There’s a nation right here in the Americas with less than a 5% share of LPG use among its population of 10.3 million. Competition from natural gas doesn’t factor, even in urban areas where the majority of the populace resides. It isn’t available. LNG import infrastructure is being constructed, but it’s aimed at serving the industrial sector. In fact, 95% of households still cook exclusively with charcoal. And with less than 2% forest cover remaining across the Caribbean nation, and 30 million trees being cut every year, there is urgency for wide adoption of an environmentally clean alternative energy source.
The market opportunity for LPG, therefore, seems evident, especially since domestic cost comparisons between charcoal and LPG are favorable. But there are obstacles, or more appropriately, barriers, to expanding the fuel’s use in Haiti. Purchasing power is circumscribed, with 76% of citizens living on less than $2 a day. Further, there are no credit mechanisms for purchases of stoves and tanks. On the commercial side, equipment isn’t widely available at retail, the distribution cylinder exchange network is weak, and cylinder inventory is old. Finally, the government cannot afford broad subsidies, and the lack of a transparent regulatory program acts to discourage private investment in the sector.
Confronting those challenges is SWITCH, an organization laboring to break barriers blocking clean cooking and enable the francophone country to passons au vert — go green. Its goal: establish a durable and profitable mechanism that allows most Haitian households to permanently convert to LPG, thereby improving livelihoods, health, and the environment. The social marketing and manufacturing enterprise, which seeks to provide a market-based solution to empower women and families by substituting propane for charcoal as a cooking fuel, does not typically operate with donations, but rather with the support of remittances from the Haitian diaspora, largely based in Florida.
SWITCH outlines that transfers to Haiti amounted to $2 billion in cash and an additional $600 million in other in-kind contributions in 2013. More than 3 million Haitians live abroad, 400,000 in Florida alone. The goal is to create an extensive national redeeming network in cooperation with Haitian gas stations and other retail locations, among them hardware stores and food warehouses, wherein family members and designated beneficiaries can access LPG equipment and fuel through offshore remittances.
The business model includes selling stoves — all with cylinders — to Haitians abroad to be delivered to residents in their home country, thereby overcoming the primary barrier to LPG entry for most Haitian families — the cost of an LPG starter kit. Offered is a complete kit for $100, as well as a premium upgrade for $160. SWITCH, a partner in the United Nations’ Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which supports clean cooking solutions worldwide, has teamed with Island Television, a company that produces and airs programming for the Haitian diaspora on cable and via online livestream in South Florida, to promote its efforts. In total, there are 10 available stove models, modified and designed to fit Haitian needs. Btu-efficient burners, which are imported, are chosen to win a comparative cost to charcoal. Complete kits include accessories and a filled 20-lb tank.
Lending is also in play. With financing key for working-class households to acquire cooking equipment, SWITCH has partnered with a bank to offer green credit. In addition, employers can enroll their employees in a plan for 10 monthly payments, with employers guaranteeing the loan by direct payroll withdrawal.
Speaking at October’s World LP Gas Forum in Miami, including its Women in Propane panel and “The Future Starts Now” session, Kalinda Magloire, SWITCH SA board chairwoman, outlined that Haiti is an early-stage market with annual consumption pegged at about 2.8 kg per capita. The island nation imports 28,000 tons of LPG a year versus the more than 1 million tons its immediate neighbor, the Dominican Republic, receives to serve its population, which is roughly equal to Haiti’s.
Reached at SWITCH offices in Delmas, Haiti, Magloire elaborated that many in her nation have informal, rather than concrete home addresses, and no land telephone lines. As a result, lending institutions are reluctant to extend credit absent fixed means of contact, whether by phone or permanent address. Credit, therefore, is expensive, if it’s available. It follows that costs exceed the budgets of most households. As well, Haiti has no credit bureau, and an extremely low credit portfolio.
