Nature and Biodiversity

How are India’s tea-sellers tackling air pollution?

Nita Bhalla
Journalist, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Armed with clean energy biomass stoves are becoming unlikely heroes in the country’s battle against indoor air pollution by not only using the wood-fuelled stoves for their trade but also selling them.

The World Health Organization says 3 billion people globally cook using solid fuels such as charcoal and coal on open fires or traditional stoves, producing high levels of carbon monoxide, but it has been hard to switch people to clean energy.

Various companies have designed cheap, efficient biomass stoves using wood as fuel but have struggled to gain traction.

Indian social enterprise Swami Samarth Electronics came up with the idea of using tea-sellers in Nashik as salesmen when it realised a regular dealer and distributor model did not work.

“The product is only sellable if it is visible and people can see it is performing and how much less smoke is produced,” said Soumitra Kulkarni, director of Swami Samarth Electronics.

Swami Samarth, set up 20 years ago, gives a free stove to tea-stall owners and provides them with a few extra to sell.

“His customers see something new and that it is working well. The tea-seller markets it and gets a commission for each stove,” said Kulkarni.

Kulkarni said 12 tea stall owners in Nashik have been marketing the stoves since 2010 and have helped sell over 7,000 units – with one operator selling over 1,000.

The cost of a stove is around 1,000 rupees ($16). The tea-seller earns 200 rupees ($3) commission per stove – equivalent to the amount they would make for selling 800 cups of tea.

However a lack of awareness about the harm caused by using solid fuel stoves in contained areas remains a major challenge in convincing people to opt for clean energy options.

An estimated 4.3 million people a year, the majority women and young children, die from prolonged exposure to indoor pollution, says WHO. Some 500,000 deaths a year are in India.

Kulkarni said he was optimistic. The Indian government plans to start a public awareness campaign on the issue and will buy and distribute 2.4 million biomass stoves from manufacturers like Swami Samarth to poor families for free or at cut rates.

“Unfortunately users don’t believe that indoor air pollution from traditional stoves can be a cause of death,” Kulkarni told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at this month’s Sankalp Social Enterprise Forum.

“It takes 20 years for that pollution to have an adverse effect on their health so they keep on using it. The public awareness will help and certainly help this business grow.”

This article is published in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation trust.org. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Image: Vehicles move along New Delhi’s Connaught Place during evening hours. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee.

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