In millions of households across Sub-Saharan Africa, meals are prepared in much the same way. Sitting outside, or in small, soot-blackened kitchens, women tend to cooking pots suspended over open fires and rudimentary stoves. It is an everyday scene.
Without gas distribution networks or reliable access to cheap electricity, charcoal or solid biomass are generally the only fuels that are available or affordable. But for these African households, an activity as simple as preparing a meal is putting lives in danger.
Regrettably, traditional cooking fuels produce a potent mix of airborne pollutants when burned, including particulate matter, nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide. Often deadly, these localised pollutants get comparatively little attention in the discussion about transitioning to cleaner energy sources.
This is perhaps because pollution from cooking makes its impact felt on two very different scales. On the one hand, it is a domestic problem, taking place in the homes of the world’s poorest citizens. On the other hand, the sheer number of people affected by the problem defies easy solutions.
In all, more than 3 billion people across the world rely on traditional cooking methods for the preparation of their food. It is estimated that 4 million of them die prematurely every year as a result – from pulmonary diseases, heart complications, strokes or other maladies.
Half of pneumonia deaths in children under the age of five are caused by exposure to airborne pollutants from cooking.
Progress on combatting the problem has been painfully slow. Although the proportion of the world’s population that relies on traditional cooking methods is declining, the number of people affected is moving in the other direction. The use of dirty cooking fuels is increasing as the global population expands.
Compared to electrification, success with introducing clean cooking fuels to the developing world has been more limited and received much less attention. Last year, the number of people without electricity access dipped below 1 billion.
200 million people have been granted electricity access since 2016 alone, as NGOs, billionaire philanthropists and popular politicians lend their weight to the cause of rural electrification.
Lack of access to clean cooking fuels is arguably a greater challenge. Not only are traditional cooking methods harmful to human health, but demand for firewood is also driving deforestation and environmental degradation.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, 96% of all harvested wood is used for cooking fuel. This represents 90% of the energy consumption of the average Congolese household.
Fortunately, a solution is starting to take shape. Its impact has so far been limited – but its proponents have their sights trained on a wholesale change in the way that nearly half of the world’s inhabitants choose to meet their primary requirement for energy.
In the city of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, one of the most ambitious clean cooking projects is about to go to market. This city of over 4 million, known for its sandy beaches, rapid urbanisation and large Swahili speaking population, will be a testing ground for the large-scale deployment of ethanol as a cooking fuel.
Funded by the Global Environment Facility, clean cooking NGO Project Gaia is working in collaboration with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) to distribute ethanol cooking stoves to 500,000 Tanzanian households.
When the project reaches maturity, it will create a market for 90 million litres of fuel ethanol consumption a year. Nearly 40% of Dar es Salaam’s population will be granted access to a clean cooking alternative.
The project follows on from a small-scale pilot study conducted by Project Gaia in Zanzibar in 2014-2015, which conclusively demonstrated the advantages of switching to ethanol for cooking.
95% of participating families believed that ethanol cooking stoves were preferable to traditional cooking methods, with the average household saving 2.1 hours of additional labour each day.
Particulate matter concentrations in kitchens were reduced from 575.4 to 109 ug/m³, while carbon monoxide concentrations dropped to 3.5mg/m³, well below the WHO guideline of 10mg/m³.
The goal of the Dar es Salaam project is to build upon the successes in Zanzibar, but with a much more ambitious scope. “You have to go for large scale,” says Paul Harris, a consultant at UNIDO working on the project.
“Trials or small projects just will not work. Most of the NGOs operate by playing around the peripheries in that way… but it’s only companies that will deliver at a large scale, and it’s only industry that can really deliver a solution.”
Ethanol production in many parts of Africa has had trouble achieving sustained growth, despite the continent’s impressive natural advantages. With the right support, it could become a key producing region.
In Tanzania, sugarcane mills have historically been incentivised to produce sugar to shore up the country’s import deficit, rather than switching to ethanol production.
Harris’s belief is that the growth in ethanol consumption for cooking will provide a trigger for local industry to begin producing ethanol in earnest. “The local industry doesn’t know that there’s a market coming,” he says. “People will only invest in a plant when they see that market.”
Along with their stoves, participating households will be required to purchase ten litres of denatured ethanol to kickstart demand.
At first, most of the ethanol used is likely to be imported, probably from producers in Eastern and Southern African countries. “But we want to encourage local production as much as possible,” Harris says.
To understand what is happening in Dar es Salaam, it’s useful to consider the alternatives to ethanol as a cooking fuel.
Firstly, there is electricity. Although electric cookers may work well in the developed world, for the countries still struggling with dirty cooking fuels, they aren’t usually a workable option.
The reality is that electricity supplies in these countries are both limited and unreliable. “Any developing country is battling to put enough power stations in,” Harris says. “They are always behind.”
For most African people, electricity is best reserved for applications with low energy demands and for complicated appliances with no alternative source of energy. Applications with high thermal loads, such as cooking and heating, are only possible to electrify in economies with mature power grid infrastructure.
The other alternative is LPG. While LPG can and does provide a reliable solution for many households across Africa and the developing world, levels of supply are inflexible. Because it is a by-product of the oil and gas industry, LPG volumes are linked to the level of oil and gas production.
Moreover, there is the difficulty of transporting LPG to regions that may not produce oil and gas domestically, which inevitably raises costs.
Bringing clean cooking to billions of the world’s poorest inhabitants requires a fuel that is inexpensive, able to be produced in sufficient volumes domestically, and free from toxins and impurities. Ethanol is currently the only fuel that fits the bill. It is estimated that switching to ethanol will reduce Tanzanians’ fuel costs by roughly 70%.
What is happening in Dar es Salaam will impact millions of lives – but it is only the start of something much larger. “UNIDO is doing of lot of work to raise funding for further projects right now in other countries,” Harris says.
The plan is to introduce ethanol cooking stoves to a total of twenty countries around the world as part of a global impact programme. “500,000 is just a demonstration, you know,” Harris says. “What we really need is 3 billion.”