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The MECS Programme in Unprecedented Times: Covid-19 and the MECS Family

20th April 2020


By Prof. Ed Brown, MECS Research Director.

We are living through strange and uncertain times. There is not a country in the world that hasn’t been thrown upside down in responding to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. The MECS team in the UK along with our partners across the globe have been reviewing how best to keep the programme moving forward whilst we are in various forms of isolation and lockdown and unsure of how long we will be stuck in such circumstances.

At the moment, the severest impacts of the pandemic have been felt first in China and more recently in European countries and now the US. Nonetheless, longer-term, the implications for communities across Africa and South Asia are likely to be far more serious. Early speculation that the virus would perhaps not thrive in hotter climates or that African nations might be somewhat protected by their younger age profiles have been replaced by harsh warnings over the poor state of preparation of African health services, the impossibility of even short-term isolation for millions of the world’s poor and the heightened vulnerability of those with pre-existing lung diseases caused not least by their exposure to harmful fumes from biomass cooking. The WHO estimate that biomass cooking causes around four million ‘excess’ deaths a year. “Chronic inhalation of biomass smoke induces lung function decrement, increases the risk of life-threatening chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, evokes pulmonary and systemic inflammation and consequent oxidative stress, and contributes to the development of hypertension and cardio-vascular diseases” (Sinha and Ray, 2015).

The WHO estimate that biomass cooking causes around four million ‘excess’ deaths a year.

We don’t yet know the implications of this for vulnerability to Covid-19 but “one peer-reviewed study into the 2003 SARS outbreak (SARS was also a coronavirus, although it produced different symptoms) showed that patients in regions with moderate air pollution levels were 84 percent more likely to die than those in regions with low air pollution” (EURACTIV, 2020). Whatever Covid-19 brings, what is clear is that access to modern energy, be it in the form of electricity for health centres or testing labs or cleaner forms of cooking, remains an absolute necessity.

As Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All and Co-Chair of UN-Energy, put it earlier this week, “The global community’s efforts to contain COVID-19 may be hampered as the deadly explosion of cases continues across many parts of the world with little or no access to energy. As a result, lack of access to energy has the potential to magnify the human catastrophe and significantly slow the global recovery.” (

We need to keep access to clean energy, including for cooking, firmly on the global agenda.

So how are we seeking to sustain MECS’ forward momentum? For one thing, we are planning to hold some online meetings over the coming weeks to introduce some of the new components of the programme and ensure that they are well integrated into our ongoing activities. For example, over the last few weeks we have been getting all of the paperwork in place to launch several new partnerships in the financial sector as we look for ways to support new innovations and help MECS solutions scale. Partnerships such as those with Acumen (others are in the pipeline) are introduced elsewhere in the April newsletter.

We are also looking at doing something similar in relation to relatively new parts of the programme being initiated related to humanitarian, institutional and pre-cooking activity. There are also currently lots of conversations going on about how we can make stronger links with other DFID-funded research programmes in energy, with a particular focus on a new programme being discussed around realising DFID’s commitment to Leaving no one behind within the energy access world (see here) and widening on-going collaborations with parts of the Transforming Energy Access programme (

Look out for further information on the website, via social media or in future newsletters (sign up here) over how you can get involved in online discussions about all of these initiatives.

Also in future newsletters, we hope to report back more fully on specific country initiatives and how MECS colleagues in those countries are re-dimensioning their activities in the face of the new challenges. We have various exciting activities on the verge of taking off at the moment. In Kenya, the onset of the virus coincided with the launch of the first ever Results Based Financing programme for electric pressure cookers anywhere, which we have been working on with our partners in CLASP and EnDev. In Nepal, the government has recently made a major policy change away from prioritising gas for cooking towards electricity. We were supposed to have been part of a World Bank mission to support this initiative this month which was cancelled but we have been working closely with partners in the Clean Cooking Alliance, ESMAP, Hivos and Energia in coordinating our efforts and setting up activity which can take off as soon as it is feasible. We have also been having exciting discussions about developing significant trials of EPCs on mini-grids in Nigeria, here our partners in the Rocky Mountain Institute are coordinating activity with colleagues from the World Bank mini-grids programme, the Shell Foundation and several individual mini-grid companies.

In the meantime, we wish all of the wide MECS family well, may you and your loved ones stay safe, healthy and with peace of mind.

Opportunity: Women in Modern Energy Cooking (WMEC) initiative launched