“The idea behind SWITCH is to meet the most important need — access — through credit, remittances, and some subsidies,” she said. “The state of Haiti cannot tackle the problem. We are introducing a market-based solution.” She adds that Haitians are knowledgeable and accepting of LPG and its advantages, but nevertheless lack access. Further, the fuel lags in its exposure and ready availability at neighborhood mom-and-pop stores, whereas charcoal is handily available and omnipresent at such neighborhood retail centers, ubiquitous gathering places for purchasing and information sharing.
This lack of credit access was made worse recently. A massive magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck the country in January 2010, with an epicenter just 15 miles west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, the nation’s most populous region. Estimates placed more than 300,000 killed and some 1.5 million left homeless.
SWITCH isn’t just serving households. The organization has a manufacturing arm that fabricates stoves for street vendors, as well as making bases for small imported models. Assembly is also provided for imported household units. Goals are set. Progress is measured. SWITCH is targeting 8000 to 12,000 street vendors in the metropolitan Port-au-Prince area alone, and has set a goal of switching 1000 a year from charcoal to LPG. So far, 750 have received appliances equipped with cylinders in just over a year’s time. The program offers three types of stoves, at a lower price than market value, payable over a year.
In addition, the organization’s schools and orphanage program is focusing on 800 facilities, and in partnership with the nongovernmental organization (NGO) World Central Kitchen and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), among others, is subsidizing conversions. World Central Kitchen chefs are training meal preparation personnel at schools and orphanages. As of late last year, 30 schools had been converted from charcoal to LPG with heavy-duty stoves, with another 90 applications in the pipeline.
World Central Kitchen, founded by Spanish-American celebrity chef and international restaurateur Jose Andres, is the sponsor of Haiti Breathes, which provides funds for the equipment needed for fuel conversion in schools and orphanages. In Port-au-Prince, the NGO has joined with the Zamni Beni orphanage to launch a sustainable bakery that will produce various types of bread products and generate revenue for the orphanage. Among its numerous other activities, in the mountains of Haiti, World Central Kitchens is training a community on cleaner methods of cooking, in addition to constructing a canteen where the community can cook and feed children attending a nearby school. At October’s World Forum in Miami, Andres and World LP Gas Association (WLPGA) president Kimball Chen signed an agreement whereby the association and World Central Kitchen will work together to create good-practices guidelines for the conversion of institutional kitchens from biomass to LPG.
SWITCH, in yet another collaborative initiative, has joined with the government of Haiti and USAID to establish the Charcoal Free Villages program, targeting 2750 social housing areas. The integrated approach includes a cylinder warehouse onsite, training on safe handling of LPG, best practices, and social adaptation to the new fuel. The organization as of the end of 2014 had already converted 1150 social housing areas, with the charcoal-free project aimed at serving as a pilot initiative to draw lessons learned for a future LPG penetration strategy, this for the country as a whole.
With localized cylinder warehouses, SWITCH hopes to establish a widespread distribution and refill strategy in the heart of bidonvilles—impoverished areas just outside cities. The first phase of the project targets urban areas only, wherein small, local franchisees are guaranteed exclusivity to build and retain customers. Such franchises are being prioritized and adapted to locales adjoining the pervasive network of gas stations throughout the country, hardware stores in secondary cities, and small shops with trained staff, with a minimum of 25 bottles in populous areas. Proximity to the consumer is key, and partnering establishments vary.
SWITCH acknowledges that there are challenges in the future, among them competent inventory management, changes in a national policy framework, legal enforcement and standards for wood cutting in Haiti, and securing partnerships with financial institutions. Immediately, the clean-fuel marketer is seeking partnerships for cylinder provision and a partner for inventory refilling, in addition to know-how regarding those two areas of expertise. Moreover, the future success of SWITCH initiatives depends, not only on the support of the Haitian diaspora, but also on the adoption of LPG as the primary cooking method by Haiti citizens. To this end, education and social sensitizing are critical to success, and a major emphasis.
