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Can Cooking With Electricity Help Kenyans Better Cope With COVID-19?

22nd February 2021

By Mourine Chepkemoi (Research Fellow, ACTS) and Jon Leary (Senior Research Associate, Loughborough University/Gamos).

In mid-March 2020, Kenya confirmed the first case of COVID-19 which had by then been declared a pandemic and a month later several measures were introduced to curb its spread. Some of these measures included closing of schools, wearing of face masks in public space, social distancing, ban of movements into and out of the highly affected areas, curfews, working from home for non-essential workers and businesses closures. These measures affected every household in one way or the other.

A follow-up survey in June- September 2020 targeting participants of the 2nd cooking Diaries study that took place in 2018 illuminated some of the impacts that COVID-19 had had on households. The survey sought to understand i) whether respondents were still using EPCs and ii) how the pandemic had impacted them. During this period, in a public forum, the Ministry of Energy Cabinet Secretary Hon Charles Keter urged Kenyans to start cooking with electricity. He had mentioned that Kenyans stand to benefit from lower electricity unit costs if consumption were to rise.  He also noted that a deliberate expansion of electricity connections around the country to reach more Kenyans, especially in the rural areas was ongoing, but that many of these newly connected households were consuming very low amounts of electricity. Demand for electricity has also fallen substantially during the pandemic, causing the electricity surplus to increase further.

Cooking diaries participants experimenting with cooking beans in an EPC.

BOX 1: About the Cooking Diaries

The African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) has carried out cooking diaries twice in Kenya. This study investigates how people cook, what they cook, quantities and time taken to cook the meal. The first cooking diaries study was done in 2017 and the second one was done in 2018.  During the study period, the selected households are required to fill a diary issued during the registration and they go through a training to ensure that the data is filled correctly. We also have enumerators who make visits to the households to check on the diaries and get feedback from the household contact persons in case of any issue that might have arisen during the period. Enumerators visit daily at the beginning of the study and skip a day once the households have understood and keeping the diaries up to date as required. Cooking diaries studies are split in two phases and in the first phase the households are flexible to use any fuel of the preference for what they want to cook. This could be LPG, charcoal, kerosene, ethanol or firewood as they would choose on an ordinary day. This period takes two weeks and after, in the second phase we restrict them to using electricity and only use other fuels when electricity is not available. During the 2nd phase we discourage use of other fuels since we provide the flat coil hotplate and other energy efficient appliances that should be able to cook all the foods families typically cook in Kenya.

Cooking with electricity during the pandemic

Surprisingly, 100% of respondents still own and regularly use the EPCs issued to them during the cooking diaries study. Participants reported that due to the low costs of using EPCs, they had continued using them throughout and in their opinion they had coped better with COVID-19 impacts. Overall cooking with electricity comes with a lot of benefits, many of which are highlighted in the Kenya eCookBook. Respondents mentioned numerous additional benefits of using an EPC during the pandemic:

  1. Reduced risk of respiratory illnesses that can contribute to COVID-19 co-morbidity

Cooking with electricity has its health benefits due to cleaner air at the kitchen or the cooking areas. With clean air in the houses the risk of acute respiratory illnesses (ARI) is reduced, as well as the risks of other diseases such as asthma, lung cancer or cardiovascular diseases, many of which are directly linked with the COVID-19 pandemic, putting people cooking with polluting fuels such as charcoal and kerosene at even higher high risk and extremely vulnerable during this period. The health benefits of cleaner air can also translate into direct economic impact on household expenditures due to fewer visits to hospital and increased productivity.

2. Cost savings

The prices of other fuels has risen significantly in recent times, with charcoal prices reportedly doubling overnight due to the logging ban introduced in 2018. However, COVID has pushed these prices up even further, with restrictions on mobility during the lockdown preventing charcoal distribution and the government reinstating VAT on LPG in order to increase tax revenue, which had declined significantly due to the lockdown (Finance bill 2020). Respondents pointed out that they had been unswervingly affected by the changes and had to dig into their pockets. Relative to prices before the lockdown, LPG prices had increased by approximately 10% on average (13Kgs cylinder refill changed from Kshs1800 to Kshs2100 while the 6Kgs changed from Kshs800 to Ksh1200). Charcoal prices increased by even more during the lockdown, over 50% – a tin went from an average of Kshs50 to Ksh100, while a sack went from Ksh1200 to Ksh2500.

3. Time savings

They also mentioned that when using an EPC, they saved time in the kitchen and had more time to do other activities including catching up with friends and other family members who were not living with them. They also had time within to bond by watching movies together or enjoying longer discussions over snacks and meals.

