How Pursuing Clean Cooking in Africa Fights Indoor Air Pollution and Deforestation

How Pursuing Clean Cooking in Africa Fights Indoor Air Pollution and Deforestation

Cooking is a fundamental aspect of human life and an activity we can all identify with, irrespective of our nationalities. Not only is cooking pivotal to the preservation of humankind, it is also with immense cultural and social significance around the world. It helps us understand world customs better and more often than not, provides the healthy avenue for a gathering of friends and family. Our ancestors invented cooking millions of years ago but modern ways of preparing meals have come a long way from those ancient ways.

We have mastered the arts of baking, broiling, poaching, simmering, grilling our meals and hundreds of ways to control the degree of heat we apply when prepping our foods. In fact, we have continually redesigned the art of cooking so much that today, it is rarely associated with any dangers, bar a few unforeseeable accidents.

The foregoing might be true for many countries but in some developing countries such as Nigeria, people put their lives at risk on a daily basis simply by cooking their own meals. Cooking in these countries often means open-flame cooking or cooking with unsafe fuels either of which harbors very serious dangers. The danger here lies not only in the nature of accidents that may occur but also in the chemical pollutants arising from the unsafe fuels used which can cause human health issues.

An African woman cooking in a small village kitchen. Photo: Davide Bonaldo.

In Nigeria for instance, about 69% households actively use traditional stoves or rely completely on dirty solid fuels like wood, biomass or coal for cooking. These fuels are unsafe not only because of their compositions but also because when used for cooking in these regions, they are often used in poorly ventilated kitchens and burned in inefficient little stoves. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 17% of the population has access to clean cooking. The use of these polluting fuels and otherwise obsolete cooking methods results in household air pollution, pneumonia in children, respiratory illnesses, heart problems, cancer and in some cases slow death.

Related Post: Philippines Ranks Third in Air Pollution Deaths. Here’s What Needs to Be Done…

Sadly, and as is often the case with most domestic issues, women and children are the most vulnerable when it comes to unhealthy cooking practices in countries where such issues are rampant. The situation is such that according to statistics, roughly 1.6 million people die of indoor air pollution annually. In 2013, the gloomy picture painted by the use of solid fuels in cooking was such that 0.8 percent of neonatal deaths, 42.9 percent of post-neonatal deaths, and 36.3 percent of child deaths were found attributable to the use of solid fuels in human households.

You are most likely more familiar with the environmental component of this issue; deforestation. As at 2005, Nigeria had the highest rate of deforestation with over 55% of primary forests lost. Collection of firewood was listed as one of the reasons behind this and nearly all of the firewood in this scenario went towards the preparation of meals in average households. It is easy to see the climate issue and campaign against felling of trees but for these people, even though deforestation is understood to be bad for the environment, the use of wood for cooking is a bigger pull because it represents a choice between survival and death in the present moment.

Related Post: Can Developing Countries in Africa Really Afford Pandemic Lockdowns?

And when you consider that a good number of families in developing countries cannot afford the healthier cooking options available, it would be clearer to you why the rush for wood and other solid fuels has remained unchanged in these places. It is not all gloom and doom though; because work is underway to change this. For instance, organizations such as the Clean Cooking Alliance have valiantly taken up the challenge of clean cooking in Nigeria. They have created grants and funds for enterprises working on the issues and have also developed a National Testing Center to test cookstoves and fuels.


Good intentions aside, the approach is far from adequate, and the problem stubbornly persists as a result of some unaddressed challenges. The biggest challenge is the issue of poverty. Solid fuels are cheaper, more convenient and far easier to access than most people in developed countries realize. Poverty is a real thing in my part of the world and in the words of a woman in my neighborhood, ‘no matter how poor you are, you can at least always find firewood to cook your meals’. A felled tree, dried sticks from plants, car tyres, and even old furniture can easily be converted for use as firewood at the drop of a hat. Many families simply cannot afford to cook daily with healthy fuels and so resort to what is available because they have to survive.

Along with the issue of poverty is the challenge posed by governments so unconcerned with the well-being of their citizenry that they’d rather line their pockets with the resources meant to provide much-needed change. The reality is that the governments of many poor nations make a lot of noise about providing innovative solutions to the issues of unhealthy cooking but never follow through. For instance, in 2014, the Nigerian government approved the sum of NGN 9,287,250,000 (US$24,380,993) for the supply of clean cooking stoves to women in rural areas. This was a step designed to discourage the felling of trees in the country but until now, those stoves never reached the women and the money remains unaccounted for.

Another additional problem here is how these “innovative solutions” are created. It is often a top down process with little or no involvement of the women concerned. Here is how it often plays out; an entrepreneur, most likely someone who has lived outside Africa for some years decides he/she wants to solve an aspect of the domestic problems being tackled by African women. After completing research, the entrepreneur believes the solution to be a gas-powered or some kind of a hybrid stove. The government lauds it, awards contracts and approves the billions of money to be used in procuring said hybrid stoves all while being captured by news media.

The problem though is that when (if ever) these stoves eventually get to the families in need of them, they will be used only a few times before being abandoned as a result of issues that the users consider critical and the manufacturers overlooked. An example is the hybrid stove that requires just a little gas to get going. Unfortunately, getting access to that little gas is difficult in rural areas. So, after use a few times, these stoves are abandoned and the old reliable firewood pulled out for cooking yet again.

Sometimes it’s unreal that these problems even exist but I assure you that they do. When I was younger, we mostly used solid fuels for cooking in my home as well. We knew it was not great, and because my parents are well educated, we knew the unhealthy effects associated with them but the reality was that we couldn’t afford much else. Even after our finances improved and we made the switch to healthier gases, for festive occasions we still relied on solid fuels because it was cost prohibitive to cook with gas for my large family.

In my opinion, a great and sustainable approach here might be to treat the pursuit of clean cooking in developing nations like commercial issues, and not merely a question of foreign aid or assistance. Policy makers and social entrepreneurs who want to help need to consider this issue, not just as a charity case but in the more definable terms of demand and supply. That way, products can be designed to fulfil specific needs (say something with a smaller gas tank but that lasts far far longer when in use for cooking) at prices comparable to firewood.

A lot of people in developing countries believe that the traditional (unsafe) ways of cooking are easier and cheaper even though they often have to buy the firewood. However, the more we produce healthier options at affordable prices, the more poorer families can buy them and the quicker they can make the switch to clean cooking without it costing an arm and a leg.

Recommending reading:

Cover image of a woman and child cooking in the village in Sierra Leone via Shutterstock.

Enjoyed this post & want to show your gratitude? Then please support Eco Warrior Princess on Patreon!

More from Environment