Dirty fuels thrive as investment in clean cooking falls short

A boda boda rider ferrying charcoal to Migori with passenger perched precariously on the cargo. (Caleb Kingwara, Standard)

Meagre investment is hindering countries’ ability to meet a global target to ensure universal access to clean, modern cooking fuel by 2030 and end the millions of deaths caused by indoor pollution every year, say clean energy experts.

Three billion people globally cook with dirty solid fuels such as charcoal and wood on open fires or traditional stoves that produce high levels of carbon monoxide, killing four million people annually, says the World Health Organisation.

The use of dirty fuels for cooking also contributes to deforestation and climate change - accounting for approximately two per cent of global carbon emissions, equivalent to annual air travel emissions, according to the World Bank.

Businesses developing solutions ranging from energy efficient cooking stoves to biomass renewable fuels have mushroomed in recent years, but many lack funds to offer affordable products to poor communities in the developing world.

“No one’s life should be limited by the way they cook, yet globally three billion people depend on polluting open fires or inefficient harmful stoves to cook their food,” said Dymphna van der Lans, chief executive of the Clean Cooking Alliance.

“Despite its far reaching benefits, clean cooking is too often seen as a second tier priority. The level of funding in the sector falls far short of sufficiently matching the global magnitude of this challenge,” she said, referring to a clean cooking target set by countries as part of 17 goals know as the Sustainable Development Goals.

Total investment in clean cooking businesses was $40 million (Sh4 billion) in 2017. The Clean Cooking Alliance estimates $4 billion (Sh400 billion) is required annually to ensure universal access to cleaner options of cooking by 2030.

With population growth outpacing the number of people gaining access in clean cooking by four times, World Bank officials warn that 2.2 billion people will still not have access by the end of the next decade if current trends continue.

Campaigners attribute the failure to attract credible funding to multiple factors. The industry has a much lower profile than other social business sectors such as solar energy and micro-finance, which attract high levels of funding, while many countries lack specific policies to promote the sector, they say.

One of the biggest challenges to attracting investment is consumer demand, say clean energy experts. Many communities lack awareness about the harmful health and environmental impacts and see a clean cook stove as an unnecessary expense when firewood is free.

“People have been cooking traditionally for hundreds and thousands of years and it’s difficult to move away from that,” said Olivia Coldrey, lead finance specialist from Sustainable Energy for All. “So if you take a rural women who has always cooked using firewood, it’s difficult to get her to change her behaviour by saying I am going to give you a cook stove and you are going to pay for it.”

Coldrey said countries needed to treat the dangers faced by dirty cooking in the way they responded to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and a global campaign should be launched to promote awareness - not just for consumers, but also donors and investors.

“We haven’t eradicated HIV AIDS, but we’ve made people’s lives a lot easier,” she said. “We need a similar sort of campaign giving out a simple message - after all, it’s killing millions of people.”

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