Smoking hot: changing the way we cook

Wood fuel has a dirty reputation.

Used for home cooking, it generates indoor air pollution, the single biggest environmental hazard worldwide, with 4 million deaths every year. While agriculture pulls the strings of deforestation, fuel wood is a forest degradation culprit.

What’s more, wood fuel is mostly a black-market commodity with all the resulting consequences.

Wood also takes a long time to gather. It denies –often- women and children to allocate time for other activities like education, agriculture, health care, etc..

In the meantime, FAO reports that over 2.4 billion people cook their food using open fires and primitive stoves. In Africa, the dependence on wood fuel for cooking is over 60%, in Asia and Oceania it is over 40%.

Very few foods we eat can be consumed raw, especially those with high nutrition value, like meat or beans. Many cuisines in Africa and Asia are essentially slow cook based and if the wood fuel is not available, people resort to faster food options that are lower in nutrition. Cooking and boiling is also a way of killing pathogens and a preservation method because dried or smoked fish and meat can be saved for a rainy day. All in all, the food security of about of a third of the world’s population depends on wood fuel.

Experts gathered at the “Forest, Food and Energy” side event during the 44th session of the Committee on World Food Security agree: the demand for wood fuel in the developing regions will continue to rise, at least during the upcoming two decades. Wood fuel is here to stay, and it might be that, just like with any bad boy, we will need to figure out the right way of dealing with its trouble making.

According to Eva Müller (Director Forestry Policy and Resources Division, FAO) most of the wood fuel and charcoal is produced unsustainably: “It’s not like there are plantations that people cut down and replant, on the contrary, most of it is gathered and sold illegally or is unregulated.” On the consumer side, many stoves people use in Africa and Asia are not energy efficient and produce a lot of smoke that’s behind many deaths due to pneumonia, stroke, ischaemic heart disease and lung cancer.

Addressing these root causes has the potential to not only put charcoal in the same rank with other renewables, but can also turn it into a smart and affordable energy option for the regions with high poverty and high population growth.

Easier said than done. Clean cook stoves have been around for at least 20 years, but no magic happened: people keep using their old-school stoves and scavenge for branches from the nearby forests. The reasons behind it are many and some are sustainability puzzles of their own. One is, for instance, the land rights issue—the forest doesn’t belong to me, so why do I care to re-plant? Another is human behaviour and preferences, like the smoky taste that can only be achieved when cooking with charcoal.

Also many governments do not see forestry as a development activity. Which is a costly misconception as, for instance, according to Charles Leonard’s (Tanzania Forest Conservation Group), charcoal production in Tanzania alone contributes $1 billion to the economy, but most of it is in the shade.

In this side event, Kenyan family entrepeneur Teddy Kinyanjui (Cookswell Jikos) explained that the solution is not just in “improving the stoves”. In the 80’s, his father designed an improved “jiko”, a Kenyan ceramic stove. He taught people how to replicate it all around East Africa… But by making biomass cheaper and easier to use, people might actually burn more.

Teddy and his family came up with the “seed to ash” approach - a full cycle for making your own charcoal at home. The company helps people to grow their own firewood, process and use it more efficiently with an improved stove and add value by making food for sale. This innovation has led to creation of many street vendors -  a thriving sector in Kenya’s cities, where a growing middle class has started to eat out much more and where smoky barbeques are on demand.

Another exciting innovation Teddy and his partners in business came up with is coating tree seeds with charcoal dust which prevents them from being eaten by small rodents and insects. This way, more seeds sprout and there is no need to tinker with digging holes and planting seedlings. This strategy saves a lot of money and time.

In Kenya, like in Tanzania, the charcoal market is also not properly formalized. So, Cookswell Jikos recommends keeping the value with the end user, a person who grew the trees and made the fuel. “The best thing you can do with your own charcoal is value addition. Instead of selling charcoal to your neighbour, use it to prepare food!”, says Teddy. Here is where the mini bread making stoves and grills, introduced by his same company, come in handy.

The point is, Cookswell Jikos created a business ecosystem around sustainable fuel wood production, in which even the end users seem to be making money! Perhaps, it isn’t on a national scale yet, but it proves that sustainable fuel wood production is possible.

It also proves that we can talk about the environment and all that, but eventually it all boils down to the wallet. Businesses with a fresh look at the existing market structures and with sustainability at heart can bring about the sustainable change we all aspire to, even in places where governance isn’t the best.


This blogpost covers the CFS44 side event " Forest, Food and Energy”

Blogpost by Ekaterina Bessonova, #CFS44 Social Reporter – ekaterina.bessonova(at)
Photo Credit: Chris Rhoads via Unsplash

This post is part of the live coverage during the 44th Session of the Committee on World Food Security, a social media project supported by GFAR. This post is written by one of our social reporters, and represents the author’s views only.

12/10/2017 10:38


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