Dirty cooking: A health risk to women in Africa

cooking - climateaction

Dirty cooking: A health risk to women in Africa

According to the International Energy Agency’s new Energy Progress Report, close to 3 billion people have no access to clean cooking solutions, mainly in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.


Of the top 20 countries with the greatest number of people lacking access to clean fuel and technologies for cooking, 10 are located in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Africa is vulnerable now, more than ever, to carbon pollution as many communities on the continent continue to use dirty fuels (kerosene, wood, coal). This is especially dangerous because the burning of biomass for cooking releases large quantities of dangerous pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulate matter.


These cause cardiovascular diseases in adults, a bulk of whom are women who are exposed while cooking with biomass. This has led to chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and lung cancer which are great causes of disability and premature death in women in developing countries.


According to the World Health Organization, about 3.8 million people die prematurely from indoor air pollution every year. Several others contract diseases that are linked to smoke-inhalation from biomass – wood, charcoal fires, and animal waste.


Since cooking is done mostly by women and girls in many of these developing countries, they become vulnerable to the harsh effects of indoor air pollution on their health. These effects go beyond non-communicable diseases as constant exposure to pollutants has the tendency to affect the brain and lead to behavioral problems, developmental delays, and a decreased IQ in children.


The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7 aims to ensure access to sustainable, affordable, and clean energy for all and this is significant not only because one in five people lack access to modern electricity, but also because energy use accounts for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for climate change.


For most women and girls in Africa, energy is not only important but beneficial to them because most of their traditional gender roles rely on energy. It is core for creating opportunities for them and serves as a bonding mechanism among many families on the continent – having deep-rooted traditions.


The implication is that, beyond their ignorance of the harmful toxins emitted by their stoves, it will be very difficult for them to disregard their cooking methods due to the cultural sentiment attached to them. Unfortunately, these dangerous energy sources are harmful to the environment and their well-being as climatic conditions will continue to worsen due to chopped-down trees and carbon emissions from wood fuel or charcoal.


How do we begin to convince a woman who believes that the taste of food cooked with firewood and coal trumps the taste of food cooked with other safer means to prioritize the environment in her decisions? How do we encourage clean cooking adoption?


Examining alternatives


The adoption of clean energy (like biogas, ethanol, and liquified petroleum gas) for cooking is not only essential to protecting women in Africa but also has the potential to save millions of lives. In addition, clean cooking will help reduce carbon emissions, mitigate biodiversity loss caused by cutting wood for fuel, and lead to decreased forest degradation.


Thanks to technology and innovation, the energy sector in developing countries is transforming and moving more towards renewable energy, a shift that is a huge opportunity to achieve greater gender equality and inclusion. However, this adoption has been slow to take off in rural areas due to a number of factors:


In the first instance, clean and efficient stoves that are either solar-powered or connected to an electricity source, are often expensive. As a result of that, inhabitants of rural areas are either not willing to pay for them or do not have the financial capacity to purchase them.


Also, cleaner low-emission biomass cookstoves that have the potential to serve as a transitional solution for very poor and remote rural areas do not come cheap.


Furthermore, Liquefied Propane Gas (LPG) stoves which are probably the most comfortable option in terms of viability, especially in urban areas, are being tagged as fossil fuel-powered.


Beyond cost and financial capacity, some of these stoves are inefficient going by the World Health Organization guidelines for indoor air quality which states that clean stoves have to pass specific targets relating to durability, carbon monoxide emissions, safety, thermal efficiency, and particulate emissions for them to be considered efficient.


The way forward


Governments in Africa have stated their intention to pursue net-zero emissions by 2050 as part of their energy transition plans, indicating that access to clean energy is central to their climate goals.


However, it is only when poor communities on the continent phase out the use of coal firewood, and kerosene in homes and make a shift towards renewable energy sources that they can make headway and truly improve the quality of their lives.


Ensuring clean energy access for women and girls is essential and we need to involve them in the clean energy conversation. Integrating them into all levels of clean energy innovation will lead to more effective clean energy initiatives.


They must be at the frontlines of the fight for energy access because they are directly involved by virtue of what they do in their homes.


Policymakers also have to address the price of clean energy in view of their ambitious goal to reach net-zero emission by 2050.


Image credit: Nurdin Momodu (Lotusfly Animation)

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