Essay Contest 2019 - Second prize in category Energy in Africa: The importance of Clean Cooking Facilities for the Sustainable Development of Sub-Saharan Africa

The purpose of this article is to provide a close-up on access to energy, safety and sustainability in developing countries, where often big problems are hidden in daily life. Cooking habits in developing countries are responsible for millions of deaths every year and directly contribute to climate change. Access to safe and clean energy is fundamental for human development. A strong link between energy access and socioeconomic growth is proven [1]. To achieve the v, some specific programs are now running all over the world, like “Sustainable Energy for All”, that foresee the universal adoption of clean cooking stoves and electricity by 2030. How much cooking habits can influence the quality of life and affect the environment? 

About 2.7 billion people in the world (40% of total population), still rely on traditional solid fuels [2], such as charcoal and firewood (also known as woodfuels), to cook every day. This number is well reflected in the situation in Sub-Sahara Africa, where only 17% of the population have clean cooking access [3]. From the environmental point of view, firewood harvest contributes to deforestation and climate change: some areas, like Ethiopia, are facing severe problems of desertification, also due to industrial sector and international wood trade. In Sub-Saharian Africa (SSA), woodfuels are responsible for 75% of total wood harvest [2]. Here the number of people that rely on firewood is expected to increase in the next decades, exacerbating the situation. In general, half of the total wood harvest of the world is used as fuel for cooking and heating, representing 9% of the global primary energy supply [4]. 

Figure 1. Energy access in new policies scenario [3]

The severe impact on global environmental perspective is here evident. When the wood is burned in open fire, that is the most common cooking way, the low quality of combustion leads to a big release of particulate matter and black carbon, or “soot”. Black carbon has been recently identified as the second largest contributor to anthropogenic climate forcing (between 35-42% of the total) after carbon dioxide emissions [4]. Several health threats are hidden in this cooking habit. Usually people cook inside their houses, with insufficient or absent ventilation system, which often results in acute respiratory infections among children under 5 years old, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic obstructive lung disease for women and low birth weight. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost two million deaths per year are associated with indoor air pollution, the same number of deaths caused by malaria and tuberculosis combined [5]. The numbers given by the IEA are even higher: 2.6 million premature deaths are associated with poor cooking facilities [3]. The most affected categories are children and women because they may spend more hours per day inside the house. Moreover, they are usually in charge of collecting the wood, covering a long distance, sometimes in war areas with all the risks connected. 

Figure 2. Traditional kitchen house in Zimbabwe, with closed
roof and insufficient ventilation [6]

The International community, the UN and NGOs put many efforts to spread a cheap solution to improve the current situation: the adoption of an Improved Biomass Cooking Stove (ICS), a device that allows a more controlled, higher quality and insulated combustion, reducing both the consumption of biomass and the emissions. The main benefits of an ICS are linked to the fuel savings, and can be measured in money savings, quicker cooking process, a reduction in time dedicated to fuel collection and a reduction of the emissions. 

In the firsts spread programs, the ICSs were distributed for free to the population, in order to obtain a quick technological penetration also in cases of extreme poverty. The most recent experiences show instead the importance of involving local artisans and small-scale producers in the manufacturing of ICS, in order to establish a local sustainable market, and to better understand the specific needs in terms of design and materials. A successful example is the centrafricain improved stove, a practical and durable solution: a metallic structure covers a clay wall around the combustion chamber. It is light and affordable; the price is between 7.62 – 11.43 €. After a testing period in the Valley of Logone River (Chad and Cameroon), it has been
proved that the centrafricain stove can lead to significant wood savings: up to -35%, with respect to the open fire three stones stove, while preparing a traditional meal. There are also economic benefits: cooking is 18% cheaper for an average family in a 5-year timeframe [7].

Figure 3. Centrafricain Impoved Stove [8]

Many other stoves have been applied in real cases, some of them more successful, while others abandoned by the households after being used few times. What determines the success of an ICS it is not yet clear, but the benefits of the ICS have been widely proved in lab tests. In spite the evident benefits of the adoption of this simple solution for the everyday life, often take-up rates are very low, in particular in Sub-Saharan Africa. The reasons hidden under these failures have been investigated, but the specificity of the different cases and the difficulty in collecting data in such situations hardly allow an effective analysis [7].

When applied in the field, there is an incomplete knowledge on how to optimally use the new stove, or poor material design that can lead to an early ware out. Moreover, the stove should be able to prepare hot and tasty food according to the local habits and traditions, so if the community is not involved in the design of the stove, this will probably be inadequate and not accepted. The price of the fuel can also determine the perception of the benefits: if wood is collected for free, then the savings will not be considered from the economic point of view. In the end, the problem of spreading the cooking stoves is more related to any other socio-cultural aspect rather than the efficiency. 

The ICSs are a potential cheap and easy solution to reduce the threats of traditional cooking, but in real situations, many soft aspects play a key role. Social, cultural, economic aspects are directly related to the potential success of high scale intervention in developing countries.
Understanding in detail all of them is very difficult; however, there have been successful experiences, showing that failures are always related to poor planning and understanding of the situation. If given an adequate solution, people are strongly willing to improve their life [2]. The problems related to cooking with firewood and charcoal affect almost half of the world population, so they must be considered on global scale. Climate change, sustainable human development, energy access, energy equity are realities that nowadays need worldwide involvement and commitment, to understand the needs and to find solutions in an effective way.

By: Luigi Ghiani

Published on: 07.02.2019


[1] UN. (2015). Millennium Development Goals Report.

[2] Pamela Jagger, C. J. (2016). Stoves or sugar? Willingness to adopt improved cook stoves in Malawi.

[3] IEA. (2017). Sustainable Development Goal 7. [Online] Available at:

[4] Robert Bailis, R. (2015). The carbon footprint of traditional woodfuels.

[5] World Health Organization. (2016).

[6] Ghiani, L. (2016).

[7] Benscha. (2015). Why do households forego high returns from technology adoption? Evidence from improved cooking stoves in Burkina Faso.

[8] Benscha, G. (2015). The intensive margin of technology adoption – Experimental evidence on improved cooking stoves in rural Senegal.

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