- 26th April 2022
By Emily Bolo, Tom Randa, Joanes Atela, Paul Oswego, & Salome Okoth (Africa Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS)).
It is often said that health is wealth and it’s the desire of everyone, the society, and the community to be healthy. However, this desire is usually less realized as human and ecosystem health are often negatively impacted in our daily interactions and operations. Most interestingly, many households cook with or spend on some unclean cooking fuels periodically oblivious of the fact that the choices of cooking fuels determine the health of the individuals, households, and society progressively. Imagine if all households were using clean cooking fuels? A relatively healthy society it would be.
Unfortunately, this is not the reality as close to 4 million people die prematurely every year from illness attributable to household air pollution from inefficient cooking practices using polluting stoves paired with solid fuels and kerosene. The World Health Organization report on Household air pollution and health 2021 further reveals that close to half of these indoor air pollution-related deaths are specifically due to pneumonia among children under 5 years of age. What would society be like in the future if the young are continually exposed to these killer unhealthy cooking fuels? Indeed, the burden of an unhealthy society is costly to an economy, including the family unit.
At the National level, more than 21,500 Kenyans die each year from cooking with traditional fuels like charcoal and firewood. The health risks are greatest in rural areas, where 90% of households use wood stoves. It is also in the record that 80% of households rely solely on either charcoal or firewood as their primary cooking fuel, with 68 billion shillings ($660 million) of charcoal consumed each year in Kenya. This presents a growing and persistent risk of exposure to health at the household level despite the increased rate (75%) of electric access and the growing access to alternative cleaner fuels such as Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). For instance, the LPG gas import and distribution infrastructure has considerably increased since 2013 but the market penetrations are relatively low. This could be attributed to the relatively high costs with the price increases by more than 24% in the recent year. This is a setback as many households who cannot afford it resort back to the use of unclean cooking fuels and in the process risk their household health even further.
In recent years, the increasing access to electricity in Kenya generally presents an opportunity to adopt eCooking methods. The continually changing or rather increasing prices of other alternative clean fuels are alarming and render the adoption of eCooking an ideal option at the household level and in commercial enterprises. It has been proven that eCooking is relatively cheaper for most meals in Kenya based on a study conducted by Jon Leary through the Modern Energy Cooking Services programme in Kenya. Furthermore, the opportunities and possible challenges such as cultural and opinion considerations that might slow down the pace of eCooking adoption have been explored through a Techno-policy analysis done for eCooking through the Modern Energy Cooking Services programme in Kenya. Overall, a great opportunity exists to explore the eCooking space in Kenya not only for its cost benefits but also for the associated health benefits for households and society.
A Memorable Moment
Nearly two years ago, I (Emily), a young researcher in the Modern Energy Cooking Services programme – Kenyan Chapter, witnessed first-hand an event that revealed how the choices of cooking fuel can negatively impact the health of a household member. We lived in one of the estates in Nairobi and usually used LPG for most of our cooking needs with charcoal being used occasionally for meals requiring longer boiling times. This is a common practice in my neighbourhood in Nairobi, Kenya. On Saturday, my immediate neighbor who had a daughter chose to prepare dinner using LPG as usual. Little did she know that her cooking gas was almost running out and needed to be refilled? Before she could complete preparing the meals for her family dinner, she ran out of cooking gas and opted to use the charcoal stove because she didn’t have enough money to refill the LPG. It is a usual practice in most urban Kenyan households to use the charcoal stove outside the household for cooking, mostly on the balconies.
My good neighbor is also a Christian and had a religious meeting to attend that evening. She trusted her fully grown daughter in her 20th year with the household cooking. She quickly stepped out and allowed her daughter to continue with the evening dinner preparation outside the house. After completing the cooking event, the daughter decided to transfer the cook stove into the house to keep warm as she waited for her mom to come back before they enjoy dinner together. This was their culture as they keep each other company and catch up after a long day of different engagements. In the process of waiting, she fell asleep since her mother had taken longer than she expected. Upon her return, my neighbor found her daughter lying unconscious and she screamed for help. We had to come in as neighbors to help but unfortunately, most people were clueless about what to do for the first aid. Having some ideas about a possible inhalation of the poisonous emissions from the charcoal stove, I quickly went online and got some articles that gave us some clues on what to do to remedy carbon monoxide poisoning. Luckily enough, she regained her consciousness as we administered the receiving first aid.
