Cooking should not kill – but it does. It is a sobering fact that more than two million children and adults die prematurely every year from air pollution in their homes. This unhealthy air results from cooking with wood, charcoal, animal dung and kerosene. Over the last 40 years, the number of people in developing countries reliant on these highly polluting household fuels and stoves has remained stubbornly at around 3 billion.
This is the story of how, and why, Chinese-American businessman Kimball Chen built an organisation focused on making liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) available as a clean cooking fuel for millions of people in developing countries.
Concerned by the very slow pace of change and drawing on a lifetime’s experience of the global gas industry, Kimball Chen decided in 2012 that it was time to act. He began using his own resources to launch the Global LPG Partnership, a not-for-profit that is committed to changing these stark global inequalities in clean energy access, and to reducing the toll on the health and lives of millions of people.
In terms of access to cooking fuels, we live in a world of haves and have-nots. This long-neglected aspect of poverty in low-income countries stands in marked contrast to conditions in the developed world. In wealthy countries, although energy poverty certainly exists, abundant, convenient and clean energy in the kitchen is taken for granted by the majority.
A unique approach
Over the last decade, a growing number of developing countries have set targets to increase access to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking. Their aim is to raise use of this clean and efficient fuel from historically low levels to reach a majority of their populations. These moves have been driven by a mix of concerns for health, deforestation and economic development. Many of these countries, however, lack the policy, regulatory and enforcement conditions that can attract the investment needed to establish a safe, efficient LPG sector at scale.
Kimball Chen could see the unwillingness of his own industry to take the first steps. So, in 2012 he launched the Global LPG Partnership under the aegis of the United Nations to fill this gap, with the goal of helping one billion people switch to LPG by 2030. Although one of several international initiatives now working to improve access to modern household energy, including the UN Foundation’s Clean Cooking Alliance and the World LPG Association’s ‘Cooking for Life’ initiative, the Partnership’s approach is somewhat unique.
Working with countries that are already committed to switching large proportions of their populations from traditional cooking fuels to LPG, the Partnership’s aim is to encourage critical structural and regulatory reforms that are a prerequisite for more substantial investment in a well-functioning market.
Family and other influences
The story of the Global LPG Partnership is inextricably linked to the life of Kimball Chen. Born into a Chinese family with generations of involvement in government, education, business, banking, and shipping, he grew up with strong traditions of contributing to society. He mentions in passing that one of his uncles, Cai Yuanpei (a renowned, reformist President of Peking University), petitioned the Emperor to allow women to attend university in China.
His father, whose business interests included the first major fleet of large-scale liquefied natural gas (LNG) transport ships, had moved to the US after the Second World War and gained American citizenship. Among his many influences on the young Kimball was encouragement, by example, to contribute as much as possible to the common good.
In reflecting on this culturally varied background, Kimball said “I have a family history of exposure to western liberalism, idealism, and notions of contributing to the development of society, not just to the self-interest of the family or the clan or the village. So, the idea of giving back, of scholarship, of research, of nations helping each other, all of these things – were part of growing up.”
The challenge of developing LPG markets
With a Harvard degree in Classics and English Literature behind him, Kimball’s destiny was to be the family business. Recalling this stage of his life, he recounts how family tradition, particularly for the eldest son, was very strong. “My father said, ‘I would like you to go to business school’, and I, being very Chinese, said ‘whatever you wish’.” So, after a year of travel and 18 months working in a bank, he set off for Harvard Business School, obtaining his MBA in 1978.
That year, he joined the family company, the Energy Transportation Group (ETG). He took on the management of a varied portfolio of companies, some with a pressing need for research-led development. He recalls that “We had some of the best scientists in the United States working with us, and they were sticklers for proper scientific evidence.” Through this experience, another foundation stone for his future work with the Partnership was laid – being guided by high-quality scientific evidence.
When his father died in 1994, Kimball took on the mantle of CEO for the ETG, and in the late 1990s began developing LPG operations. At the request of the Chinese government and in partnership with the UGI Corporation, which was then one of the world’s largest LPG distribution companies, ETG entered the Chinese market. A crucial step was securing the first licence for nationwide LPG distribution granted by the Chinese Government to a foreign company. This had been awarded so ETG and its partners could demonstrate implementation of the policies and regulations required for a safe and effective LPG market.
