Clearing the Air

Social Sciences6 MIN READ

Economist Dan LaFave uses data to show how innovation improves health in low-income communities

By Laura MeaderPhotography by Jasper Lowe
April 22, 2021

Every day across the Horn of Africa, Ethiopians eat injera, the country’s staple flatbread. Yet the very preparation of this nutritious bread puts their health at risk.

The culprit? Cookstoves—often a small, open fire burning wood, charcoal, or dung—and the fine particulates they release into homes.

Woman cooking on a small, open fire, burning wood

Breathing in these particulates disproportionately affects women and very young children, contributing to respiratory infections, fatigue, low birth weights, and reduced growth. And worse. Indoor air pollution is the deadliest environmental problem in the world, killing an estimated four million people every year, according to the World Health Organization.

Improved cookstoves are an obvious solution, yet convincing local populations to use a high-tech stove utterly foreign to their culture is tricky, says Associate Professor of Economics Dan LaFave. One exception is the Mirt stove, recently tested in a multi-year study in rural Ethiopia. LaFave, a development economist, contributed to the study by measuring the impacts of the stove on child and adult health.

His conclusions, reported in a recently published paper in the journal World Development, showed that the Mirt stove improved Ethiopia’s youngest children’s growth by two centimeters. That improvement, modest as it seems, nearly doubles to 3-4 centimeters in adulthood and can contribute to long-term benefits such as improved earnings, health, and cognition.

The study’s findings were translated into accessible, actionable items shared at workshops for policymakers in Ethiopia; they’ll also be included in reports for officials at the UN, World Bank, and World Health Organization.

LaFave’s interest in health outcomes grew from an interest in families and household economics. While in graduate school at Duke, he realized that economists “had been treating the family and the household as a big black box and not really trying to understand broader family dynamics.”

He started asking questions. What kind of data do we need to look at these issues? How can we collect that data? What kind of insights can be gained from looking at family networks that economists have traditionally ignored?

As he began to answer those questions, his focus sharpened. Now, he uses data to understand behavior and to investigate the links between human capital and health in low-income communities around the globe. His list of publications includes papers on elderly well-being in China, extended family support networks in Indonesia, and farm households and markets in central Java.

The ultimate goal across all his studies is to identify barriers holding people back—limited resources, access to education and healthcare, pollution, general poverty—and to find ways to improve well-being. His methods blend economic modeling tools with approaches from the social sciences, such as anthropology and sociology, to understand local contexts. “I’m trying to understand how the realities of those areas impact choices that people make.”

Take the Mirt stove. It boasted a 90-percent adoption rate by Ethiopians at the beginning of LaFave’s three-year study. Compare that to a mere 10-percent adoption rate by most of the high-efficiency cookstoves introduced in rural communities. The difference? A local design specifically tailored to cook injera. Locally produced from locally sourced concrete and clay, the Mirt stove is also durable, inexpensive, and reduces fuelwood consumption, of critical importance to Ethiopians.

“Anthropologists could have told you that the Mirt stove is going to actually be used more than the super-efficient design models,” LaFave said. “It shows the importance of using local stakeholders to find a good solution”—and to collect data.

Trained Ethiopian surveyors played a central role in the study with periodic visits to the randomly selected homes where Mirt stoves were installed. They’d take readings from sensors installed on the stoves, measure particulates in the air, ask residents health-related questions, and measure children’s height. The surveyors developed trust with and gained access to their fellow citizens in ways no Western researcher could.

Associate Professor of Economics Dan LaFave
Associate Professor of Economics Dan LaFave

Using their accumulated data, LaFave compared it against a control group and standardized it relative to an average, nourished child of the same age and gender using CDC growth tables. While the study showed the Mirt stove improved growth in children under three years of age, it had no impact on older children or women. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why, “but the results are suggestive,” LaFave said, “that the average indoor air quality improvements weren’t large enough to overcome the accumulated burden of prior smoke inhalation for older children and adults.” Older children, he noted, also spend less time near their mothers and cookstoves.

There’s still progress to be had, but LaFave remains optimistic.

Even as his recent work contributes to a larger effort to study the adoption of improved cookstoves in the field, he’s “motivated by the idea that the tools we have can be used in a way to make real positive change.” In general, LaFave’s work complements existing local knowledge in ways he says can help local stakeholders do their work in a powerful way.

Equally important is introducing his interdisciplinary methods to Colby students. It’s a multiplier effect, he said. “A lot of it is exposing students to questions that might not be at the forefront of their mind or trying to teach them about how we can use economics to try and think about improving well-being.” There’s satisfaction, he said, “seeing the great things that they go on and do.”

And go on they do, pairing their economics major with environmental studies, global studies, and psychology in increasing numbers. First at Colby, and then as they move into graduate school and careers.

Colby’s culture of interdisciplinary work feeds directly into LaFave’s approach to economics.
“It’s the idea that I offer some small piece of knowledge that can complement another goal, or someone else’s mission,” he said. “Then I can work as a partner within that kind of process.”