Africa: Clean Cooking - Lifting the Lid on Dirty Cooking Fuels

Esther Atieno prepares dinner for her family in Kisumu, Kenya using a jiko kisasa (firewood stove) that uses less fuel and burns more efficiently than her previous stove.
1 July 2021
guest column

When world leaders gather at summits to discuss global issues, do they ever stop to ask how the food was prepared or by whom? We eat every day, yet how food is cooked and the impacts of these methods are largely ignored – at great cost to health and landscapes.

Dirty cooking fuel in parts of the world is ever-present but usually invisible.

It just so happens that over the next 12 months, major global meetings will focus on green transitions and international development. The UN High-Level Dialogue on Energy, COP26 and Africa-Europe Summit provide world leaders with a unique opportunity to rethink how they perceive and prioritise cooking.

World governments have pledged to deliver on SDG 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy - and ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030.

The urgent need for electrification is now recognised by governments worldwide, and bold targets have been agreed at the global level, but the mundane tasks of simmering stew, heating water and cooking soup remain out of sight and thus out of mind. Around 600mn Africans are still without access to electricity, and while most African countries have drawn up national energy strategies, scaled investment and taken steps to get everyone connected to the grid, cooking remains largely absent from these plans.

Around 900mn Africans rely on woodfuel, charcoal or kerosine to prepare daily meals. However well-managed, these fuels produce smoke, greenhouse gas emissions and particulates, which causes coughing and lung and respiratory disease.

In Africa, there are an estimated 500,000 premature deaths each year from indoor air pollution, particularly amongst women and girls, and levels of respiratory infections amongst infants remain high, collectively accounting for a far larger toll than official COVID-19 deaths to date.

Across Africa, girls and women - like this woman in Tanzania - bear the main burden of fetching firewood for cooking, while the harvesting of wood fuel and charcoal has devastated forests and landscapes.

The drudgery of fetching and carrying fuel, or coaxing a fire into life using what charcoal can be afforded, takes a heavy daily toll on the work of women and girls, while the harvesting of wood fuel and charcoal has devastated forests and landscapes, aggravating soil erosion and reducing rural resilience, in regions throughout Africa. The global community cannot address the climate and biodiversity crisis without improving the way people cook.

Leaders must take immediate action to ensure clean cooking for all is achieved. Solutions range from improved biomass stoves to biogas, ethanol and electric cooking. Liquid petroleum gas (LPG) is one of the most economically viable and scalable solutions, not only ensuring access to basic essentials, but firing up economic activity and delivering improved health and environmental benefits compared to traditional biomass alternatives.

Several LPG for clean cooking businesses now supply homes in Africa's urban areas and informal settlements, offering jobs in distribution and supply which are often taken by women. Funding and investment are needed to scale LPG supply chains and ensure accessibility and affordability, particularly for remote and vulnerable households.

However, LPG is derived from fossil fuels, and public subsidies are now threatened as donor governments and development finance institutions continue to scale back support for fossil fuels. Is it right to take such a one-size-fits-all approach to the climate challenge at the expense of households which have made negligible contributions to global emissions?

It's irresponsible to pass up the opportunity to relieve pressure on forests and woodlands, improve the health of the poorest households and transform the lives of women by freeing up time to engage in other productive and leisure activities.

Mo Ibrahim and Mary Robinson

It's time for ambitious political and financial leadership. The Africa-Europe Foundation and Clean Cooking Alliance have formulated a Clean Cooking Manifesto with 10 immediate actions for governments, development partners and the private sector to take in delivering modern cooking services for all.

In addition to integrating clean cooking into national and city energy planning, governments must create clean cooking delivery units to coordinate national action. A robust clean cooking industry must be supported through tax and import duty exemptions. Purely market-based models are not likely to leverage the speed of deployment needed. Given the social and environmental benefits associated with clean cooking, smart subsidies are also well-justified.

As development finance withdraws from fossil fuel production, there should be an exemption for LPG for clean cooking. Donors can support the development of national action plans and increase funding to match the scale of the challenge. Increased use of carbon finance and carbon offsets could also help bridge the affordability gap.

Alongside development finance, increased private investment can build commercially viable models and reduce risk. The private sector should partner with the electricity sector to ensure energy planning accounts for e-cooking and involve women and girls in producing and distributing products.

Delivering clean cooking solutions to millions of African households in low- and middle-income countries is far from a menial, housekeeping topic.

Universal clean cooking must become a shared priority for Europe and Africa.

Mo Ibrahim is Co-Founder of the Africa-Europe Foundation and Founder and Chairman of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Mary Robinson is Honorary President of the Africa-Europe Foundation, and Chair of the Elders and former President of the Republic of Ireland.

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