It was this experience of trying to operate in a setting where regulations had not been adequately enforced, particularly in the more rural parts of China, that led him to the next challenge – building properly functioning LPG markets in other developing countries.
An industry not ready to invest in developing country markets
When in 2000 he became a director of the LPG industry body, the World LPG Association (WLPGA), Kimball sought to persuade his fellow board members that substantial industry opportunity lay in strengthening policies and their enforcement in developing country markets.
To his industry colleagues, he argued that, “If LPG is such a useful fuel for the large populations seeking to switch from traditional cooking fuels and technologies to cleaner and more efficient alternatives, surely it would be in the interests of the industry to help develop these markets. That would represent self-interest and public interest overlapping.”
Kimball found their response discouraging: “They said, no, we don’t invest in market development. We make investments in markets which are already developed and where we can buy a company in an orderly environment.”
“I tried for almost a decade to gain their interest and commitment”, he recalls. Regarding the perspective of global industry, he believes that they “viewed the process of encouraging governments to develop the necessary policies, regulations, and enforcement, even though that might lead to a substantive investment opportunity for business, as taking too long and carrying too much risk.”
Birth of the Global LPG Partnership
So, he began looking for another way. In 2011, the Sustainable Energy for All initiative was getting underway, led by UN Under-Secretary General Dr. Kandeh Yumkella, a Sierra Leonean former Trade Minister and Director General of UNIDO. He suggested to Kimball the idea of establishing a Public-Private Partnership and launching this at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio +20 in 2012.
“A Public-Private Partnership could be very effective”, he recalls thinking at the time, “but it would need the commitment of all stakeholders in a country, including government and business. The task would require securing the policies, regulation, and enforcement needed to attract investment and ensure safety, and to ensure stability over time”.
With this in mind, he set about creating the Global LPG Partnership. At this time, however, the ETG was still involved in LPG marketing in multiple countries. In order for his new initiative to be credible and unconflicted in work to expand energy access in developing countries with the backing of the UN, he needed to take further decisive action. “We therefore disposed of all our LPG investments, so we would have no economic interest in any particular company or LPG project.”
By invitation only
As the partnership got underway, Kimball was clear that it would only assist a country if formally invited to do so. “We didn’t want to be economic or intellectual imperialists or colonialists. It was important that the countries themselves had identified the need for LPG and recognised that some outside assistance could be useful.”
Providing this assistance and meeting the goal of one billion people switching to LPG by 2030 needed financial resources. Initially, he drew on his own ETG funds, but over the next few years secured additional support from mainly public sector donors. These included the EU Infrastructure Fund for Africa, the African Development Bank, UNDP, KfW (the German Development Bank) and the OPEC fund for International Development.
An optimistic vision for clean cooking
Kimball is optimistic that his ambitious goal can be achieved, because in Africa alone, countries including Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Rwanda have sought their help. “These countries represent hundreds of millions of people and have formally requested our assistance to increase the use of LPG from around 10-15% of the population to between 40% and 60% over 10 to 15 years. So, that amounts to roughly half the population of these countries moving to LPG over that period.”
It is one thing for a government to set a goal and seek expert assistance, but what makes him believe that policy and regulatory changes, and consequent investment, will happen in practice? “Well, we’ve seen it in other developing countries,” he replies, “each one doing things in its own way in different circumstances and achieving change at differing rates.”
“For instance, in Brazil the LPG industry developed following more effective enforcement of government policies and safety standards, allowing private businessmen, as well as some state companies, to systematically develop and grow the supply networks. So, we have seen Brazil move from a poorly regulated, very unsafe market to an orderly one with almost universal use of LPG for cooking.”
He refers also to the dramatic increases in LPG use in settings as varied as Morocco , India, China and Indonesia, to support his belief that such changes can and will take place in those countries now requesting the Partnership’s help.
What about affordability and safety?
Developing the supply side is critical, but if there is insufficient demand from new users – many of whom are poor – then investment and growth will not follow. A potentially major barrier to market growth, therefore, is affordability.
