Polluting cooking methods, used by billions of people around the world, remain a threat to women’s health

Polluting cooking methods, used by billions of people around the world, remain a threat to women's health

A mother cooks rice over a wood fire in Mahalava, Madagascar, in March 2022. The polluting fumes from traditional stoves kill two million people a year, mainly in Africa.

(Volomenarano/Wikicommons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Approximately 2.6 billion people around the world use kerosene or solid fuels (wood, charcoal, animal dung, etc.) to cook their food on traditional stoves, often with little or no ventilation. It is a dangerous and environmentally damaging practice.

But clean alternatives are not always widely available on the African continent: only 17 per cent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa has access to them, compared with 63 per cent in Central and South-East Asia, and 97 per cent in Europe and North America, according to a United Nations report tracking progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 on clean and affordable energy. The situation is particularly worrying in Mali, Niger, Benin, Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Tanzania and Chad, where the rate of access is between one and seven per cent. The difficulties are even more acute in rural areas, with only five per cent of the rural population in sub-Saharan Africa benefiting from clean cooking methods, as compared with 48 per cent worldwide.

The health consequences are disastrous. Household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels kills two million people a year, mainly in Africa. “Millions of people are dying of heart disease, stroke, cancer, pneumonia, because they still rely on dirty fuels and cooking technologies [...]. Women and children are particularly at risk. They spend most of their time in and around the home,” says Dr Maria Neira, director of the Department of Public Health and Environment at the World Health Organization (WHO).

Globally, women do more than 90 per cent of the work when it comes to cooking and securing fuel. And together with their children, they account for more than 60 per cent of all premature deaths linked to household air pollution.

They can spend up to ten hours a week securing the fuel and four hours a day cooking on traditional stoves. “I used to cook using charcoal or petrol. It would give off fumes in the house. It was dangerous. I used to cough and have regular headaches,” says Anjelicah Wanjiro Mugure, a 50-something-year-old mother of two children aged six and 15, who lives in Mathare, a vast informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. To get coal or petrol, Anjelicah would have to leave the slum and walk along the main road to the nearest petrol station.

Aside from the adverse effects on the health of women and children, the use of wood for cooking also damages forests and accelerates climate change due to the greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions from wood fuels for cooking account for 1 gigatonne of CO2 a year, or around two per cent of global emissions. The cost to the environment and local economies is estimated at US$2.4 trillion a year, according to the World Bank.

Why is progress so slow?

Although the renewable energy market in Africa is booming, the clean cooking segment remains neglected. The goal of universal access to affordable and sustainable energy for cooking by 2030 is seriously compromised, for want of financing. In recent years, resources have been channelled towards keeping food and fuel prices affordable. And the lack of investment has been compounded by population growth and the supply chain disruptions linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the 2022 report of the Clean Cooking Alliance (CCA) Clean Cooking Industry Snapshot, US$25 million was invested in 2019 in private companies dedicated to clean cooking solutions, but the figure fell to US$10 million in 2020. Aside from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the amount invested is still far from the US$4.5 billion a year required to ensure universal access to clean cooking.

“Various factors have historically prevented clean cooking solutions from being widely developed in Africa. Fundamentally, the main challenge has been the lack of consumer demand. Gender dynamics also play a major role in demand, as it is mainly men who make the financial decisions and little consideration has been given to the needs of the family in terms of cooking solutions,” notes Peter George, co-manager of Spark+, a public-private impact investment fund, based in Kenya, that seeks to universalise clean cooking solutions in sub-Saharan Africa.

Other factors also come into play. Poor rural households that collect wood for free do not want to pay for cooking kits that use LPG, ethanol or biogas.

Then there is the lack of awareness about the importance of using clean cooking solutions. “The lack of demand has led to a clean cooking sector driven mainly by donors and NGOs, which have sought to fill the gap [...]. Although well-intentioned, programmes have often brought inappropriate products to the market with a high degree of reliance on subsidies,” explains George.

Although financing from development banks and multilateral agencies (World Bank, FMO, AFD, etc.) still accounts for the vast majority of funding for clean cooking, the last three years have seen growing interest from the private sector and a shift from international public funding to intermediary investment funds such as Spark+ Africa Fund, BIX Fund Management, Lion’s Head’s AfricaGoGreen Fund or KawiSafi Ventures.

“These fund managers are closer to the ground, are more specialised, already know the market and are better placed to invest in and manage small transactions. Indirect engagement of international institutions through private investors makes sense from an efficiency standpoint,” says Ronan Ferguson, co-author of the report and senior manager of private sector and investment for the Clean Cooking Alliance.

“Perhaps most importantly, African governments are starting to prioritise the issue. They realise that tackling this problem can help them meet the commitments they made under the Paris climate agreement, and that urbanisation and generational change mean that the pressure to make progress is real,” says the manager of Spark+.

In Kenya, the state-owned Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) has launched the ’Pika na Power’ programme to promote electric cooking in markets where the majority of the population has electricity.

Simple and affordable solutions

The poor relative of the renewable energy market, clean cooking could be widely developed thanks to simple and affordable technical solutions that have proven their worth in Asia and in some African countries. For the time being, the benefits of clean cooking are mainly enjoyed by urban households, which have better access and higher purchasing power than rural households.

Solutions range from electric cooking appliances, such as pressure cookers and induction cookers, to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) stoves or domestic biogas digesters. Families can also opt for ethanol cooking fuels or processed biomass fuels such as briquettes and pellets.

Anjelicah Wanjiro Mugure has been cooking with ethanol for three years. It has changed her life. She uses a liquid ethanol stove, sold by Koko Networks, one of the leading private companies in the clean cooking and biofuels market, based in Kenya and with operations in East Africa and India.

“It’s much safer, cleaner and affordable. It also saves time, because ethanol is available here in Mathare,” says Anjelicah, who runs a small cosmetics shop in the neighbourhood.”

Everyday life has also changed for the Auma Omondi family in Mathare, thanks to clean cooking. “I have three children, who are six, three and four months old. I used to cook with gas, which was a danger for them. It was also much more expensive,” says Judith Auma Omondi, a 34-year-old housewife.

The ethanol cooking solution is more economical: a Koko stove costs 1,715 Kenyan shillings (around US$14). A litre of ethanol refill costs only 85.65 shillings (70 cents) compared to about 260 shillings for a kilo of gas. Judith’s husband has also found work as a shopkeeper for the Koko network. Today, half a million Kenyans are cooking with Koko Networks’ ethanol solutions.

In rural areas, these new clean cooking solutions also free up the time women spend collecting wood or traditional biomass (which poses additional security problems in certain areas, such as parts of the DRC, for example) and engages them in the fight to mitigate climate change.

Such solutions rest on innovative ideas like Bboxx Cook, launched by British company Bboxx in the DRC and Kenya in 2021. Working in partnership with local telecom operators, it provides ‘last mile’ households with off-grid LPG and solar solutions, enabling them to pay for the clean energy they consume with a mobile phone, on a pay-as-you-go basis.

This article has been translated from French by Louise Durkin