How the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves manages 700 partners


Andrea Useem

In the partnerships-for-development arena, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is one of the largest and most complex. It launched with fewer than 20 partners and now has 700 around the world. Devex Impact asked the Alliance’s executive director, Radha Muthiah, how the small secretariat manages such a complex alliance and what other “mega partnerships” can learn from the alliance’s experience.

Tell us about how the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves came to life?

The Alliance was launched by then-Secretary Hillary Clinton at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative. In many ways, a forerunner to the Alliance had been the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Partnership for Clean Indoor Air, which worked on issues such as standards, testing, and research.

But the need for a broader, global alliance is great: 3 billion people burn solid fuels for cooking each day worldwide. When burned in open fires and traditional cookstoves, the smoke creates household air pollution that is responsible for 4 million deaths annually, making the seemingly simple act of cooking a meal the fourth greatest health risk in the world.

At the launch, there was a tremendous sense of momentum among our 19 founding partners. The challenge at the outset was translating that buzz into real strategy and action on the ground.

Almost three years later, we are well on our way to ensuring that our motto, “cooking shouldn’t kill,” becomes a reality. We’ve grown to 700 partners across six continents, and we have a global strategy, a business plan, and specific country strategies to reach our goal of 100 million households adopting clean cookstoves and fuels by the year 2020.

How did you forge a consensus among so many partners in order to get started?

The 19 founding partners all had high-to-medium levels of exposure to the issue, and after a few meetings, it was clear that a strong group of public, private, and nonprofit partners could assemble to form the Alliance, building off of PCIA’s network and experience.

But post-launch, an important first step was bringing stakeholders together to honestly talk about what had worked or failed in the past. Because cookstove projects are not new; it’s just that they hadn’t yet reached populations at scale. We needed to know: What are we going to do differently, and how are we going to do it?

We convened partners from disparate communities: health, environmental, women’s empowerment, finance, technology, manufacturing, etc. These were actors who, in the past, hadn’t really communicated with one another on a regular basis, but who had all been tackling the expansive cookstoves issue from their own angles — some understandably more than others.

We had a big question to answer: What is our collective vision as a clean cooking sector and how should we go about achieving this vision?

The consensus was a vision toward universal adoption of clean cookstoves and fuels by 2030. A milestone of that journey is the Alliance’s 100-by-20 goal that I just mentioned.

It took almost a full year, but 350 global experts working under 11 diverse working groups and cross-cutting committees issued a suite of recommendations that formed the basis for the Alliance’s report, Igniting Change: A Strategy for Universal Adoption of Clean Cookstoves and Fuels, which identifies a three-pronged approach to universal adoption of clean cooking solutions by enhancing demand, strengthening supply, and fostering an enabling environment.

The publication of “Igniting Change” was a defining moment for the clean cooking sector and for the Alliance. The report’s collaborative and comprehensive nature ensured that the issue was covered from all sides, and it affirmed the Alliance’s role as the convener and catalyst for the sector.

That step of forging a common vision and a strategy was important for donors and investors too, because there was a certain level of donor fatigue around the cookstoves issue. Some donors had funded various, smaller programs in the past. Now, they said to us, “Come up with one strategy you all agree with.” And of course, for investors, they want to see concrete plans that address specific problems through measurable outcomes.

After ‘Igniting Change,’ what was next for the Alliance?

“Igniting Change” is the plan for the sector at large, so we had to agree on the work the Alliance would do itself: What would be our value-add?

We were a public-private partnership from the get-go, not an NGO that decided to work on this and later brought on partners. We are only as strong as our partners, and each partner — corporations, governments, academics, manufacturers, NGOs and others — had their own idea about impact. We developed a 10-year strategic business plan to get us to 100-by-20, in close collaboration with those partners.

A significant portion of our second year of operations was executing market-enabling interventions like commissioning key pieces of research, establishing standards with ISO, enhancing a dozen testing centers around the world and meeting with stakeholders in almost 20 countries to determine our specific market development interventions. It was a confidence-building measure — and a balancing act.

Each partner of course, needed to define their own objectives for getting involved, while the Alliance maintained a focus on the ultimate, transformative impact that clean cookstoves and fuels can have on the 3 billion people in need. We had to decide what we wanted to be known for, and then measure and track those indicators.

