New CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank Radha Muthiah talks about clean cooking in India. Photo by: Kip Patrick

SAN FRANCISCO — Radha Muthiah will step down as the chief executive officer of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to become CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., Devex can reveal.

On Tuesday, both organizations are announcing the transition, which will happen in early April. While Muthiah will remain in an advisory role on the Alliance’s Leadership Council, the public-private partnership hosted by the United Nations Foundation is beginning its search for a new CEO to lead its efforts to get 100 million households to adopt clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels by 2020.

Muthiah spoke with Devex exclusively about her reasons for making the switch, the lessons she has learned from her time in the cookstoves sector, and what advice she has for the next CEO.

“What has always energized me is being in the midst of a community and being able to see that change happen,” she said. “So the fact that there’s a need and the ability to do that right here in the community I live in is something that’s been of growing importance to me.”

Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the formation of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City in 2010. Muthiah, then vice president of strategic alliances and partnerships at CARE, was sitting in the audience, next to Helene Gayle, the then CEO of the international NGO. Muthiah turned to Gayle and told her she thought the initiative made a lot of sense, then to her surprise, a few months later she got a call from a headhunter asking how she would feel about leading it.

Over the past seven years, Muthiah said she has worked to create a more cohesive sector, which is on its way to becoming a strong market for cookstoves and fuels.

“Across my career, there's been a common thread: The opportunity to work on issues with a strong social, development, and climate impacts,” she said. “I've looked for an interesting challenge that has a steep learning curve in some ways, something that sits at the nexus of several sectors that need to get involved to address the issue, and also the impact the issue could have.”

She views her new role in the same way. The Capital Area Food Bank is the region’s largest organization working to solve the issue of hunger, with connections to food security, nutrition, and health. After spending more than a decade flying all over the world for her work in international development, Muthiah has become more interested in impacting a domestic and regional level, closer to where she lives in Washington, D.C. When the position came up, she thought about how she might apply her work in international development to domestic challenges.

Muthiah is not alone in this transition from international to domestic which has been a trend among international development professionals, with Gayle being just one example having moved from being CEO of CARE to CEO of the Chicago Community Trust.

Radha Muthiah talks about clean cooking in India. Photo by: Kip Patrick

What unites the cookstoves sector is a desire to get the 3 billion people dependent on food cooked over traditional stoves to use better quality stoves and fuels, Muthiah said. But when it comes to how to reach that shared goal, there are differences among partners who have particular mission-related goals, prioritizing issues such as health or environment or climate or livelihoods or women’s empowerment.

Differences also arise based on where organizations fall on the spectrum of market growth and what they see as the best type of business model, model of cookstove, or type of fuel to solve the problem.

Can these 'stovers' finally crack the clean cooking problem?

Decades of failure meant that many funders had given up on clean cooking — but the sector is being revived by market-based solutions that could help it move toward clean cooking at scale.

"This is a very dynamic and growing sector and so you have some of the tensions that come from growth starting to separate out some partners from others," Muthiah said.

Communication has been the key to bringing these competing interests together, she said, focusing in particular on a strategic plan that incorporates partner feedback, is available on the website, and is updated frequently.

“Break it down, make it clear, and share it,” Muthiah said.

Muthiah said her time at the Alliance as taught her about the importance of gathering and incorporating as much information and input as possible, but also knowing when to stop that process and start to chart a course forward. In the first two or three years, the Alliance focused on building an evidence base, developing standards, and advocating the issue, and now is the opportunity to emphasize market-based solutions to the clean cooking challenge, she said.

Radha Muthiah talks about clean cooking to school children in Ghana. Photo by: Kip Patrick

The cookstove sector holds lessons for other sectors, Muthiah said, noting for example the importance of behavior change to deal with challenges such as stove stacking, when people use their new stoves along with their old methods of cooking.

"You can't assume that just because you developed something — in our case, a cookstove or a fuel — that it will immediately get the acceptance and be used,” she said.

The challenges the cookstove sector faces include taking a centuries-old issue and “making it fresh and relevant and top of mind” so that the international community, from end users to practitioners to donors, see the urgency of solving the problem, she said.

One thing that became clear to her very quickly is the “traditional donor giveaway model” was not going to work, so the Alliance began to take a “more market-oriented approach to achieve long-term impact,” leading to some resistance.

There have also been opportunities as well as challenges as the Alliance has grown from 18 to 1,800 partner organizations because while everyone shares a common end goal, they don’t all believe in the best path to achieving that goal.

"Given a world where there are competing demands for resources, and it seems like in some ways the international development cycle now has to mirror the political cycle in so many different countries, it becomes really important to think about what I would call an investment case for the issue that you're working on,” Muthiah said.

She said she hopes the next CEO will continue to grow the evidence base for clean cooking and develop the investment case for donors and investors to support clean cooking enterprises and the clean cooking market more broadly.

"Why would a dollar of donor money or a dollar of capital whether debt or equity go to this sector? What is that ROI and how, given that we're all focused on the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals], can it not only further the impact on the issue we're concerned about, but have those ripple effects against other SDGs as well?" she said.

Muthiah describes the alliance as a startup public-private partnership. In the early days, she looked at other similar models including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria to understand how they work best, and today there are a growing number of public private partnerships. Muthiah acknowledged how the SDGs cannot be addressed by any one sector alone, as noted in SDG 17, partnerships for the goals.

“There’s an understanding that this sort of cross-sectoral model can accelerate impact versus a traditional single sector model and it’s nice to see that it’s firmly entrenched in the SDGs,” she said.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.