This is the week when majority of Kenyans begin trooping to their rural homes as part of the end-of-year routine to bond with their blood relations. Most urbanites use the festive season to experiment with open-air cooking using firewood, charcoal and dry animal dung, a trend that took root during Covid- 19 pandemic for urbanites who relocated to rural areas.
Some, like those who went to rural Kisumu created special outdoor kitchens and dining areas for their families and guests.
Philip Ochieng, a resident of Kisumu says an outdoor kitchen allows for a unique ambience using elements like mood lighting and music and he feels relieved to visit home and embrace outdoor cooking as in the city he is confined indoors.
Linet Akinyi shares his sentiments. “I will have a makeshift kitchen outdoor which allows smoke to emit freely.”
This trend for open-air cooking coincides with a scientific report revealing that at least 23,000 Kenyans die annually from household air pollution largely attributed to cooking with fossil fuels such as kerosene and firewood, crop waste and animal dung.
A report by The Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) reveals the gruesome reality of using a high amount of pollutants that emanate from cooking with biogas and Kerosene with a capacity to produce harmful chemicals and gasses detrimental to human health.
Kemri scientists warn that cooking with these fuels equates to burning 100 cigarettes each hour, resulting in (household air pollution) HAP levels more than 100 times World Health Organisation (WHO) safe levels.
Kemri Director-General Prof Sam Kariuki says that HAP causes lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, ischemic heart disease, and stroke.
That is besides mounting evidence linking HAP to low birth weight, TB and cataracts and “the best option is to adopt clean cooking with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and electricity, being a longer-term aspiration,” says Prof Kariuki.
Data from WHO shows that 3.2 million people, including 237,000 children under the age of five, die each year from exposure to household air pollution.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 683,984 people die annually from HAP, accounting for 8.9 percent of all deaths.
HAP causes more deaths in sub-Saharan Africa than HIV/Aids, which accounts for 8.4 percent, and malaria, which accounts for 7.8 percent.
With 38 million healthy life years lost in the region, HAP accounts for almost eight percent of the total burden of disease in Sub-Saharan Africa.
But even as Kisumu residents embrace outdoor cooking using firewood, environmentalists have raised concerns on how the lifestyle has a direct impact on the forest cover in a region grappling with Kenya’s lowest forest cover in the face of the brunt of climate change.
The majority of people in Kisumu use firewood and charcoal, all from trees, according to Green Energy and Climate Change Department in Kisumu.
Currently, Kenya Forest Service (KFS) is working towards boosting forest cover since mass destruction of trees has had disastrous consequences with the lowest forest cover being in Migori at 0.64 percent and the highest being Homa Bay which at 2.6 percent.
Kisumu Director of Climate Change, Evans Gichana, says the region is bearing the brunt of climate change contributed by the low forest cover and which includes rising temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns and extreme climate events – like heavy rainstorms and record high temperatures.
Data from the Department of Energy and Industrialisation shows the county has 300,745 households with about t 18,000 households embracing clean energy which is about 0.6 percent of the households.
“The uptake of clean energy usage is still low,” says Joseph Oganga, the County Chief Officer, Energy and Industrialisation. “However, we are encouraging our people to utilize new technologies such as biogas in a county that has vast potential.”
A 2019 report from the Ministry of Energy and Clean Cooking Association of Kenya indicated rural areas, where 90 percent of households use wood stoves, compared to 70 percent nationwide faced the greatest health risks.
The first-of-its-kind survey also found that 80 percent of households relied solely on either charcoal or firewood as their primary cooking fuel, with Sh68 billion ($660 million) of charcoal consumed each year.
Kenya’s then Energy CS Charles Keter termed the situation “grave” and called for increased focus on more clean energy options like gas and electricity to the poor.
The widespread use of dirty fuels also contributes to climate change and deforestation, according to energy experts and Kenya committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent - where clean cooking will account for about 14 percent - under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and it hopes to meet this target by 2028.