It is important to pause here and note that our goal will only be achieved through the creation of a sustainable market for clean cooking solutions. A big problem in the past has been that cookstoves were often given away, without input from consumers, proper training, or consideration for local cooking styles and fuel availability.

So in our business plan, we came up with six value propositions for the Alliance to create and sustain a thriving market: catalyze the sector and broker partnerships; mobilize resources; develop and promote international standards; increase investments; coordinate sector knowledge and research; and champion the issue and advocate for change.

And how are these value propositions, specifically your 100-by-20 efforts, measured?

As part of our business plan’s monitoring and evaluation mechanism, we have a very specific estimate for tracking toward our 100-by-20 goal.

We have other ways to track the growing supply and demand of clean cookstoves and fuels. For example, we measure sales of cookstoves against sales that manufacturers had predicted before the Alliance started. It’s not as scientific as we would like, but it’s a way of tracking how the Alliance has enhanced the supply and demand of cookstoves.

We’re also considering partnering with a software developer to create a smart phone app that will allow our partners to track cookstoves from sale, to use, to long-term adoption, as part of their regular interactions with consumers.

I can’t emphasize enough that cookstove adoption is essential to our work. If the consumer is not properly consulted, listened to, and serviced in terms of having access to stoves, fuel sources, repairs, then we will never succeed because, understandably, the consumer will not adopt the cookstove over the long term.

How do you manage a partnership involving 700 organizations?

Over time our partners have grown in number from 19 to 700, and managing these partnerships is rewarding and challenging all at once. It requires not only a lot of time but understanding. We need to understand both the motivations of our partners and the needs and aspirations of the consumer.

We’ve also learned that we can’t be everything for everybody. Many of our partners are cookstove manufacturers who compete with one another. Sometimes they want us to partner with them more closely than we are able. For example, while we will advocate on behalf of stove manufacturers to reduce taxes and import tariffs, we will do that for all products and services, not just for one manufacturer.

We also had to learn to move at our pace. Often corporate partners and donors want to see immediate impact, but if you move too quickly, you might not think things through in a balanced way. Our partners and donors have been very flexible and understanding in this regard and many donors have commended us for this strategic approach.

Finally, we have learned how to segment our partners for both ours and their benefit. We have lead partners in each of our priority countries who create an ecosystem of other partners, in some instances forming national or regional alliances. They take a lead on standards, testing, advocacy, research and more. With only 15 people in the Global Alliance secretariat, having certain partners serve as a nexus of operations in each country has proven to be an effective strategy.

Needless to say, it is very rewarding to be a partnership of 700 groups — and growing! It means that there are many people around the world who care about this issue, who are confident in their work, and who are eager to partner with the Alliance and leverage the resources we can bring to the sector.

Most importantly, focusing on this issue unites people from every corner of the globe because cooking and eating is a universal practice. Once they understand the magnitude of the problem, they are eager to work with us toward a solution.

What is your advice for others starting a multi-partner mega-initiative like your alliance?

We were lucky to have Mrs. Clinton as our advocate, because she brought up household air pollution in nearly every meeting she had with foreign ministers. Other champions have been instrumental in awareness and fundraising efforts among their sectors and fans, such as actor Julia Roberts, former Irish president Mary Robinson, Chef José Andrés, singer/songwriter Rocky Dawuni, Swedish Minister Gunilla Carlsson, Nigerian Senator Abubakar Saraki, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and other notable people.

But it was up to us to provide depth to that commitment and create a foundation for this movement.

So some the pieces of the puzzle I would encourage those entering multifaceted partnerships to have in place include: a clear understanding of the problem to be solved; concrete and agreed upon goals that can be met; a strategy that has been contributed to and owned by many of your partners early on; a dynamic business plan in which various partners see their role and how a sum of the parts is critical for all to succeed; a clear plan to leverage investment money for every grant dollar; and a strong advisory council and series of ambassadors or champions that are reflective of your membership or partnership.

Managing multiple, long-term partnerships is a complex proposition. Everyone’s excited at the beginning, but you need to remain focused on the impact on the ground from the moment you launch your initiative or plan, checking back in constantly to ensure that the sector’s momentum is making inroads toward our goals.

The real question you need to answer is how your partnership or alliance is truly adding value to people’s lives and the planet. And in our own way, we believe we’ve found the answer to that question.