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Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

From the Margins: How Gender and Kitchens Got Sidetracked in the Energy Debate

Cooking can be taken for granted by those not impacted by its drudgery. It is often assumed that clean and efficient energy sources like electricity and gas power our kitchens; yet approximately 2.3 billion individuals (predominantly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa) lack access to these modern cooking amenities.1 Instead, they rely on age-old, carbon-intensive methods such as burning wood and charcoal.2 These methods are inefficient and contribute significantly to the global carbon footprint.

Disproportionately affecting women, lack of access to clean fuels for cooking leads to 3.7 million untimely deaths annually from household air pollution.3 Surprisingly, this pressing issue garners scant attention from development professionals and impact investors. Clean cooking remains one of the most underfunded development challenges, receiving a fraction of the funding it needs to increase access.4 While many interventions are celebrated for addressing external challenges in regions like South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America, the dire struggles faced within our very own kitchens go ignored.

In the collective narrative of progress, we’ve all forgotten about the kitchen—and with it, the silent, enduring labor of women.

Clean Energy Investments Vs. Clean Cooking: A Disproportionate Focus

Cooking, despite its day-to-day significance, is overshadowed by broader conversations on renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydropower. This oversight is not only symbolic, but also has real-world implications. Large-scale investments in clean energy, while commendable and essential, make the disparity in attention towards clean cooking even more pronounced.

Investments in clean energy projects, encompassing renewable and nuclear power generation, grid infrastructure, storage solutions, low-emission fuels, efficiency enhancements, end-use renewables, and electrification, attract trillions of dollars annually.5 Despite this significant financial commitment, a closer examination reveals a stark disparity when compared to investments in clean cooking technologies. Such an imbalance might not raise concern if not for the dire consequences associated with traditional cooking methods. These methods’ emissions may seem minor compared to colossal industrial outputs, but they accumulate, especially when considered from a global perspective. The direct environmental impact of solid fuel burning in households accounts for nearly 58% of worldwide black carbon emissions and around 2% of global CO2 emissions each year.6

However, recent developments offer a glimmer of hope. According to the latest report by the Clean Cooking Alliance (CCA), investment in clean cooking enterprises surged to a historic peak of $215 million in 2022, marking an 80% increase from the previous year.7 This surge, largely propelled by carbon finance, signifies a growing recognition of clean cooking’s role in climate action. Notably, debt has emerged as the predominant funding source, reflecting the sector’s evolution and the compelling appeal of carbon-driven business models. Yet, despite these advancements, the concentration of investments in a handful of enterprises and the dominance of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) projects underscore an ongoing challenge in diversifying and expanding the clean cooking industry.

With the International Energy Agency estimating that $8 billion annually is required to achieve universal access to clean cooking by 2030, the current level of funding, although unprecedented, remains insufficient.8 The World Bank suggests that our collective inaction in advancing clean cooking leads to a staggering annual loss of over $2.4 trillion.9 This stark contrast highlights the critical need for sustained and increased investment in clean cooking solutions, a pivotal yet underrepresented front in the global fight against climate change.

The loss isn’t just monetary; it encompasses detrimental effects on public health, the environment, climate, and gender equity. Investing in clean cooking promises a substantial return that is difficult to quantify.

Percent Increase in Clean Cooking Across the World, 2003-2021

Source: The World Bank

So, What Perpetuates This Oversight?

The roots of this disregard for the emissions and health effects of cooking also require a deeper societal introspection. Bridging the investment gap hinges on gender-lens investing—a practice still in its formative stages.10 Gender-lens investing is a strategy that recognizes the value of gender diversity and seeks to promote gender equality through investment decisions. It is a part of the broader movement towards responsible and impact investing, where investments aim to generate positive social or environmental impacts alongside financial returns. By integrating gender-based factors into investment decisions, it is hoped that ventures related to women, such as clean cooking, would garner more attention.

Gender-lens investing is crucial, considering the evident disparities in funding for businesses based on gender leadership. In an IFC study from 2019, only a meager 7% of private equity and venture capital is directed towards female-led enterprises.11 On average, women-led businesses obtain 35% less funding than their male counterparts. This discrepancy arises partly because investors tend to allocate more funds to female-led businesses during early stages, such as in accelerators or incubators, where the amounts invested are typically smaller. By contrast, later and more substantial investment phases, such as growth equity and buyouts, tend to favor male-led businesses. Furthermore, female-led companies face challenges in securing second-round funding, with only 13% succeeding compared to 17% of male-led ventures. An alarming observation is the pattern where female leaders, after obtaining the first round of funds, are often replaced by male counterparts in subsequent funding rounds.

