Time to Sprinkle Some Pixie Dust on those Cookstoves

At their worst, improved cookstoves can look very much like classic development bloat: a high-minded idea cooked up by comfortably well-off researchers in rich countries to address to what they think should be the priorities of the global poor, even though that bears little relation to what the global poor really want.

For sure, studies of improved cookstove take-up can make for some depressing reading.

Everybody talks about the culture clash between the aid worker and the aid recipient, but who worries about the culture clash between the aid worker and the his brother-in-law who works in Marketing back home?

Here’s more or less how it seems to go: earnest young development workers trudges out to god-forsaken African hellhole. Earnest young development worker hands out stoves. Earnest young development worker gives a meticulously research-based talk on how good they are for your health. Earnest young development worker trudges back. Six month later, evaluation team trudges out to same village. Evaluation team finds stove gathering dust in a corner of the hut.

Plenty of reasons have been put forward for why this happens: from ignorance to sheer cultural stubbornness/resistance to change to time-inconsistent preferences to the fact that it takes too damn long to boil water for tea with the things. But one really really obvious explanation seems MIA from the discussions: development interventions are just horribly tin-eared about marketing.

In some ways, this is puzzling.

Back home we’ve developed a whole array of techniques to persuade people to over-ride their present-biased preferences. We know how to get people to buy life insurance. We know how to persuade them to put on seat belts. We manage to convince (some) teenagers to use condoms. We know how to sell even the ruinously fun-annihalating idea that you should go to a party and not drink so you can drive your friends home safely.

How did we persuade so many people to accept these ideas?

When your grandparents were kids, they called it salesmanship. Today, it goes by the more professional sounding term “marketing”. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a family of techniques designed to make us want to do something. Classically, that boiled down to making us want to buy something, but obviously the techniques of the marketing world long since burst their commercial banks. Appealing to emotion, to the world of wants and aspiration and prestige-seeking, they’ve evolved into a crushingly effective set of techniques for attaching specifics meanings to given products or behaviours. And in the development world, we’re about 3 generations behind.

I think I know why this happens. People go into development work as an implicit (or not so implicit) rejection of the hyper-commercialization of the societies we grew up in. Your average expat aid worker in Benin is exactly the kind of person who ran full speed in the opposite direction when her parents suggested she consider a business degree. Everybody talks about the culture clash between the aid worker and the aid recipient, but who worries about the culture clash between the aid worker and the aid worker’s brother-in-law who works in Marketing back home?

But what if instead of earnest young aid workers with scrupulously research-based talking points, we sent people with a marketing mindset out to the villages? What if we developed a strategy to associate that improved cookstove not with an ineffective message about public health but with an appeal to prestige, to modernity, to cleanliness, or whatever value it is that a beneficiary aspires to? Is it too much to ask for aid workers to Always Be Closing?

I’m going to tell you when Clean Cookstoves are going to catch on: when people start gathering around the huts of the first villager to get an ICS, oohing and aahing their approval. When cookstoves become a prestige good, the village’s version of an iPad.

7 thoughts on “Time to Sprinkle Some Pixie Dust on those Cookstoves”

  1. I have to say I was a bit skeptical at first, but here’s what convinced me: a big part of marketing is empathy, putting yourself in the shoes of your customer and from there figuring out how that product would be good for you. And I feel that’s a big theme in your posts, that we’re constantly misassessing the needs of the people we’re supposed to be trying to help.

    Many years ago my aunt had a cleaning lady from the Colombian Pacific, by far the poorest region in the country, who decided to return to her town after a few years working in the city. My aunt had grown artached to her and decided to help her start a small business, so she looked into what people did informally, asked around and got shopping. She ended up buying her a big coffee maker, so that she could set up a stand that sold coffee in her town to early workers and just people in the street, which is pretty popular all over the country. Upon getting the coffee maker, the cleaning lady just replied: “this is extremely nice of you and I’m very thankful, but there’s no electricity in my town, it’s useless to me.”

  2. Nice post! I think you are totally right that “marketing” is the opposite of what draws people into development work. It’s just so crass! And that word, crass, makes me think of its opposite, nobless oblige. Yes, that’s why they go, I think.

  3. Social Marketing! aid workers trained in social marketing! What´s easier, training aid-workers in marketing or sending the brother-in-law?
    I believe the former.
    Interesting post!

  4. I appreciate your point, but have a slightly different perspective: the problem isn’t the lack of pixie dust, but the fact that all the pixie dust is sprinkled on the developed world funders of cookstove projects, rather than the developing world participants.

    Cookstoves have been promoted by international development workers for over 40 years. In the 1970s, they were part of the appropriate technology movement that thought small was beautiful and advocated a new focus on self sufficiency and human technology instead of large infrastructure. In the 1980s, cookstove promotion was stripped of that revolutionary meaning, but continued to be practiced as part of the new “basic needs” approach, which held that family-level intervention in household health and personal development would be the foundation of eventual national development. In the 1990s, cookstove promotion was made over again as part of that decade’s fetishization of all things entrepreneurial and innovative. Now cookstove building was thought of as a potential business worthy of microfinance, and new cookstove designs were a sexy thing for developed-world universities to work on (with the unfortunate result that many of the designs were out of touch with the features demanded by cookstove consumers, leading to the results you describe). Finally, in the 2000s, cookstoves became an energy efficiency technology, eligible for carbon offsets under Kyoto and promoted as part of the fight against climate change.

    What changed? Only the marketing superstructure that the international development world used to justify the funding of cookstoves to itself. What did not change? The “demand” for cookstoves from families in the developing world. What do I infer from this? Cookstoves are a good project, but maybe we should spend more time looking at why families in the developing world want them and less time thinking about how they fit into our own currently-prevailing theory of the best way to save the world.

    1. Thanks Tyler,

      That’s beautiful, worth a post in itself. I’d only add that in the 2010s, they got reinvented again as a feminist cause!

      Seriously, I’d love to edit your comment into a post.

  5. Francisco, thanks and you’re welcome to make whatever use of my comment you can, with no need for attribution. I unfortunately can’t help point you to any sources to help back up the potted history I wrote down, most of which is inferred from a cookstove promotion manual that showed the marks of having been edited at various points over the decades, and that I used when I was Peace Corps volunteer circa 2003-2005. But I think the general point is something to think about for a lot of areas of international development, as you’ve no doubt noticed yourself.

  6. People “oohing and ahing” over ICS has already happened. In other parts of the webosphere ICS = Ice-Cream Sandwich, the long-awaited (tho now superceded) version 4 of the Android operating system for smartphone and tablets. Why do people drool over that and not cookstoves? Because the former are symbols of modern sophistication (and wealth) and the latter are not. I agree with you, but it will be a tough marketing campaign!

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