eCooking Adoption Opportunity
The incident came back fresh to my mind when I recently learned of eCooking appliances. This was after joining the MECS programme and having the very first experience through a couple of the Kenya Power and Lighting Company weekly demonstrations dubbed Pika na Pawa. The incident got me thinking, what if my neighbor could have been aware of electric cooking then and had any of the e-appliances like an induction cooker? Could all the harm that her daughter was exposed to have been avoided? Is there an opportunity to do better, and enhance the adoption of eCooking in Kenya? Definitely yes. We all then have a role to play to bring different stakeholders together and promote eCooking awareness, technology accessibility, and affordability for a progressive and sustainable adoption.
The MECS Kenyan Team base at ACTS joined by Jon Leary (Gamos) visited the eCooking demonstration Centre on 7th February 2022. During the Demonstrations, I practically witnessed the very few units of electricity consumed to prepare specific meals. For example, only 0.687 units were used in the preparation of chicken stir fry, which translates to around Kshs. 14 (1 unit = Kshs. 20). Considering that my neighbor did not have enough money to refill her gas when she needed it most, an induction cooker would have been her best option. She would have completed making her food within the shortest time possible and at little cost. Her daughter was lucky as she survived the ordeal. Many similar cases have been heard throughout the country where the victims never survived the carbon monoxide poisoning.
The MECS Kenya team is partnering with the KPLC and other partners to establish and operationalize the eCooking hubs in different parts of Kenya. They intend to do this by bringing the electrification and cooking sector partners with the supporting collaborators both in the public and private sectors to exploit the eCooking opportunities in Kenya.
Policy Implications – Why Does It Matter
In the recent past, the use of clean cooking methods has been greatly promoted in attempts to minimize smoke exposure and has received a lot of attention in academic and policy discussions considering what is at stake. The health, climatic, environmental, and educational impacts attributed to the use of biomass fuel are immense. For example, WHO reports that the number of people who die every year, approximately 4.3 million, due to smoke emitted from traditional cooking methods is more than the deaths caused by malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis combined, thereby qualifying it among the most dangerous environmental health risk. Besides, one of the main causes of deforestation and forest degradation is biomass production to meet the cooking needs of households, something that significantly contributes to global warming. The effects of climate change are already being felt throughout the world as evident from the extreme weather conditions, changing patterns of rainfall, rising sea levels, and decline in agricultural production. Given that Kenya as a country and sub-Saharan Africa heavily relies on agriculture, it is disproportionately being affected by climate change when equated to other regions. Finally, the use of biomass negatively impacts not only the well-being of women and children but also their educational goals since much of the time that would have been spent learning is considerably channelled to firewood collection. Worth noting is that many of these problems can be alleviated, to some degree, through the adoption of clean cooking technologies, a project that MECS-ACTS has been spearheading. As such, academicians, researchers, and relevant stakeholders need to come together and present to policymakers vital information that will help them see the need why laws promoting eCooking have to be implemented. Only then, will the adoption of eCooking and other clean cooking technologies be embraced at a speedy rate for the benefit of households and the country at large.
A great eCooking opportunity exists in Kenya that needs to be tapped. The MECS-ACTS partnership with KPLC is instrumental in facilitating the eCooking adoption through demand simulation. The cooking sector in Kenya well represented by the Clean Cooking Kenya Alliance which also brings on board all the actors and partners in the cooking sector to the conversation of eCooking adoption in Kenya. The private sector mostly drives the technological development and transfer while the MECS Kenya team is keen to offer research evidence, possible financial models, and policy support as well as community dialogues regarding eCooking adoption in Kenya towards the attainment of the 7th Sustainable Development Goal. Given the harmful health effects associated with the use of traditional cooking methods as evident from the case presented, a conscious decision has to be made on the choice of cooking method to be embraced. Therefore, Kenyan households and commercial enterprises ought to fully transition to the use of clean cooking options such as e-cooking to not only improve the general health of the population but also contribute significantly to climate change mitigation from the local level. If change has to be realized, it has to start with you and me. It is doable and affordable.
Featured image, top: Cooking demonstration by Irene (KPLC) and Haron (ACTS) using an induction cooker at KPLC eCooking Demo Centre (Photo credit: Tom Randa, MECS).