/ 22 May 2024

Cleaner cooking fuels are a critical step towards health and sustainability in Africa

Blue Natural Gas Flame On A Domestic Cooker Gas Hob.
Clean cooking fuels are finally being taken seriously, gaining airtime at last year’s UN climate change conference, COP28. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Clean cooking fuels are finally being taken seriously, gaining airtime at last year’s UN climate change conference, COP28. Recently, global leaders convened a summit to ensure clean cooking access for all.

For those of us with privileged access, clean cooking means using fuels that are not polluting or harmful. They are safer because they don’t use poisonous fuels, open fires, dung or other harmful substances.

Surprisingly, in this modern age, four out of five people in Africa still cook using open fires or harmful fuels. This affects people unequally, particularly women and girls, and has severe environmental and health implications.

Around 80% of households in sub-Saharan Africa rely on biomass, such as wood, for cooking. 

For context, Power Shift Africa reported: “In 2022, approximately 3.2 million people died from complications resulting from household air pollution caused by polluting and inefficient cooking fuels and technologies. Women and children constitute the bulk of these fatalities, underscoring the disproportionate burden on the most vulnerable in our society.”

This is a serious problem. The International Energy Agency, which collaborates globally on energy policies, recently held a summit to address this issue. However, despite good intentions, the talks took place in Paris with little representation from African women.

An analysis of summit attendees found the following:

Women made up 26% of the attendees and that “only 38% of the attendees were from Africa, with just 14 African women included among 84 participants (17%). For a problem that predominantly affects African women, this is problematic for many reasons.”

Despite the focus on an important issue, the world is on a trajectory where, by 2030, around 60% of the global population will still lack access to clean cooking energy. This needs urgent rectification, as more than 3 million lives are at stake.

Holding the summit outside the continent does not inspire confidence. It suggests that the issue is beyond Africa’s control, reinforcing the “white saviour” narrative. France, for instance, contributes to energy poverty in Africa through its search for oil and gas.

Another issue with the summit was its promotion of liquified petroleum gas (LPG) as a solution. While LPG is a short-term fix, renewables offer long-term solutions and broader benefits. There is potential for renewables to play a larger role in electrification, given adequate commitment and financial support.

Reports also surfaced that TotalEnergies had pledged $400 million for LPG development. Given Total’s controversial history in Africa, this is concerning. Similarly, Shell pledged $200 million for cleaner cooking energies, which raises further doubts about fossil fuel companies’ involvement.

LPG has limitations, particularly in rural areas where access and affordability are issues, making it an unsustainable long-term solution.

The summit also suggested carbon credits as a solution. According to The Guardian, carbon credits are tradable “allowances” that supposedly compensate for carbon emissions by investing in environmental projects. However, these schemes often fail to offset the harms of carbon production and exaggerate their environmental benefits. Pushing renewable solutions would better serve those in need of clean cooking fuels.

Solving this problem requires grants, concessional loans and private sector involvement with regulations. More importantly, solutions must include input from African women, who are most affected.

In his critique of the summit, Mohammed Adow, founder and director of Power Shift Africa, said: “You can tell this statement has been created by a bunch of largely rich men, many of whom are from the Global North. There’s no mention of the absolute poverty and disempowerment of the women who are currently forced to use dirty fuels for cooking. 

“There is also no mention of developing a local economy in clean cooking technology that would be sustainable over the long term. What we need is a woman-centred approach that puts their needs first, not those of a greedy private sector looking to make profits. 

“There is a growing argument that most of the women who could afford and access gas for cooking could also afford and access electric cooking, which can be powered by renewable energy.”

It is essential that future summits avoid being captured by the fossil fuel industry and Western nations. African solutions are needed for African problems, with necessary support from those responsible for the energy crisis.

On a positive note, leaders such as Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan, played a key role in discussions and negotiations on this critical issue.