Cleaner cooking and its role in Africa’s future


For one family in Africa the impact of collecting twigs and cutting down trees for energy to cook may seem insignificant. But when over 3 billion people, many of whom live in Sub Saharan Africa, have no alternative cooking energy and continue to rely on wood everyday, the impact is massive.

The recent IPCC special report on Climate Change emphasised the need to simultaneously curb CO2 and short-lived non-CO2 emissions such as methane and black carbon if we are to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 C. This highlights the role of the clean cooking sector in the wider climate action conversation, as  25% of global black carbon comes from residential cooking and heating.

Transitioning away from traditional polluting and environmentally unfriendly fuels is also necessary to achieve SDG 7, and is thus a crucial step in Africa’s journey to sustainable development.

What are the existing clean cooking technologies?

Cooking in Africa is mainly done over 3-stone fires in rural areas, while the  majority of urban dwellers rely on traditional cookstoves fueled by charcoal. These methods suffer several inefficiencies, hence providing opportunities for improvement. Clean cooking technologies seek to address these challenges at different points of the value chain, as discussed briefly below:

a) More efficient conversion technologies

Biomass conversion to fuel: Charcoal is one of the most popular fuels in urban centres in Africa. In its most common form, charcoal is a black carbon produced by heating wood in the absence of oxygen through a process called slow pyrolysis. Traditional charcoal kilns are highly inefficient, producing 100-150kg of charcoal for every tonne of wood. By converting to modern kilns that reach efficiencies of up to 40%, it is possible to achieve savings of 2-4 times on wood use and hence tree felling.

Fuel conversion to heat: Traditional cook stoves made from poor quality materials are highly inefficient, and waste a lot of the heat produced. Improved cook stoves utilize the same principles as traditional cook stoves but leverage better design and higher quality materials to maximize heat retention and air flow. In the long run, these save on fuel and so reduce pressure on fuel sources, as well as household spending on fuel.

b) Alternative cooking fuels (USAID, 2017)

Compressed biomass like briquettes and pellets, have a higher energy density than uncompressed biomass (e.g. charcoal) and thus can achieve the same amount of heating with less fuel. In particular, pellets used in gasifier stoves are a highly efficient alternative although this technology is only starting to take off in Africa. Rwanda’s Inyenyeri and Zambia’s Emerging Cooking Solutions (EGS) are among the first to invest in the technology. Other alternatives such as Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) exist although these have a number of supply chain requirements to be successful.

A clean cooking revolution promises several other non-energy benefits to society.

Increased productivity among women and children: Today, women and children are disproportionately tasked with fuel collection, and in some cases, walk long distances in search of firewood. Transitioning to modern cooking methods might eliminate this burden and thus free up time for more productive social and economic activities among these vulnerable groups.

Healthier families: The World Bank estimates that household air pollution causes almost 600,000 deaths annually in Africa. Use of cleaner fuels and better designed cook stoves which emit fewer particulates will in turn reduce the number of cooking-related pollution illnesses and deaths. This ensures healthier and stronger populations to fuel the development of the continent.

Economic benefits: The availability of feedstock (wood) for charcoal is diminishing while populations across the continent rise. Market forces dictate that this reduction in supply and continued increase in demand will result in rising prices, and a larger share of household incomes allocated to the purchase of cooking fuels. Already, we see the cost of charcoal in many urban centres steadily rising due to the depletion of nearby forests, and the need to transport it from further away. Providing cooking alternatives and stimulating private sector investment in innovation to drive down prices is therefore necessary to safeguard against such fuel crises.

Policy and way forward for Africa

Good policy must be complemented by an engaged private sector which provides finance, promotes competition, quality, identifies gaps in the value chain of the clean cooking sector and works to close them, hence making it more efficient (Global Alliance for Cookstoves, GACC, 2019). For example, several initiatives in the sector have been targeted at increasing supply of cleaner cooking options. However, not enough emphasis has been put on distribution solutions to get the products to markets, and demand side measures to promote uptake. What has resulted from this are small companies trying to address all these elements, and making business unprofitable. Rather than duplicate roles, different actors should focus on and develop their niche and complement each other to further the development of this industry.

While other countries lag behind, a few countries in Africa have taken a strong stand against unsustainable cooking sectors. In 2018, Kenya became the first country to ban the use of charcoal – as it paves the way for a vibrant LPG sector. However, while this has obvious benefits for Kenya, it carried unintended consequences, such as increased pressure on Uganda’s tree cover due to cross border charcoal trade with Kenya. This calls for increased vigilance to curb illegal trade but more so, the need for all countries to begin to identify sustainable solutions for their own cooking sectors.

A lot of work has been done in developing new cooking technologies, but African consumers have rejected many of them because they do not fit the unique cooking use cases of these societies. Food and cooking are central to the social fabric of African countries, and make up a large part of our culture and how we identify as Africans. It is therefore important to merge innovation in technology design, with an understanding of local contexts in order to present communities with products that enable the continuity of long developed tradition. However, developing new products alone is not sufficient if mindsets are not changed, and individuals not guided to gain a personal understanding and appreciation of the urgent challenge of climate change.

Trees provide benefits for cooling, rainfall formation, soil structure and food security and are a critical contributor to the resilience of African communities. As a continent expected to be hit hard by the devastating impacts of climate change, we should strive to protect our forest cover and replenish what has already been lost. While tree cutting for cooking fuel is not the only cause of diminishing tree count, it is a major contributor and averting this through new cooking technologies is a worthwhile endeavour.

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