The economic argument is in LPG’s favor. WLPGA and SWITCH report that charcoal is more expensive than LPG in Haiti, while underscoring that charcoal use is unsustainable. Currently, a household gathers two cans of charcoal a day, with mothers, ever at the forefront of domestic cooking, and their children walking long distances to garner two cans of charcoal a day. For one day’s cooking, the cost is $1.50. LPG use, conversely, costs $1 a day, so potential savings of $175 a year are possible. Fuel gathering consumes a great deal of time for women and children, limiting other productive activities and takes children away from schoolwork. WLPGA adds that households switching to LPG will also contribute to gender equality and help empower women, freeing up their time for income generation and education.
Added to the benefits of switching to LPG is household health, in Haiti and elsewhere. Cooking for Life, a global campaign of WLPGA — SWITCH is a partner — comments that the global health community has largely overlooked the burden associated with indoor air pollution. A white paper published by the association reports that, worldwide, indoor air pollution is among the top 10 leading causes of avoidable deaths. Among environmental causes of death, it is second only to contaminated waterborne diseases.
Additionally, the World Health Organization (WTO) reports that health risks include long-lasting effects on overall health and well-being because of stifled lung development in children. Other health risks include respiratory infections, pulmonary disease, and lung cancer. Emerging evidence also shows that indoor air pollution increases the risk of asthma, tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease, and low birth weight.
Gathering traditional solid fuels is a risk in itself. Those collecting the fuel are generally women and children. The result is children being taken away from activities like studying or attending school. Women, the primary fuel gatherers, are distracted from duties such as childcare, therefore the potential to generate extra income does not exist, concludes the WLPGA white paper. In some areas, like Haiti, gathering biomass also leads to deforestation and a loss of tree resources, causing, according to SWITCH, extreme vulnerability, and accordingly, destruction of cattle, private homes, and infrastructure. In that nation’s case, a permanent loss of 3% of the nation’s productive land a year is in order.
Two million people die each year because of pollution from traditional cooking methods involving solid fuels such as wood and charcoal. That is more than the combined deaths of malaria, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis. Burning such fuels releases pollutants into the air, which can cause respiratory infections, pulmonary disease, and even lung cancer. Other risks associated with traditional fuels include deforestation, soil erosion, and risky fuel wood collection, notes Cooking for Life.
Key facts: Around 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning biomass — wood, animal dung, and crop waste — and coal. More than 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to household pollution from cooking with solid fuels, WTO maintains. More than 50% of premature deaths among children under 5 are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution. Finally, 3.8 million premature deaths annually from non-communicable diseases, including stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer are attributed to exposure to household air pollution.
WLPGA notes that its global campaign, Cooking for Life, seeks to introduce LP-gas as a clean and safe alternative to traditional, yet harmful, fuels used for cooking in developing countries. The initiative aims to involve governments, public health officials, global NGOs, and the energy industry to provide expanded access and support for use of the most-advantaged cooking fuel — LPG. Using LP-gas for indoor cooking ensures healthy air with no pollutants because it is a clean, non-toxic fuel. If a leak were to occur, LP-gas would not contaminate the soil or aquifers in the affected area.
However, in many cases, financing the switch from traditional or established fuels to LP-gas requires backing and funds, the association acknowledges. Countries without stable governments will have difficulties establishing and launching solid conversion programs. Infrastructure is key for LPG distribution, a challenge for many developing nations. Additionally, social norms and tradition play roles in transitioning. Therefore, people need to adapt to new cooking habits.
That transition from traditional solid fuels — wood or charcoal — to modern fuels will bring about the largest reductions in exposure to indoor air pollution. Modern alternatives include non-solid fuels like kerosene, biogas, natural gas, and LP-gas. Among them, LP-gas remains the best option due to its large reserves, minimal environmental impact, and affordability. That last criterion is the driving factor for LPG adoption in the developing world.
Further, in the past, because LPG is a product of both crude oil refining and natural gas production, prices were most closely linked to oil. However, increasingly, this correlation will decline as LP-gas, a natural gas liquid, more commonly becomes associated with production of natural gas. Fortunately, LP-gas is an accessible and easy-to-use fuel, and the transition from charcoal is simple. —John Needham