Have you ever thought about how your cooking practices affect your health? Well, if you are lucky to be using gas or electricity for cooking, you are very fortunate and you should be thankful to be among 60% of the people who have access to clean energy for cooking around the world. For this, Congratulations! You have won the lottery of birth either from the country you were born or your income is good enough to afford a cleaner source of fuel.
However, did you know that the other 40% of the world’s population rely on very unclean source of energy for cooking mainly solid fuels such as firewood, charcoal, dung and others? This is nearly about 3-billion located in developing nations in Eastern Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin-America. This use of unclean fuel and stoves emit huge amount of smoke during cooking, which causes adverse health risks to people who are exposed at home.
The most up-to date estimates from the 2014 WHO (the World Health Organization) report, show that about 4.3-million deaths a year worldwide, are attributed to exposure to cookstove smoke . Lots of these deaths comes from various respiratory and cardiovascular diseases such as pneumonia, lung cancer, heart disease, COPD, and stroke among others . This is a big problem in developing countries. In fact, the same WHO report estimates that it goes hand in hand with the effects of tobacco globally. Tobacco causes a little over 6-million deaths a year, which means that the household air pollution effects comes second after tobacco . As a matter of facts, an hour of cooking on a traditional wood cooking fire indoor produces smoke of about 400-cigarettes . This is even more depressing when you think about it because in these developing countries, mothers and children are affected more than men as they are the ones, mainly involved in cooking activities. Can you imagine a baby of a few months old breathing this amount of smoke on back of her mother as often as 2 or 3-times a day? This may sound like fiction especially if you have never been to a developing country, but it is real. I see it more often when I visit back home in Rwanda or when I am on a field trip in Ghana.
How can we address this issue as a community and what can we done about it?
As you can imagine, the international community is looking for multiple ways to address this concern worldwide. The recent Clean Cooking Conference brought together around 500-people from 57-countries around the world both from the private and the public sector. Different organizations such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, and their partners are already joining forces with researchers, NGOs, and the local community to find creative ways to facilitate the adoption, the affordability, and the access of clean fuels and clean cookstoves in developing nations.
A few weeks ago, as a mechanical and an environmental engineer working in field, I was fortunate enough to attend a big 5 day-conference organized by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves in Accra-Ghana. This conference aimed at bringing the private and the public sector together in order to share ideas and opinions about promoting the use of Clean Fuels and Clean Cookstoves around the world. It was a wonderful time for researchers to exchange their ideas and techniques, for NGOs meeting local communities, for investors looking for business opportunities, and governments to evaluate their policies looking for partnerships from the all participants.
Below are the issues surrounding accelerating the use of Clean Fuels and Clean Cookstoves:
One of the most difficult tasks in helping people to cook cleaner is convincing them to switch from traditional stoves to improved stoves. Basically, this is when organizations, who think that they know what people want, come in and distribute the stoves mostly for free in the incubation phase, but surprisingly, researchers have been astonished by the fact that local people do not switch to improved stoves as fast as they had anticipated. The adoption issue is well-understood and cared about than it used to be in the past, but there is still a long way to go in terms of figuring out how you get people to adopt good clean and efficient cookstoves.
- The locals have been using these traditional stoves for a really long time, their parents, ancestors used them. The entire generation has been using them for a really long time, local food and cuisine cooked on these stoves have an easily identifiable test that they like and enjoy. Although these stoves can get very smoky, somehow, they have been used to that in some respect. The easiest way to think about this problem is, comparing it to somebody who smokes. Although many smokers know that cigarette smoke harm their lives, it is been shown that it is tough to quit smoking. Simply, expecting them to quit overnight, you would have to be a fool. This is the same with cookstoves, expect that in this case, lots of cooks do not know that the smoke they are inhaling is dangerous to them, and their kids, and the whole family in the household.
