Close to 600 million Africans lack access to electricity. Power consumption per capita in sub-Saharan Africa is the lowest of all continents. It is currently estimated at 181 kilowatts per annum, paling significantly in comparison to 6,500 kilowatts per annum in Europe and 13,000 kilowatts per annum in the United States. Furthermore, Africa’s economy is highly energy ineflicient. According to published data , for example, Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP per unit of energy use in 2014 was 5.8 compared to 11.5 for both the EU and Indonesia, 10.7 in Latin America and the Caribbean and 7.7 for US. However, with over 60% of Africa’s most active population engaged in agriculture as a source of income, it is clear that Africa’s energy efliciency challenge is not simply an industrial or an electrical one.
In fact, a significant amount of Arica’s energy inefliciency comes from the cooking energy sector. Biomass accounts for more than 75% of the total primary energy consumption in most sub-Saharan African countries, when including the household-level fuel consumption for cooking and heating. The majority of the households in Sub-Saharan Africa rely on traditional biomass fuels such as wood and charcoal for cooking, and the way they are produced and consumed has serious implications for overall energy efliciency in the continent. Traditional methods of charcoal production are highly ineflicient, resulting in the loss of as much as 90% of the energy value contained in the wood. Efliciency at the point of fuel consumption varies depending on the type of cookstoves used, though most households are yet to turn to improved cookstoves that have higher thermal efliciency – while
cooking by traditional open air fires is still widely prevalent.
Approximately two-thirds of Africa’s greenhouse emission is from land use and land use change which includes forest degradation and deforestation linked to the production of fuel wood and charcoal. Therefore if we can improve the efliciency of their production and use, or if households can completely move away from traditional biomass fuels, it will contribute to the significant reduction of GHGs emission. This has a potential for a larger, tangible impact to the carbon footprint in Africa than any other interventions.
Clean cooking is not merely an energy issue. Indoor air pollution is also closely linked to cooking energy efliciency. According to a recent article in the BBC news , a report in The Lancet suggests that one in six deaths is related to air pollution with Somalia and Bangladesh amongst the worst affected. Indoor air pollution from burning wood and charcoal is a major contributor to heart disease, stroke and lung cancer with women and girls being most affected due to their household responsibilities and proximity to cookstoves. If cooking practices can change with a wide adoption of improved cookstoves or cleaner fuels, this will create double gains both in terms of energy efliciency and public health.
In 2016 The African Development Bank launched the New Deal on Energy with an aspirational goal to provide universal access to electricity and clean cooking solutions by 2025. With regard to cooking, this means introducing clean cooking solutions to 150 million households, in practice, this goal is going to be achieved by improving the charcoal production process, introducing clean and eflicient cookstoves and, importantly, developing alternative sources of cooking energy including biofuels (bio-ethanol, biomass pellets and bio-gas), bottled gas (liquefied petroleum gas or LPG), natural gas, and electricity
Whilst there is still considerable progress to be made by improving the charcoal production process and distributing eflicient cook stoves, the fact is that charcoal production and fuel wood still rely largely on unsustainable sources of biomass, and will continue to do so until substantial plantations of suitable tree species can be established. And as highlighted above, cooking energy systems based on solid fuels adversely affect the health of women and girls in particular.
A better though more challenging (more expensive in the short term) solution, is to move consumers up the cooking energy ladder away from solid fuels and onto liquid and gaseous fuels. Even though some of these fuels are fossil fuels, the emissions are substantially less than those from charcoal production and biomass . In addition, there are huge energy efliciency gains to be won from deploying cook stoves for liquid and gas fuels, which can be turned on and off depending on demand.
Interestingly, the most common response one hears when talking to consumers about moving away from solid fuel to gas or liquid fuels is that the food won’t taste the same (e.g. wood smoke flavours the meat, charcoal is best for roasting maize). Clearly there are massive cultural barriers to the adoption of new forms of cooking. Limited availability and high cost of cleaner fuels in the market are further slowing down the much needed transition. But the facts are clear: charcoal and wood fuel are driving deforestation in Africa; they represent a hugely ineflicient form of energy use; and they are causing premature deaths and poor health predominantly in women and girls. It’s time to join the African Development Bank in helping millions of Africans to climb up the cooking energy ladder.