Cooking up energy solutions

Lessons learned from China's national policy to promote the use of improved cookstoves in rural areas may prove useful if Kenya implements recommendations made by civil organizations in East Africa, including international NGOs.

Such organizations have played an increasingly important role in the design of the country's energy action plan.

"Use of firewood in homes has been proven to aggravate the socio-economic situation of women and girls, as they are the primary users of open fires and traditional stoves," says Grace Mukasa, regional director of Practical Action, a development charity registered in the United Kingdom.

The group works directly in the developing world, with particular concentration in Africa on Kenya, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Practical Action works with poor communities to develop appropriate technologies in renewable energy, food production and other areas.

It is estimated that on average about 70 percent of Africa's population lacks access to modern and clean forms of energy. Close to 3 billion people worldwide are still using traditional stoves for cooking and heating their homes. This affects about 15 million homes with 4 million people dying annually due to complications arising from using firewood. Fifteen thousand deaths yearly are recorded in Kenya alone.

"You cannot talk about energy without addressing health and gender issues," Mukasa says.

The group drew attention to these problems once they were included in the action plan formulation by the government. Launched by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2012, the Sustainable Energy for All initiative works to involve all sectors of society - business, governments, investors, community groups and academia - in coming up with ways governments can expand access to clean and modern energy.

"We brought to the table the realities of people who are not connected to the grid. These people are not only looking for lighting solutions in their homes but want total energy access," says Lydia Muchiri, Practical Action's program manager for energy and gender in East Africa. Total energy access means energy for all home uses and other needs such as business.

Renewable energy solutions such as solar, biomass (using plant and animal waste as fuel), biothermal (generating heat via composting) and improved cookstoves are prioritized.

"We know of instances where power lines pass through homesteads, leaving occupants unconnected for a long time. If we are to achieve energy access to all, we need to adopt renewable energy solutions," says Muchiri.

A study carried out by Practical Action in western Kenya saw women asking for improved cooking solutions. This is because it was time consuming to light open fires in the morning to cook breakfast, resulting in school-going children leaving hungry. This applied during lunch hours, too.

"Women therefore want a quick solution that will see the family fed on time, leaving them with time to engage in business," says Muchiri.

Use of an improved cookstove would save from 20 percent up to 67 percent of firewood, improve health for women and children given that smoke is significantly reduced, conserve the environment including reduction of forest degradation, and cut the time that women spend gathering wood and cooking, enabling them to spend more time with their businesses.

According to a World Bank report, China is among the few countries that have prioritized the use of improved cookstoves. The country launched a national improved stoves program in the 1980s and '90s, making it one of the largest and most successful national programs. About 180 million improved, lower-cost stoves were distributed.

China is the world's largest producer of stoves that burn biomass, and accounts for the greatest number of installed biogas digesters, which are systems that break down animal waste into usable gas. The country also has the largest stock of solar cookers.

The organization also found out that women are seeking reliable and affordable ways to improve their businesses. Women in northern Kenya struggled to compete in the camel milk business because they lacked storage facilities, according to Practical Action. But after the group spoke with local government officials, a solar cooling plant was provided, which changed the women's business fortunes.

"They can now transport milk to the processors and have started adding value by manufacturing yogurt," says Mukasa. The value chain has been improved and so has their socio-economic situation.

The government has been receptive to the issues raised by Practical Action during the consultative forum, Mukasa says. The group participated in several meetings that helped produce two documents that spell out areas of government focus in achieving its energy distribution goals and funding requirements.

The documents, an action plan and investor prospectus were presented recently in a two-day forum that saw such stakeholders as the donor community, private sector, energy experts and non-governmental organizations deliberate and propose changes. In the draft proposals, implementation of improved cookstoves was prioritized.

Government institutions have begun developing quality standards. According to the Kenya Industrial Research and Redevelopment Institute, the National Stove Testing Center has been established to develop various models of improved stoves for domestic use.

Drawing from their mandate and lessons from China's initiative, Practical Action officials say they want to create greater awareness about the challenges, tradeoffs and benefits of the proposed solutions. They say they hope this will prompt greater acceptance of the technology by the rural population.

Muchiri says they expect this to be achieved through public forums in which women will be trained to use the stoves. Village vocational institutions will also be encouraged to come up with programs to build the local capacity to repair the stoves.

"We have also emphasized the need for constant monitoring and evaluation of these programs to track progress and challenges. Most homesteads are used in the traditional way and it may take time and a lot of convincing to achieve a transition to modern ways of cooking. Our participation is needed to ensure national success," Mukasa says.

Finally, Mukasa says government subsidies will also be needed to ensure that the stoves and other renewable energy solutions are affordable.

lucymorangi@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily Africa Weekly 03/20/2015 page7)

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