The implication is clear: embracing gender-lens investments underscore the need for financially prudent and progressive stance. With the potential benefits of clean cooking being closely intertwined with women’s roles in various societies, this investment strategy could be the catalyst for greater attention and resources toward clean cooking initiatives.

Prioritizing Treatment Over Causes

Too many approaches to problems in the developing world are geared towards treating consequences rather than preempting root causes. While global efforts are intensifying to promote gender equality by championing increased participation of women in the workforce, advancing their educational opportunities, and bolstering their representation across sectors, we often miss the forest for the trees and tend to address the visible symptoms of gender disparity without diving into its deeper roots. Despite its centrality in the lives of many women worldwide, we overlook the kitchen. By sidelining such foundational spaces in our pursuit of larger goals, we inadvertently perpetuate a cycle where the underlying causes of gender inequality remain unchallenged.

There’s also a less-discussed factor—the allure of bold, attention-grabbing projects using new technologies. High-profile energy conferences and discussions about mega solar farms or offshore wind turbines carry a cachet. In contrast, the gritty reality of revolutionizing rural kitchens or the labor-intensive process of replacing traditional stoves with cleaner alternatives lacks the sheen to draw widespread attention.

The Path Forward: Recognizing and Rectifying

Marking the halfway point of achieving the 2030 Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals Summit 2023 recognized that while there has been unprecedent mobilization towards SDGs in the past eight years, we have only come 15% of the way to the final point of the SDG goal for cooking energy access.12 The SDG Summit 2023 underscored the imperative of widening access to clean cooking solutions and electricity, especially in underserved regions. Central to this mission is the Energy Compacts initiative, a series of pledges with tangible targets set for the next decade.13

These voluntary commitments are laser-focused on channeling significant financial support, aiming to connect an additional 500 million people to electricity and provide one billion more with clean cooking solutions by 2025. By bridging these energy gaps, the initiative seeks to drive the global movement towards sustainable energy, ensuring that everyone, particularly in developing countries, benefits from cleaner and more reliable energy sources.

Imagine a scenario where women are no longer tethered to smoky hearths, girls aren’t pulled out of schools to gather firewood, and families flourish in healthier, more nurturing environments. This is no utopian dream but a tangible reality well within our grasp. It’s not just about reducing emissions or conserving resources; it’s about granting a space as fundamental as the kitchen its due reverence.

We will be watching closely for the 2025 mark of providing one billion more people access to clean cooking solutions and 2030 mark of universal access to clean cooking solutions.

  1. WHO, “Household Air Pollution,” December 15, 2023, ↩︎
  2. WHO, “Household Air Pollution.” ↩︎
  3. IEA, “SDG7: Data and Projections: Access to Clean Cooking,”  accessed December 18, 2023, ↩︎
  4. Ronan Ferguson, Shrikant Avi, Colm Fay, Jean-Louise Racine, and Lindsay Umalla,  “2022 Clean Cooking Industry Snapshot,” Clean Cooking Alliance, ↩︎
  5. IEA, “World Energy Investment 2023: Overview and Key Findings,” accessed December 18, 2023, ↩︎
  6. World Bank, “Clean Cooking: Why It Matters,” World Bank, November 4, 2019, ↩︎
  7. Ronan Ferguson and John Woolsey,“2023 Clean Cooking Industry Snapshot,”  Clean Cooking Alliance, December 13, 2023, ↩︎
  8. IEA, “SDG7: Data and Projections: Access to Clean Cooking.” ↩︎
  9. World Bank, “The State of Access to Modern Energy Cooking Services,” World Bank, September 24, 2020, ↩︎
  10. Alison Moodie, “Investments Aren’t Gender-Neutral When Female Entrepreneurs Face a $320bn Credit Gap,” The Guardian, November 17, 2015, ↩︎
  11. IFC, RockCreek, and Oliver Wyman, “Moving toward Gender Balance in Private Equiity and Venture Capital,” IFC, ↩︎
  12. Bahareh Seyedi and Minoru Takada, “Energy Compacts: Scaling up Ambition to Deliver on SDG7,” United Nations, September 2023,*12zxh2x*_ga*MTg4MjM4ODE3MS4xNjk3MTUzMjI2*_ga_TK9BQL5X7Z*MTY5NzE1MzIyNS4xLjEuMTY5NzE1MzQ1My4wLjAuMA.. ↩︎
  13. Seyedi and Takada, “Energy Compacts: Scaling up Ambition to Deliver on SDG7.” ↩︎