ECONOMY - 17 JUL 2020

Traditional cooking methods are putting women at risk

Traditional cooking methods are putting women at risk
Woman cooking dinner. Source: World Bank via Flickr.

Sharing meals is a ritual in my family.

In the village, every Christmas, my aunties come together prepping spices while trading stories. Others pick through the previous charcoal remains trying to make the “Ekwu Igwe” – a three-stone traditional pot in Eastern Nigeria made in the shape of a triangle hot enough to cook. 

I remember fanning the flames until it turned blue and the soot from the flame filled the air, blurring the pale orange tint of sunset. 

Although the burning wood seared my eyes and made me tear up, I dared not complain. After all, my mothers did the same when they were young too.

My experience is not unique. Three billion people in the world face it every day. 95% of whom are from developing nations in Africa and Asia.


The harmful normality

Cooking is so essential that it bonds people around the world, irrespective of their cultural differences. 

However, families with no access to clean cooking methods, perform this activity using wood, coal, and kerosene as fuels, causing harmful indoor air pollution. Unfortunately, this worsens climatic conditions as 90% of the chopped down trees in Africa are used for woodfuel or charcoal.

Considering that cooking happens in homes every day, it is easy to believe how one-quarter of global black carbon emissions come from residential cooking and heating. 60-80% of these emissions originate from African and Asian countries.

Continuously burning such solid fuels cause deadly implications for the environment. It is also life-threatening for mostly children and women.  

For instance, children who inhale the soot from indoor air pollution are most vulnerable to pneumonia. 

The United Nations International Children's Fund (UNICEF) associates the disease with poverty as it is often caused by an obstruction of clean air to the lungs. 16% of all deaths among children under five were due to pneumonia in 2016. 

Babies in the womb are not spared. Every year, 490,000 premature deaths occur, due to household air pollution from the lack of access to clean cooking facilities. 

A study from Ibadan, Nigeria also showed that women who used cleaner cookstoves carried their babies within the normal gestation period of 39.2 weeks. As opposed to babies born preterm i.e. before 37 weeks. A healthier cooking method increased gestational age and newborn’s weight compared to women who cooked with charcoal or kerosene.  

Again, Nigeria ranks third after India and China, on the World Health Organisation’s list of countries with a high number of preterm babies. 

It is hard to find a rural household in Nigeria without a darkened kitchen as a result of the soot caused by burning kerosene or charcoal stoves. Unknown to the habitants, the particles from the stove lingers in the air which they end up inhaling. 


The clean, efficient but pricey options 

Stoves powered by solar or connected to an electricity source is one option for clean cooking. But it has been slow to take off in rural areas because users are not willing or able to pay for them. 

Another and probably the most comfortable option is using Liquefied Propane Gas (LPG) stoves. There is the debate of it being a fossil fuel, but LPG still stands as the most viable solution in urban areas with high population density.

Cleaner low-emission biomass cookstoves, on the other hand, may serve as a transitional solution for very poor and remote rural areas with lower population density. But they are also not cheap options. 

The costs of electric cookstoves widely ranges from $15–$50 for a single burner. That is between ₦6,000 and ₦19,000. Double burners and electric induction cookers could cost as high as $150 or ₦58,000. 

Considering Nigeria’s current electricity challenges, LPG cookstoves are the next best low-cost options. But they range from $25–$50 (₦10,000 to ₦19,000), prices that the people affected still consider to be on the high end. Most of them earn about $1.25 less than ₦500 a day. 

Based on the United Nations population data, this category of people without access to clean stoves were 177 million Nigerians or 6% of the world as of 2016.

While Nigeria battles this as yet another health crisis, Ghana, on the other hand, is recording success. Our West-African rival was able to improve access to these types of stoves by including subsidies for clean cookstoves and use of clean cooking fuels like LPG. This led to an annual increase of 1.1 percentage points in its clean cooking access between 2014–2016.

But pricing or affordability is not the only factor hindering access to the stoves, there is also the issue of efficiency.

For stoves to be considered efficient, it has to pass specific targets relating to durability, carbon monoxide emissions, safety, thermal efficiency and particulate emissions line with the WHO guidelines for indoor air quality


The baby steps

Building accessible and efficient options have thus been the aim of international organisations concerned with clean cooking and climatic wellbeing. However, these goals are not without certain challenges.

Many of the stoves created for distribution perform excellently in the test lab but under constant heat, perform woefully.  Of the 28 million units launched in collaboration with Hillary Clinton and other private investors, only 8.2 million passed the test. 

A combination of the low willingness to pay and the price to get the “perfect” cookstove has slowed the global penetration and use of these alternatives.

Most times women are also reluctant to disregard cooking methods rooted in their culture, while others are ignorant of the harmful toxins emitted by their stoves. 

The US library of medicine shows how women still have the traditional notion that cooking over clay stoves improves the taste of their dish. Very much like how Nigerians favour the flavour of suya- meat grilled over charcoal or the distinct taste of party jollof cooked over firewood and charcoal. 

Aware of the cultural impediments, PowerStove, a Nigerian clean stove company adopted a carbon finance incentive where consumers can earn money for using their clean stove. 

The smart stove monitors and tracks the users' cooking duration using its Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and relates information to the back end operators on how much emissions are saved and then converts it to monetary values for the user.  

The company’s most affordable stove is also relatively cheaper than the least costly LPG stove. With less than ₦10,000 one can get the clean stove with two months worth of clean cooking fuel.

“No one’s life should be limited by how they cook,” said Dymphna van der Lans, CEO of the Clean Cooking Alliance, yet all over the world, close to four million people die untimely each year from illness related to household air pollution. 

Nigeria accounts for about 2% of this number at 64,600 deaths, but it tops Africa’s chart with the highest fatality caused by indoor air pollution. 

Reducing these alarming stats is what drives people in the international community and local champions who create affordable and healthy solutions. We can build on their successes by not only going for the next village meeting, with at least one clean cookstove but by advocating for measures to ensure that the stoves are being used. 

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Jennifer Anya

Jennifer Anya

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