On addressing this issue, Kimball is also optimistic. He believes that “many poor people have enough money to pay for the fuel on a regular basis, but they can’t afford the upfront cost of the stove and the deposit on a cylinder.” He thinks that this need not be a barrier, adding that “if you help households through micro-finance or some other means of reducing the burden of initial acquisition, you’ll find that markets can develop very rapidly.”
Poor regulation and unsafe practices risk fires and explosions. These feature prominently in the media when they do occur and lead to understandable public fear about using LPG and therefore slow growth in demand. To assure safety, the key is the ‘cylinder re-circulation model’, in which LPG marketers rather than consumers own the cylinders and are consequently responsible (and liable) for inspecting and maintaining equipment. Kimball insists that getting governments to understand, adopt and enforce this model of LPG market organisation is perhaps the most critical aspect of the Partnership’s mission.
A difficult time to promote a fossil fuel
Almost all LPG is produced in two ways, either as part of primary production of oil and natural gas, or from the refining of oil. This fossil fuel heritage has resulted in LPG being embroiled in conflicting views about its role in a climate-conscious world. Kimball is well aware of these arguments, recognising that “a lot of NGOs and development organisations say developing countries should not go through a stage of ‘bad habits’ that the developed countries are going through. They say, let’s take them straight to cleaner, renewable energy economies.”
Quoting findings from life-cycle climate studies of LPG and alternative fuels including renewables such as biomass, compiled in a recent peer-reviewed report published by the German Development Bank (KfW), he says that the climate impact of LPG adoption in developing countries will in any case be negligible. These studies show that LPG compares favourably, especially where – as is frequently the case – much of the wood fuel used for cooking is not harvested sustainably.
In addition, LPG performs better than most alternatives with respect to the so-called shorter-acting climate-warming pollutants such as methane and black carbon. Switching from wood and charcoal to LPG also protects woodlands in countries where extensive use of wood fuel and charcoal is contributing significantly to deforestation. Concern about deforestation was the Cameroonian government’s primary motivation for developing their first national Clean-cooking Plan using LPG.
Furthermore, Kimball feels it is important to be pragmatic about the alternatives, noting that LPG is abundant and available now, and relative to most alternatives is quick and cheap to put in place. In contrast, he points out that “it takes decades to build electrical transmission systems and generation capacity, and in many cases solar PV is not yet a practical or economically feasible option due to the power required for cooking and the costs of batteries needed to store the energy.”
On this question of global trajectories for energy development, he contrasts the capacities of richer and poorer counties. “My view is that, although renewables can make a contribution they are hard to scale up, are often expensive and take time to put in place. Developing countries should be supported in prioritising a form of clean cooking energy which is relatively cheap, well-proven and can be implemented quickly – that would be LPG. Developed countries have the technical capability and risk-taking capacity to test out renewable solutions and can afford to implement expensive renewable solutions. Developing countries should not be laboratories for early-stage solutions which have not yet been demonstrated as robust in the field. These countries’ capital is scarce and their need for proven solutions at speed is immense.”
A victim of success?
Reflecting on the achievements of the Partnership so far, he has mixed feelings. “My eager side,” he says, “is frustrated that we haven’t been able to progress faster,” but adds “on the other hand, my realistic side says – look at what we have achieved.”
In fact, the appeal of what the Global LPG Partnership can offer countries has exposed a new challenge. “We have many more countries on our waiting list who want our help, but we can’t serve them. This is because, in addition to the continuing need to raise funds, it takes two to three years for us to train somebody senior with the requisite knowledge and skills. They not only need operational knowledge of the industry but must also be able to understand the interplay and implications of the political, economic, and cultural issues specific to each country.”
One would have thought, in an industry as big as oil and gas, there would be plenty of expertise in developing LPG markets around the world, but this seems not to be the case. “Almost 20 years ago when I joined the industry board of directors, there was the head of Mobil LPG global activities, the head of BP’s global activities, the head of Shell’s global activities, along with their teams holding a wealth of multinational operational experience. Now, there is only one oil giant left in multinational LPG distribution, Total; everybody else has gone. The expertise has all been dispersed and retired.”
Based with his Italian-born wife, the writer Patrizia Chen, at their home in Umbria, Kimball will continue to devote himself to nurturing the Partnership, arguing the case for urgently-needed resources, and training people who can provide the advice and support that developing country governments are asking for.