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Can electric cooking meet off-grid (humanitarian) institutional cooking needs?

2nd February 2022

Prepared by MECS (Dr Iwona Bisaga, Dr Kirsten Campbell & Prof Matt Leach), SNV (Karlijn Groen & John Munene Njogu) & UNHCR (Mercy Kanini Mutavi).


Cooking in institutions such as school and health centres plays an important role in supporting wider activities taking place in humanitarian settings. It is central to ensuring food security and contributes to the health, wellbeing and resilience of refugee and host communities. Approximately 51 institutions including schools, clinics, reception centres and safe havens provide services to over 200,000 members of refugee communities in the Kakuma and Kalobeyei integrated settlement in Turkana County, North-Western Kenya. These institutions, which serve between 200 and 4000 people, currently cook meals with firewood provided by UNHCR. 1,400 metric tonnes of firewood were consumed in total by the institutions in 2021.

Location of the Kakuma Refugee Camp (marked with the red pin). Source: Google Maps.

Given the adverse effects of cooking with firewood on the environment, health and safety of communities, electric cooking (e-cooking) is an alternative for households and businesses in on- and off-grid contexts, but also for institutions. The Modern Energy Cooking Services Programme (MECS), based at Loughborough University, is working to address the energy access needs in humanitarian settings and has recently started exploring opportunities for large-scale Electric Pressure Cookers (EPCs) (size 35-60 litres) in institutional settings. Early findings indicate that large EPCs can successfully cook many of the staple meals cooked in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, further research is required to determine the technical and practical feasibility of large EPCs and the potential for scale up. In humanitarian settings, where institutions cook predominantly with firewood, these solutions could have a significant impact, but further research is needed into their potential usage in off-grid contexts as in such settings there is often no access to grid electricity. In this blog, we explore opportunities for an institution in the Kakuma refugee camp where a standalone solar PV system is planned for installation in the coming months.

Project scope and partners

The collaboration between SNV, UNHCR and MECS was set up to conduct a pre-feasibility study for large-scale EPCs for schools and health centres in Kakuma before developing a future pilot project where a number of large EPCs will be deployed in selected institutions across the camp. SNV, the leading project partner, has extensive experience building markets for improved energy access, specifically through managing large-scale market development projects. In Kakuma, SNV has been developing the market and raising awareness for clean energy products for household and commercial use since 2017 through the EnDev Market Based Energy Project. SNV participated in the Energy Delivery Models training to further develop the large-scale EPCs for institutions project concept and recently kicked-off the PEPCI-K project which will pilot the use of EPCs with refugee and host community households and microbusinesses connected to the solar mini-grid in Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement.

UNHCR, mandated to protect refugees and other displaced people, is currently working to electrify several institutions in Kakuma with off-grid standalone solar PV systems with battery storage, which will include long-term operation and maintenance services. These will provide electricity for institutions to use lights, ceiling fans, IT services and other appliances. They also present an opportunity to test the feasibility of using large EPCs in institutions in the camp and inform potential finance models to promote further uptake and scale up.


SNV has conducted assessments of the current improved biomass cook stoves in schools and health centres in Kakuma and found that the current stoves break down frequently, requiring repairs and on-going maintenance. These are not always available in the camp and are costly, at approximately USD200-800 per repair per stove. This can compromise the institutions’ ability to provide nutritious, well-cooked meals to the pupils, patients or incoming refugees as well as the severely negatively impact the health of the cooks. In addition, many institutions revert to using Three Stone Open Fires in their courtyards for cooking meals, increasing firewood use significantly.    

Examples of institutional cookstoves, including a three-stone open fire one, in selected schools in the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Photo credit: SNV.

This blog outlines the initial pre-feasibility assessment undertaken for one of the primary schools in Kakuma (245 students, 17 staff). The assessment used data collected by SNV, covering current cooking practices, access to energy for cooking as well as any existing electricity access, attitudes to modern energy cooking by the institutions’ staff, the condition of the kitchens, and the evaluation of the feasibility of installing electric cooking appliances in those spaces. Data provided by UNHCR on the planned solar PV and battery systems and future electricity demand was used to evaluate the feasibility of adding cooking loads. This data was supplemented with that from large EPC testing undertaken by MECS’ partners TaTEDO, who trialled the equipment on a range of dishes to understand the practical applications and load profiles.

