In a bid to reduce the pressure on forests depleted by the burning of wood for fuel, the Kenyan government has set up a network of centres to promote energy-efficient cooking stoves.
Besides distributing the stoves and training people to use them, the 17 centres, soon to be joined by a further four, are also encouraging rural residents to plant trees best suited for fuel and cattle fodder.
The scheme is part of a government push, underscored in a draft national energy policy published this year, to promote renewable energy sources including solar, biogas, and hydropower alongside more sustainable use of charcoal and wood fuel.
The draft policy would commit the government to introducing a regulatory framework for wood fuel, supporting commercial woodlots, and promoting the commercialisation and widespread use of renewable energy technologies.
Chris Onyango, the officer in charge of energy centres at the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum, explained that the centres have been developed from agro-forestry centres originally established in the 1980s to promote tree planting alongside crop cultivation as the population - and its need for fuel wood - grew rapidly.
WOOD MOST COMMON FUEL
Two-thirds of the country's population still rely on wood fuel for cooking and heating their houses, according to Jeconiah Kitala of the Clean Cook Stoves Association of Kenya. Onyango said that experts realised that the emerging energy crisis was not due to scarcity of wood fuel alone but also to the inefficiency of woodburning stoves.
The new centres provide demonstrations and training, especially for women and young people in rural areas, so that they can learn how to make renewable energy products and serve as trainers for others, fulfilling a job creation as well as environmental role.
In Busia County, Western Kenya, women trained at the local energy centre are replacing traditional three-stone cooking stoves with energy-efficient "rocket stoves" for cooking and heating. The new stoves, which trap and retain heat, use less wood and emit less smoke.
The women of the Ushirikiano Self Help Group (ushirikiano is the Swahili word for cooperation), have learned how to make the stoves from locally available materials such as scrap metal, sand and clay.
Traditionally, women and girls are the household members who cook food, mostly using firewood or biomass. Using the rocket stoves enables them to spend less time searching for fuel wood, which means that girls have more time to spend studying.
Beatrice Oduor now makes portable clay rocket stoves. "With the improved stove you need not be present in the kitchen when cooking, for the stove can cook even after the firewood is exhausted," she said. "Better still, (you) can remove the food and place it in the fireless cooker to continue cooking as (you) engage in other activities."
The fireless cooker is an insulated basket made of palm fronds that can retain heat, allowing a pot to continue cooking food after it is removed from a heat source.
The impact of the new stoves on the incidence of respiratory diseases, especially among women and girls, is as important as their time-saving qualities. According to Kitala, an estimated 14,300 deaths occur in Kenya annually due to indoor pollution.
REDUCING POVERTY AMONG WOMEN
Hellen Inziani, a trainer and a member of the Ushirikiano Self Help Group, said the improved stoves are durable, cook fast and use less charcoal.
"Making and selling them generates income, hence lowering poverty among women," she said. The stoves vary in size, with the smaller ones selling for around 300 Kenyan shillings (around $3).
Busia County Director of Environment Ezekiel Moseri says the county has a high prevalence of poverty, and around 80 percent of households use wood as a source of fuel.
County authorities say that the use of improved woodstoves has had a positive effect on the environment, especially forest conservation.
Workers at Jamhuri Energy Centre in Nairobi County, which also serves the neighbouring counties of Kajiado and Narok, have developed another kind of improved stove for cooking and heating. Dubbed the "Jamhuri stove," it uses charcoal without emitting carbon monoxide gas, which can be deadly in closed spaces. The centre is also developing a solar oven for baking and a seed drier for farmers, said Jacob Lesruan, who works at the centre.
Lesruan says the Jamhuri centre has 24 trainers who work with individuals and community groups, mostly youth and women, on renewable energy technologies. Classes are offered at the centre or at other venues convenient for the participants. "The fireless cookers and improved woodstoves are in high demand and we can't meet market needs," he said.
The centre also promotes biogas technologies directed at the pastoralist Maasai community, which is increasingly adopting a non-nomadic lifestyle as a result of the loss of grazing ground due to land ownership changes and changes in weather patterns.
Mbaabu Murianki, a technician in charge of biogas technology, says the centre trains artisans to teach others to make biogas digesters and related equipment to process cattle dung into energy for cooking, lighting and heating.
The centre is also training farmers on agroforestry issues, according to Edwin Omalla, an agroforestry expert there, who said the centrepromotes the planting of trees that can provide both fuel wood and fodder for livestock, such as the Calliandra and Leucaena species.
"We're conscious of the fact that trees, apart from providing fuel, play a crucial role in curbing environmental pollution for (trap) carbon emissions and hence mitigate against climate change," Omalla said. The centre has modern charcoal kilns to train farmers in efficient and safe charcoal production.
Speaking at a national conference on clean cooking stoves and fuels in Nairobi in February, Radha Muthiah, executive director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, described Kenya as a catalytic force in global clean energy through its support for research, development and marketing of improved stoves.
Onyango said demand for more efficient stoves and other renewable energy is coming from across the country.
"Although we have not yet done a comprehensive evaluation, there is increased uptake of the renewable energy technologies and demand for information on the same countrywide," he said.
However, Onyango added that the centres overall still lack enough skilled personnel to meet the demand for training and other services, and that the geographic area each must serve is too large. He would like to see a facility for each of the country's 47 counties.
"If we build more centres ... we will be able to appropriately tackle the energy challenges facing the country," he said.
Justus Bahati Wanzala is a writer based in Nairobi.