The cook is a carrier of the practice

By Dr Meron Tesfamichael. June 2019.

During a visit to Uganda, Meron Tesfamichael from STEaPP UCL, was asked to comment on a draft ‘theory of change for a single country’ – a document yet to be made public.   Her contribution helps us move away from a technocentric view.

MECS is about breaking out of “business-as-usual approaches and rapidly accelerate the transition from biomass to clean cooking on a global scale.” As per “the theory of change for a single country” document, the immediate research question is “what is the market potential for MECS in the country?” and to investigate the “existing landscape.”  For me, the next question is then: what are we going to do with the data about the existing landscape? What do we want from the data? and how are we going to get there?  So, if what we want is to “accelerate the transition from biomass to clean cooking” in Uganda, we are inquiring about the “existing landscape” because we are interested to know why people are cooking with biomass. We are also interested to know the cultural norms, institutions, technologies and infrastructure that constitute and sustain the practice of cooking with biomass.  In other words, MECS is not about one thing – the technology, the stove, the fuel, the cook, the flavour, the policy, or electricity – but the integration of all those things that are embodied in the practice of cooking.  We are not only asking who cooks what and when, but also how policies, materials, skills, symbolic meanings, aspirations, norms, and infrastructure all come together to constitute, organise and sustain cooking-with-biomass. In other words, when we say the “existing landscape in Uganda” we mean the social (and institutional) organisation of cooking in Uganda.  Does it matter what we call it or how we frame it? I think it does because it is a matter of whether we choose to see the various elements separately or as interrelated. This is an important part of the research framing but also (I think) corresponds with the old narrative vs new narrative approach to MECS.

So let me say a bit more, in case I have not convinced you yet.  Cooking is accomplished through the coordination and synchronisation of a few things – objects (stoves, utensils, fuel, wood, charcoal, electricity etc), skills (how to cook, how to recreate a desired flavour, how to light up fire, when to put the ingredients and for how long etc), and meanings (values, norms, aspirations, including gender roles and relations etc).  Seen this way, cooking is not only about what individuals think and do. It is a shared practice that exists above and beyond the individuals who do it.  The cook is neither the beginning nor the end of cooking, but a carrier of the practice.  The cook is recruited to perform the task (probably) by her mother. She (probably) also inherits the skills, materials and meaning attached to cooking from those before her.  She, then, reproduces and transforms the practice on a daily basis, while also recruiting new members (e.g. her children, friends etc.).  At the same time, through her enactment and reproduction of cooking (as practiced in her community), the cook also exercises agency.  She might have inherited the skills and tools as well as norms of cooking from her mother, but she also decides whether she is going to make it as spicy as her mother used to, whether she is going to use a particular utensil for this or that purpose, etc. In other words, in reproducing her mother’s recipe, she tweaks, corrects and reinvents aspects of the cooking to fit her situational context.

Studies about improved cooking stoves that focus on the individual often say things like: “women are not buying improved stoves because their husbands will not let them” (I am paraphrasing).  For me this the-husband-won’t-let-her-have-it “gender analysis” is problematic for so many reasons, but more importantly, framed as such we are led to believe there are only two options here – either convince the husband to be nice to his wife or women will die from the smoke. (okay, maybe I am exaggerating a bit here). The point is that it is much more complex than what a man would or would not let his wife do.  For example, maybe women are not buying improved cooking stoves because they lack the skills or confidence in using the “improved stove”; maybe the community castigates “a woman that cooks badly” harshly that there is no room for error or to re-learn how to cook; maybe women don’t think it is necessary to make life easy for their housekeeper; or maybe it has to do with the meaning women themselves attach to cooking (e.g. “it is my duty as a mother to inhale the smoke”).  Or what if the charcoal supplier is more trustworthy, reliable, or accommodating to the customers’ cash flow problems than the alternative?  Overall, analytically it would serve us better to look at cooking as a practice that integrates multiple relationships, institutions and systems rather than as a single behaviour with a single solution (or treat each “barrier” separately).

The social practice approach tells us that routine activities (like cooking) change when the links between parts of the activity and its networks to other things are broken and changed.  Let us apply this to smoking (not my analysis, but if interested, see this and this). Smoking-as-a-practice depends on an integration of materials (cigarettes, matches, lighters, factories, transport systems, retail infrastructures etc.); competence  (to know where, when and how to smoke, how to light and inhale, or smoke in the ‘correct’ fashion); and meaning (a normal and socially acceptable thing to do, associated with relaxation, sociability, glamour etc).  Now, the scientific information about the deadly consequences of smoking has been available for decades.  However, the evidence on its own did not do much to change behaviour.  We started to see shift in behaviour following a multi-level and multi-pronged approach designed to tackle the totality of smoking as a practice.  This included confronting the industry, and the advertisers (policies, regulations); redefining smoking as a health problem and socially undesirable (cease referring to it as glamorous); increasing the tax on cigarettes to make it expensive, and helping people to manage their addiction.  This is not to say MECS should have such multilevel plan laid out already, but that we need to think and ask about how the various elements are interrelated from the beginning.

In Uganda, Meron and Simon Batchelor, were hosted by James Baanabe, Commissioner, Energy Department, Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development.   The Centre for Research in Energy and Energy Conservation also arranged stakeholder meetings, where Matoke was cooked in an electric pressure cooker, to the satisfaction of all who tasted it.