The analysed scenario for e-cooking in one of Kakuma’s primary boarding schools aimed to find the feasible number and sizes of EPCs and the quantity and types of dishes they could cook, calculated for the worst-case (i.e., least sunny month of the year) (July at an average of 4.21 peak solar hours). Assumptions around the portion sizes, cooking capacities and existing load use were based on MECS experience and input from UNHCR.


The online tool PV-GIS was used for the expected daily sun peak hours in the study location, along with generation timing across the day for the [planned] solar PV system (25kWp) plus Lithium-ion battery storage (90kWh, at 80% Depth of Discharge). The charge/discharge of the batteries was calculated based on the expected electricity demands and the PV generation.

The eCooking scenario looked at adding two 10 Litre EPCs which would cover all the staff (17 persons) cooking needs (typically rice and beans), and one 40 Litre EPC which would support cooking half of the dishes for a third of all students (81) (i.e., roughly 1/6 of all student food, e.g., morning tea, lunchtime rice and evening yellow bean stew). This combination was chosen because it closely fits within the capacity of the PV/batteries of the planned solar system, and also offers the chance to test electric cooking for both staff and student meal preparation. Figure 1 below shows the loads in half hour intervals throughout the day, for both the original loads as provided by UNHCR and the potential EPCs.

Figure 1. kWh energy use in half hour periods (note: average kW power load values in any half hour period are double the values shown on the y-axis).


The modelling showed that before adding the EPCs there is approximately 13.3kWh more electricity produced by the PV than consumed on a typical day in the least sunny month. When the planned EPCs are added, all of the excess generation would be used, plus an extra of approx. 1.18kWh. This should be feasible, particularly for a pilot project, given that the analysis has been done for the least sunny month (July) and that the baseline electricity demand includes potential growth in electricity use over 3 years, for instance for loads which will not be used immediately after PV installation.

This means that the overall prospects for successfully adding electric cooking within these systems are promising and a pilot of two 10L EPCs and one 40L EPC is fully viable. While these do not cover the entire cooking need, it is still a significant share of the cooking that takes place at the school and could potentially reduce the consumption of firewood considerably. This pilot should also be sufficient to test the usability and practical viability of e-cooking while moving towards greening the cooking stack, with lower risk than trying to cover the entire cooking needs, in case of any initial difficulties in adopting EPCs.

Future analyses could include calculations of the potential cost savings from introducing electric cooking in institutions, as the current firewood is freely distributed by UNHCR. Analysis can also be done of the increase in PV and battery capacity that would be needed to meet more, or all, of the cooking demands. It would also be valuable to understand the wider socio-economic implications of a transition to electric cooking through further modelling and piloting.

Next steps

Following the modelling exercise, plans are underway to undertake piloting of large EPCs in institutions in 2022 to demonstrate proof of concept. This will collect data on the cooking experience in terms of impact on fuel use and savings, costs, cooking time, user experience, fuel stacking practices, exposure to smoke and suitability for institutional meal types and quantities. This will contribute to the limited evidence base for the deployment of electric cooking in institutional contexts and in off-grid configurations and displacement settings.

Along with the appliances themselves, it is also important to consider the surrounding ecosystem. Considerations for upkeep and maintenance will need to be included from the outset to ensure long term sustained use. This is an additional challenge in the camp context. Possibilities for integrating carbon financing mechanisms and market development are also being considered, in order to facilitate wider scale up. While this study focuses specifically on Kakuma, there are widespread possibilities further afield, where successful implementation of off-grid institutional e-cooking could be a gamechanger for rural displacement and non-displacement schools, healthcare settings and other social institutions.

For more information on this work, please contact Dr Iwona Bisaga or Dr Kirsten Campbell.


Featured image, top: Andreas Gücklhorn on Unsplash.