training and capacity building sessions with rural women willing to switch to clean energy.

Rural women will be trained to collect valuable data around sustainability which will help the government implement policies that will be better defined and better adopted due to their efforts. In return, they will gain monetary compensation for their work and sound financial advice that will set their family up for a better future. Their performance will be monitored throughout the program journey to understand failures and gaps to help them become more efficient at their new jobs.

Agnee sustainable advocate collecting data and inspiring women to switch to clean energy products.

Once the women will start working, they will automatically serve as success stories and inspiration for other women to enroll in our program.

The salient outcomes of this program will be reduced time poverty to help these women focus on themselves and their children’s health and wellbeing. A little education and training will help them gain confidence to do things that previously intimidated them, such as opening a bank account, using a mobile phone or understanding basic literary documents and training materials. With more free time in their day, we expect to witness improvements in household communications, ultimately leading to a better and healthier family dynamic.

Happy faces of newly enrolled women in the Agnee Sustainable Program!

We recognize that there is no silver bullet solution to this complex problem. We believe that a collaborative approach that aligns several stakeholders around the same purpose will improve and ultimately advancethe lives of these rural women and their families. This is our fundamental ambition and driving force as we move forward and further develop and define this solution space.

MassArt Innovation

Stories and opinions from the students, faculty, and…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store