Written by: Cassey Shapiro
It’s a little known problem that one of the biggest killers in Africa (and indeed the world) comes from something as innocuous as cooking. According to the International Energy Agency, 66% of SubSaharan Africa has no access to modern energy, resulting in the prevalence of indoor open fire cooking across hundreds of thousands of homes in villages all over Africa.
As a result of indoor open fire cooking thick smoke fills the house causing a whole host of health and environmental problems for the families that live there. Health problems such as strokes, pneumonia, respiratory disease and cataracts are rife in households where people are regularly exposed to indoor cooking smoke. It’s also a major contributor to childhood pneumonia, where cooking smoke exposure doubles the risk of developing pneumonia in children under the age of five.
In fact, according to the World Health Organisation, cooking on open fires is responsible for over 4 million deaths globally per year, which is more than AIDS and Malaria combined. Considering the sheer amount of media and press that is devoted to both those causes, it’s staggering that there’s little awareness of indoor cooking smoke which is more devastating and yet simpler to combat.
￼￼And this issue doesn’t only fall in the areas of health and socio-economics, it’s also an environmental issue, with forests in Africa felled for fuel use. Cooking over an open fire causes the same amount of greenhouse gases in one year as a large SUV. In households using rudimentary stoves the burning of inefficient fuels such as charcoal causes the emission of black carbon – which results from incomplete combustion – and is a major contributor to climate change. Many villages in Africa also depend on the use of paraffin, which is incredibly dangerous – 3 000 house fires are caused in South Africa alone due to incidences where paraffin appliances malfunction or are knocked over. Paraffin is often stored in Coca Cola bottles, a clever recycled way of distributing it, but often children can mistake the clear fluid for water and drink it.
The health, environmental and socioeconomic problems associated with this seem insurmountable, but the trials of clean cookstoves in countries such as Malawi have shown promising initial results in the reduction of cooking smoke. With people inhaling up the the equivalent of two packets of cigarettes a day when exposed to indoor cooking smoke, the simple reduction of smoke provides negligible health benefits.
One Lesotho-based company is spearheading change, producing and distributing completely smokeless cookstoves called the ACE 1 UltraClean Biomass Cookstove. With a background in environmental engineering, co-founder Ruben Walker is excited by the positive effects that the ACE 1 has had on people’s lives. “This is a stove that people really love using. It’s such a simple solution to an ongoing problem. It’s designed so that there is no smoke from the combustion of biomass fuels,” he explains. “The outside of the stove remains cool enough that it never poses a burn risk. We believe this to be the safest alternative to open flames and other dangerous cooking methods.”
The ACE 1 aims to revolutionise the fuel market by encouraging the use of biomass fuel pellets. It works through a fan that forces oxygen into the combustion chamber, thus using a gasification process to ensure efficient combustion, reduction of CO2 emissions and complete elimination of smoke. Biomass Pellets are often made from industrial/recycled/agricultural wood waste such as sawdust and burn extremely efficiently. They’re much cheaper to purchase than other fuels such as paraffin and charcoal, and they’re much more sustainable. “We want to set up geographically based hubs where people can get access to stove technicians and buy their pellets from. We don’t want to just distribute the stoves and leave, it’s important to us to be able support our customers”, says Ruben.
The ACE 1 also features a solar panel and USB and DC ports, effectively bringing a micro-grid into the home. It means people can charge their mobile phones, and with over 80% of Africans owning one, this is an attractive feature, allowing for entrepreneurial opportunities. One orphan girl in the Lesothan village of Makeneng said that she plans on charging her neighbours to charge their phones with the stove, rather than having them walking 23 kilometres every few days to do it in a neighbouring village. This initiative is part of African Clean Energy’s The Lesotho Orphans Project, which accepts donations to distribute stoves to orphaned families with underage or elderly people at the head of them.
It is difficult to change existing behaviours and clean stoves are often abandoned in favour of traditional methods. Yet there is now growing support for clean cookstove projects, with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves aiming to distribute clean cookstoves to 100 million households by 2020. Hillary Clinton supports the cause, and Julia Roberts is an ambassador - both speaking out to increase awareness of the dangers of indoor cooking smoke.
It is key that African Clean Energy grows to a scale that the stove is as affordable as possible, so that even the poorest can get access to one. “We are currently running a carbon credit project in townships across Port Elizabeth, South Africa, distributing over one thousand stoves to local residents. By condensing a significant amount of stoves in one area we will be able to earn carbon credits, which will be used to subsidize the stove and subsequent fuel purchases for the final user.” says Ruben. This ensures that customers have lasting economic benefits from using the ACE 1. The results from this trial will inform future rollouts in similar areas.
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