‘I have never been indoors for months since I started working 6 years ago. Using my EPC at the living room gave us more family time to know each other well, bond with the kids and a serious thought sharing of our future’

 Some have tried doing online businesses, reviving of side hustles like knitting, baking, plaiting etc. some were really happy with the long hours in bed with nothing to do while other took the time saved to work out or take online studies. 

A cooking diaries participant in Eastlands, Nairobi with her EPC.

Other impacts on cooking habits

In addition, participants mentioned other impacts on their cooking habits, which can be broadly categorized into three main areas below:

  1. Increase in number and quantity of meals prepared

67% of respondents mentioned that the cooking quantities had increased by almost a third and the number of meals cooked in the day had also changed. This can be explained by the fact that people were asked to stay at home with schools, businesses and non-essential services closed/scaled-down thus increased households and the need to prepare all meals at home. The responses below also imply increased costs of purchasing food given that children and working members of the households did not normally consume their meals at home:

‘When Kids are home you have to cook extra food because every hour they are looking for food, this gets expensive and we really have to think of what food to be cooked and available all day long’

‘My children over indulge in food, but I think also what they do here just needs more energy, it affects the quantities prepared when they are around but then with this pandemic it’s a loss as  we had already paid full school fee which includes some of the meals’

One respondent said that they had a decrease in the food quantities cooked since they have to prepare to have the little available for a longer period as the situation was unpredictable at that time.

2. Increased cost of food

The supply of farm produce in Nairobi was affected by the government directive on restricted movement in and out of Nairobi and curfews which affected availability of food in the market, thus driving up costs as demand could not be met.

‘The cost of vegetables has significantly increased and we are buying one medium size tomato at 10 Kshs while before we would buy 2 at that amount. We just hope that this pandemic is controlled and the government ease some of the directives issued. ’

3. Reduced income

Respondents in business mentioned that their income was low, hence facing difficulties in providing the basic needs for their families because of restricted movement and curfews. Respondents admitted that transporters were not able to pick up and deliver the vegetables on time logistically due to the curfew. Some had gone an extra mile to do online sales and deliveries, but the business were still not picking up.

Three of the respondents reported uncertainties with their jobs having been sent on unpaid leave. This impacted the household income forcing them to look for alternative livelihoods to sustain themselves and their families. This has been made worse by the uncertainty on when the pandemic would be under control so that normality could return. One respondent said:

‘As we speak, immediately when the country was locked down we were asked to fill our annual leave and I just had 5 days, since then I am on unpaid leave and just surviving on my savings’

However, five respondents in formal employment working from home and earning all their dues had a different experience where they reported savings on transport and time wasted to-and-from work. This meant that the increase in food cooked would not significantly affect their finances as they had saved on transport. They also mentioned that at work they would also spend some money for lunch or snacks but now what they buy can be shared by all family members.  A respondent explained that:

‘I normally have impulse buys on my way from work and now I don’t have access to this so I can save that money and spend it on food’

A call to action

In conclusion, COVID-19 has had a broad range of impacts on the way people cook. It has made many more vulnerable, with less certainty about what the future holds. However, cooking with electricity has offered a lifeline to many, with the health benefits and cost and time savings in many cases magnified.

Meanwhile, Kenya has surplus electricity available – to facilitate the wider adoption of cooking with electricity in Kenya, the Government of Kenya could develop a combination of legal and regulatory measures to promote cooking with electricity. Whilst cooking with energy-efficient appliances such as EPCs can be much cheaper than other fuels, the upfront cost and availability of energy-efficient appliances still presents a substantial barrier for many. Government programmes such as the Kenya Off-grid Solar Programme (KOSAP) are starting to offer financial support to the providers of electric cooking appliances, which can encourage the development of supply chains and foster economies of scale. Targeted tax and duty exemptions on highly efficient cooking appliances like the EPCs could also help bridge the cost gap for low income households.

However, in order to turn this opportunity into action, there is need for a clear roadmap to layout the steps required to facilitate large scale adoption of electric cooking in Kenya. Hivos’ ‘Beyond fire: Backcasting a pathway to fully electric cooking in rural Kenya by 2030’ lays out what this transition could look like from the perspective of a rural community. However, Kenya’s National Electrification Strategy doesn’t even mention cooking. Clearly, there is a need for more joined up thinking between electrification and clean cooking policy in Kenya in order to create the enabling environment that could facilitate C.S. Hon Charles Keter’s ambition of seeing rapid uptake of electric cooking across the country.