- The second most issue related to adoption is the mismatch between stove manufacturers and the local users. A lot of these manufacturers are from western countries, Envirofit, BURN, Biolite, are some of big names known this field, so when a stove is made in the United States, engineers who design them might not necessarily be familiar with local needs and the technology, which will match what the locals want. It would be like me trying to design various ski-tools when I have not skied in my life. I could try, but my designs would probably be better if I were collaborating with professional skiers to get an idea about what they want. For example, it has been shown that a lot of these stove made in western countries tend to be smaller compared to big pots and dishes that locals in Sub-saharan African needs. However, in the recent years, these big stove manufacturers have decided to move their factories to East-Africa and elsewhere to incorporate their stove designs with locals needs and accommodation. This is a big step and needs to be encouraged to other stove manufacturers.
Another big unfortunate situation is that these new improved stoves are quite expensive compared to the income of the locals. According to United Nations, about 2.8 billion worldwide people survive on less than $ 2.00 a day. This is almost the same number of people who depend on solid fuels use for cooking and lighting. What does this tell us? This means that a big number of people who needs these new stoves cannot afford them. They are too expensive. The “good” stoves available range from $ 50.00 to $ 300.00 per stove. Even after subsidies from grants and various NGOs, the cost for these stoves is simply not affordable for locals to afford them on a “sustainable basis”. You cannot simply make a clean and efficient stoves for $ 10- $30 dollars, which would be the price range that would be at least affordable to many people in the Global South.
So, affordability is still an issue, a very big one too. Quite frankly, after spending a good 2.5 years studying, learning, and working in this field, I have come to a decisive conclusion that a good way to accelerate the use of improved stoves is simply helping and getting people out poverty first. Because, otherwise, how do you expect people to afford a $ 300.00 stove when they live under $ 2.00 a day? It is just not feasible and in my opinion, we should focus on affordability in the long-term, which will provide the sustainable use rather than simply giving out stoves for free once and lying to yourself that you have reduced the problem. What will the locals do after 1-2 years, when the stove you gave out is worn out and needs to be replaced? Affordability is the key and we should be focusing on this as much as we do for adoption, and innovation.
- Accessibility of Clean Fuels and Affordability:
Everybody knows what good clean energy sources for cooking are. They are natural gas (LPG) and electricity. This are the main sources of energy that people in western countries use. You may ask yourself why are we talking about “improved stoves” when we know exactly the best sources of energy such as gas and electricity? Well, the short answer is that we know about this, but these resources are even scarcer in developing countries. After all, two out three people in Sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity, for example. Thus, while natural gas and electricity are the “holy grail” of the energy sector, we are still lagging behind in relation to having enough energy available for cooking in developing countries. If you don’t have even enough electricity for lighting, having abundant access for cooking would even be a dream. This is why improved stoves are seen as the transition before we have enough gas and electricity. Unfortunately, they have not been a good transition thus far, and some people wants to switch the efforts to gas and electricity instead of wasting time, effort and money in the so-called improved cookstoves.
Overall, it has been a real joy to work in this field and I have learned a lot since starting my research about 2.5 years ago. Thus, I am looking forward to how the cookstove sector will evolve in the years to come. As an entrepreneur, I am also looking for ways to invest in this sector, and I will be looking into venturing in the use of LPG in developing countries. My partners and I will be kicking off a wonderful project to supply gas tanks for cooking in Uganda and Rwanda in 2016. So, be on the lookout for some cool stuff!! We have noticed that there a huge market hungry for better cooking products in the Eastern-Africa region and we think that natural gas is good way to start.
I will continue to write about other issues related to cooking in developing countries. My next segment will be about the use of charcoal and deforestation and their relationship with cooking in the developing world. Feel free to check out the references below for more information and please message me for any questions or comments.
Until then, Peace and Love!
Sources and References
 Household Air Pollution and Health around the World, WHO Facts.
 Envirofit, http://www.envirofit.org/.
 BURN, http://www.burndesignlab.org/.
 Biolite, https://www.biolitestove.com/pages/mission
 Two of 3 people in Sub-Saharan African lack electricity, USAID.