Radha Muthiah on Saving 2 Million Lives With Clean Cookstoves, Fuel

Radha2-Post.jpg Malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV are obviously high on the list of health risks in developing countries. But Radha Muthiah, who works with the United Nations Foundation to save lives, empower women, and combat climate change, is focusing on another surprisingly deadly risk: cooking.

Exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves and open fires -- used for cooking by billions of people in developing countries -- leads to nearly two million premature deaths every year, which is higher than the death toll from tuberculosis or malaria. Muthiah is trying to reduce that number as executive director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private initiative that works to overcome market barriers to spur the adoption of clean cookstoves and fuels around the world. The Alliance recently released a major sector strategy (PDF) toward that goal.

The new stoves, which may run on electricity, gas, or solar power, include filters to limit harmful smoke pollution. They also help the environment by reducing carbon emissions and deforestation, as their users no longer have to cut down trees for fuel. Here, Muthiah discusses her fight to make cooking healthy again, how marketing and for-profit companies can enhance aid efforts, and why BRIC countries will shake up the sustainability movement.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I tell a story about a silent killer, helping to raise awareness about the toll that toxic cooking smoke takes on the health, wellbeing, and environment of billions of people around the world. Cooking shouldn't kill, and my organization, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, is working to ensure that it doesn't, by building bridges between the public and private sectors to make cooking safe and healthy.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on sustainability?

The idea that you can help the poor help themselves -- and make money while doing it; that marketing and for-profit mechanisms, rather than traditional aid, can help achieve the lasting change we all want to see around the world. That is why I am so intrigued by the Alliance's model of creating a thriving market for clean cookstoves and fuels. We are not attempting to parachute in stoves and leave but rather fostering a means for bringing jobs, better health outcomes, and an increased standard of living through the creation of new clean cookstove companies, projects, and opportunities.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

That cooking kills two million people per year, more deaths than malaria or tuberculosis and about the same as HIV/AIDS. Indoor air pollution -- in this case toxic smoke emitted from inefficient cooking -- is the fifth biggest health risk in the developing world.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability movement?

The emergence of middle-income countries such as BRIC and N-11, and their role in and philosophy toward aid, development, and climate change. The international arena has been dominated for too long by Western ideas. It's a diverse world, and efforts to achieve global sustainability will only work if all the players are at the table and heard.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Any public or private sector actor that embarks on a project alone without consulting their counterparts is getting started on the wrong foot. Public-private partnerships are essential to sustainable international development because they reflect the diversity of resources, finances, experiences, and expertise necessary to achieve scale and create a better world. But they are not a panacea in and of themselves because accountability needs to be carefully incorporated into the relationship. None of us have enough time in the day to partner for partner's sake, but with strong, results-driven metrics, continuous dialogue and adjustments to the model to make sure you stay on track, partnerships can be the most effective way to accomplish a complex global task.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

The idea of "social business" is one that I've been excited about for some time -- even before the notion of base-of-the-pyramid marketing became popular. When I first moved into international development from my management consulting experience, it seemed so logical that we should use business models to tackle social and development issues. But when I tried to implement these ideas in both the private and nonprofit sectors, I encountered organizational and philosophical resistance that was hard to overcome. My new position with the Alliance is a wonderful opportunity for innovation and putting ideas like BoP marketing into place.

Who are three people you'd put in the sustainability Hall of Fame? Why?

Wangari Maathai, for her championing of women's rights and her advocacy for environmental conservation. May she rest in peace. Mike Duke, for advancing Walmart's Sustainability 360 initiative that drives not just the actions of the largest company in the world but also all of their suppliers and distributors. And Muhammad Yunus, for making access to microcredit and livelihood improvement for the poor integral parts of international development.

On that note, I'd be remised if I didn't add Ted Turner to the list. His historic gift of $1 billion to the United Nations created the UN Foundation and the Better World Campaign, which advocate for and strengthen the UN to help it solve some of the world's toughest problems.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I have had the privilege of switching sectors and occupations to pursue my various interests and dreams throughout my career, from think tanks to consulting with Fortune 500 companies to U.S.- and international-focused nongovernmental organizations. I have always enjoyed research, analysis, and knowledge acquisition toward the creation of an end product or service. Down the road I might be intrigued by the idea of becoming a professor. The opportunity to conduct research, write, teach, and interact with the world's future leaders is very appealing.

What's one website or app you wish more people knew about?

I'd have to say ours. It's a complex but largely unknown story that we're trying to tell, so I encourage your readers and others to visit www.cleancookstoves.org.

What song has been stuck in your head lately?

I'm dating myself here, but when I thought about how much the Alliance has achieved in just one year and how well poised we are to reach our long-term goal, I revisited McFadden and Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," and it's been stuck in my head for a couple of weeks now.