About 70% of India lives in villages, according to the 2011 Census. To cook, a majority of rural households use home made stoves put together with bricks and mud, using dried cow dung cakes (biomass) as fuel. Though cheap and easily available, bio-mass is a major source of deadly black carbon, exposure to which can cause long-term respiratory diseases and even cancer in women who inhale smoke from the stoves.
Black carbon, a component of particulate matter responsible for 20% of global warming, is released in emissions from diesel engine, using biomass as fuel, burning crops and forest fires. To encourage people living in villages to switch to a healthier and greener mode of cooking, a project named StoveTrace was launched in April 2010. It was conceived by Nexleaf Analytics, which develops and provides wireless sensor technology and data analytics tools to assist initiatives for saving the environment.
Nexleaf was started in Los Angeles in 2009 by Nithya Ramanathan, a professor at UC Berkeley and Martin Lukac, who holds an undergraduate degree in mathematics and computer science from Haverford College.
It received juror’s mentions at the mBillionth award for the category of agriculture and environment in 2016.
StoveTrace, one of Nexleaf’s landmark projects, was rolled out in collaboration with Scripps Institute of Oceanography (University of California, San Diego), TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi) and Qualcomm.
Under the project, cookstoves that use less biomass and produce less smoke are distributed free to village households. About 750 households in villages of Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat have so far been given the stoves, which cost between Rs2,700 and Rs6,500, by partnering NGOs.
Once the stoves are deployed, Nexleaf Analytics installs thermal sensors in each one. The sensor is linked to an Android app. Each time a cookstove is used, the sensors are activated and data on how long it was active, fuel usage and the amount of heat generated is automatically relayed via the app or a text message to Nexleaf servers, where it can be viewed in real time on the StoveTrace dashboard. The data is used to detect faults, improve stove design, and cut carbon emissions. In 2015, the sensors recorded that clean cookstoves were used for a total of 103,000 hours, allowing savings of 249 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Another aim behind tracking usage is to reward the participants for using improved stoves and cutting carbon emissions. This can act as an incentive for people to adopt a cleaner mode of cooking. For this, Nexleaf and its partners have created a climate fund through grants from various organizations.
The main beneficiaries of the project are women, who can use their carbon savings to supplement household incomes. Women in rural households can make up to Rs4,000 every year. As of now 32 women have got climate credit payments via Vodafone’s mPesa mobile payment service. More than 50 women who are using improved cookstoves are enrolled with Vodafone mPesa. “Connecting women to climate financing gives them a way to afford to pay for their clean cookstove. They become actively engaged in the cookstove value chain, improve their quality of life, and protect the planet,” says Tara Ramanathan, StoveTrace programme director.
StoveTrace has had its share of ups and downs. Building a sensor that could withstand extreme heat and finding a reliable cellular network were some of the issues initially.
After many tests, the team developed sensors that could work in such conditions.
With the scale of operations growing, the next big challenge is to improve the payments structure for participating households.
Mobile penetration has improved and smartphones cost has come down vastly. As per Trai’s telecom subscription data report released on 30 April 2016, 43% of mobile subscribers now live in rural areas.
“Mobile penetration has literally enabled this programme. Without cellphone connectivity, and now mobile banking through partners like Vodafone, StoveTrace would not be possible,’’ adds Tara Ramanathan.
StoveTrace is expanding its presence in India and has a presence in Nigeria where the kerosene-based cook stove is the main culprit and one of the leading contributors to carbon emissions. The next challenge is to connect rural households to climate financing so that more and more people may be encouraged to adopt new stoves.
“We will be connecting households to climate financing for improved cook stove adoption through 1,600 StoveTrace devices in Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Nigeria,” adds Tara Ramanathan.
Nexleaf is looking for independent buyers for the climate credits being generated by the women and would like to partner with private firms which can spend on such projects under their CSR initiatives.
Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.