A city skyline blanketed in smog, masked men in coal-processing plants, static highways pregnant with vehicular traffic and emissions – these are some of the images that come to mind when we encounter the term air pollution. A recent report by IQAir, a Singapore-based organisation that provides information on air quality, showed that India is home to 22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world. Every year, air pollution claims close to 7 million lives, shares IQAir, and harms billions of others.
But is air pollution a concern only in cities? The rustic rural life may seem like the ideal alternative with cleaner streams, greener fields and purer air. But in reality, rural areas are equally affected by air pollution. A study by the University of Colorado and Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, showed that harmful particulate matter is present in both rural and urban India, and 80 per cent of the population in the country is exposed to air pollution levels that are higher than the country’s limits.
A significant factor contributing to pollution, especially within rural households, is traditional mud chulhas or open fires used for cooking. In India, about 700 million people cook with open chulhas, which exposes them to high levels of carbon emissions, causing serious damage to their health. Women and children are the most affected by these open fires.
But many rural households across India are now breathing a sigh of relief thanks to Greenway Grameen Infra, an organisation working on affordable home energy solutions for rural communities. “Of the 100 products that are launched in the country every year, barely two or three are designed keeping the rural consumer in mind,” says Neha Juneja, co-founder & CEO of Greenway Grameen Infra. Juneja launched Greenway along with Ankit Mathur in 2010 to address this gap.
Sustainable stoves for sustainable goals
The duo initially started a company that was involved in carbon mitigation projects. During their visits to rural India, they realised that there was a complete dependence of households on the traditional mud chulhas. “This became a trigger point for us and led us down the path of clean cooking alternatives,” says Mathur.
In order to address the harmful impacts of chulhas, the team came up with a patented technology to create the Greenway Smart Stoves. These stoves provide better combustion with reduced smoke emission. Greenway also manufactures a Jumbo Stove that is sufficient for larger families. “We see progress being made on various fronts, but we don't see a clear plan facilitating access to clean, reliable and affordable energy. The reigning idea was to bring in LPG, which missed the fact that people in villages cannot really afford to pay for a gas cylinder. This is why Greenway is different from other approaches. We attempted to co-design something that would be readily available, affordable and easily scalable,” says Juneja.
The impact of these stoves is manifold. They reduce smoke emissions by 70 per cent, thereby directly reducing the harmful effects caused by smoke inhalation. According to Greenway, exposing oneself to a traditional chulha is the equivalent of smoking 20 cigarettes. Families also end up spending 65 per cent less than what they usually did on fuel collection.
But a significant impact that is often not accounted for when it comes to clean energy alternatives is the time women spend on collecting fuel sources. The onus of fuel provision mainly falls on the women, and when alternatives require lesser inputs, women gain more time for other activities, the team shares. Apart from being a time issue, this is also a safety issue for women and children who walk long distances in search of fuel sources. Several rural communities live in the periphery of forests, and women are often exposed to conflict situations with wild animals when they enter forest regions looking for biomass. Greenway aims to address these concerns as well.
“While working with rural communities, we observed that the energy economy of a household is intrinsically linked to gender norms. So, the majority of our efforts are also geared towards understanding these linkages and improving the lives of women,” shares Juneja. Mathur adds to this and says that the Greenway cookstove's portability also impacts the overall wellbeing and participation of women in the household. “They no longer have to sit alone and cook in a corner of the house; they can carry the stove around,” he says.
Engaging rural communities in conservation
Since its inception, Greenway has sold about 1.2 million stoves across India, Nepal, and Sub-Saharan Africa, impacting approximately 6 million lives. The organisation works directly with over 100 people and indirectly with several others as field staff and field monitors. Greenway sold over 240,000 stoves in 2020, and they manufacture around 40,000 stoves every month. As Greenway states on their website, the stoves offset between 1.5 to 3 tonnes of CO2 emissions over a year, which is equivalent to seven round trips between Mumbai and Delhi.
Beyond tangible impacts, Greenway is changing the approach towards affordable clean energy solutions. “Greenway becomes the entry point of initiating rural participation in global concerns related to climate change and gender justice,” says Achal Mehra, CEO, Greenway Grameen Infra. “Awareness of a small product that aids in promoting conservation and brings out the rural voice goes a long way. These voices would have remained buried in political decision-making and middle-class activism otherwise,” he adds.
For their work, Greenway has been recognised by various organisations and has gained wide coverage in national and international media. Neha Juneja was named as one of the 2018 Women Power Trailblazers by Forbes and the Entrepreneur of the Year-2019 by the Clean Cooking Alliance. Greenway was also awarded the Ashden Clean Energy For Women and Girls Award in 2014, the Business World - Young Entrepreneurs Award, 2014 and the Startup Sustainability Pioneer of the Year - 2017 by Time India Awards. Greenway has been featured in BBC, CNN Business Standard and NDTV, among other leading publications.
Greenway is now working on encouraging citizens to partake in reducing the impacts of open fires in rural communities. Their ‘Gift a Stove’ initiative enables people to contribute stoves to rural households. In 2020, they also partnered with local entrepreneurs in the Chisamba District in central Zambia for an outreach program. Similar initiatives were launched in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa as well.
Team Greenway is working hard to improve the quality of life for rural households. They hope to create more products like the Greenway Smart Stoves and are improving their distribution mechanisms, all the while understanding the needs of the rural consumer. As Juneja said during her interview with the Clean Cooking Alliance – “It’s 2019 and we’ve fired away to Mars successfully, let’s be courageous enough also to fix the fires in our kitchens.”
Here's how you can help a rural household breathe easy by gifting a Greenway Stove.