More awareness needed for use of cookstoves

April 16, 2024


According to experts, the use of cookstoves helps to reduce illnesses such as asthma, lung diseases, pneumonia, cancer and other respiratory illnesses.  

“You see people that don't smoke but have respiratory problems,” says Dr. Emmanuel Ekyinabah, a consultant physician at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center and a member of the A.M. Dogliotti College of Medicine. “They have cancer and breathing problems caused by inhaling charcoal smoke,” he added.

Although the use of cookstoves is highly recommended, according to former head of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) Nathanial Blama, increased awareness is needed for people to understand both its health and economic benefits. Blama says using less charcoal also means more funds for other family expenses.

He adds that clean cookstoves reduce dependence on forests to produce charcoal but should only be considered a short-term solution and that Liberia must transition to gas stoves eventually. About a quarter of Liberians have access to electricity, according to a 2020 World Bank Report, and only 8 percent are in rural areas, so electric stoves are not a possibility for many.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), reducing air pollution is an urgent priority, especially among vulnerable groups, including children, the elderly, and pregnant women. WHO further states that the quality of air in Liberia is moderately unsafe based on limited data. 

Liberia has fallen far short in meeting its goals to address the environmental and health challenges of deforestation. In 2015, Liberia was among 196 countries that signed the Paris Agreement to reverse global warming by drastically reducing the use of “fossil fuels” — gas, oil, and charcoal. And Liberia was among 141 countries that pledged to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030. Two years later, experts say, the government has done little.

Meanwhile, the charcoal sector has become one of the most active industries in Liberia. A 2019 World Bank report stated that about 337,000 tons of charcoal — worth US$46 million — was sold in 2018, employing 28,000 people. 

Most Liberians hold on to their traditional cookpot which is susceptible to causing respiratory illnesses due to it producing high levels of smoke while in use. 

Although Deborah Ellis had a cookstove, she held on to using her cookpot until the day it was damaged and she had no alternative but to use the cookstove. Asked why she held on to the cookpot, Ellis says she did not trust the cookstove.

However, she is continuing to use the cookstove only because she is experiencing more benefits with it than the cookpot. She says the cookstove “produces less smoke, more heat, and fewer ashes, and cooked food faster”. 

Nonetheless, the biggest issue is how to persuade the rest of the nation to make the switch from generations of cookpot use. Even if, like Ellis, they can afford a cleaner cook stove that uses less charcoal and releases less carbon dioxide and other potentially dangerous gasses into the atmosphere, awareness is needed to impart their knowledge.  

Environment experts and the United Nations recommend a change to cleaner cookstoves from the open fire and three-stone methods of using cookpots are crucial to both the country’s health and environment.

Each year Liberia is losing thousands of acres of forests that are cut down to produce charcoal. This increases climate change, flooding, and air pollution. Cookpots are often used in confined areas with little ventilation, exposing families to air pollution which causes diseases such as asthma, lung disease, pneumonia, and cancer. 

A combination of factors has caused Liberia to lag far behind its goals to change to healthier and more environmentally protective cookstoves.  Liberian manufacturers of cookpots and cookstoves say they face high costs in finding and importing parts, in addition to marketing and distribution problems. 

The few imported cookstoves available are cheaper than some locally produced cookpots because of credits paid by polluters in other countries, but even they may be too expensive, particularly in rural areas. 

Liberia has fallen far short in meeting its goals to address the environmental and health challenges of deforestation. In 2015, Liberia was among 196 countries that signed the Paris Agreement to reverse global warming by drastically reducing the use of “fossil fuels” — gas, oil, and charcoal. And Liberia was among 141 countries that pledged to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030. Two years later, experts say, the government has done little.

Meanwhile, the charcoal sector has become one of the most active industries in Liberia. According to the Liberia Forest Sector Project (LFSP 2016-2023) report of 2018-2019 of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), charcoal consumption in Liberia in 2018 was estimated at 337,000 tons of charcoal — worth US$46 million — employing 28,000 people on a ‘full-time equivalent’ basis. 

Climate entrepreneurship  

While trees are important to the environment because they absorb greenhouse gasses, so they can help reduce the effects of climate change, one major factor in climate change is cutting them down to produce charcoal.

To combat deforestation, Victor Willie sought Google for help by researching how to transform bio-degradable waste into carbonized briquettes and founded Eco-coal Fuel in 2021 to produce briquettes as an alternative to replace conventional wood-based charcoal. “It is smokeless, safe, and helps to save the environment,” he says.

In Liberia, a huge reliance on wood and charcoal for cooking is depleting the forest, which hosts half of the remaining rainforest in West Africa. The country has lost 150,000 hectares of natural forest, according to Global Forest Watch. A World Bank 2023 Poverty Assessment Report stated that each person consumes an average of up to 2 hectares of forest per year. 

The most effective way to immediate change, all agree, is to produce and distribute cookstoves. But local producers say they are beset with challenges.  The German Development Cooperation (GIZ), through its jointly supported program Energizing Development, has trained artisanal cookstove producers like Red Fire Pot by providing funds to help strengthen their businesses and has been a leader in bolstering the production of cookstoves in Liberia and other countries. 

“The market for improved cookstoves in Liberia is rather promising. Many of the challenges we observe are quite common in new markets,” says Elton Reeves, adviser on the clean cooking industry at EnDev-GIZ.  “Limited awareness about the benefits, underdeveloped distribution networks, and supply chain constraints pose substantial hurdles,” he says.

Encouraging local production is one way to increase the number of cookstoves. The other is by import. Carbonibus, a private carbon offset project, offers a small number of imported cookstoves that sell for less than US$40, the result of carbon offsetting.  Deborah Ellis, who reluctantly switched from a cookpot, has one. 

The program provides clean cooking stoves for a cost of $35 and $25, depending on size, a portion of market value, says Kate Bakal, co-founder and head of programs for Carbonibus in Liberia. 

In 2021, with just an idea and help from search engines, Willie decided to help. He, along with a few volunteers, sawdust, coconut shells, and leaves to produce carbonized briquettes. 

“We get the coconut shell from people selling coconut, and we sometimes go from house to house asking for waste from people,” he says.

Willie says processing carbonized briquettes for production is simple and requires less labor as opposed to regular charcoal which may take weeks to months before getting into the market.  

The World Bank Poverty Assessment report stated that using cleaner fuels that meet international indoor quality guidelines has the potential to prevent deaths and health impacts from household indoor air pollution while reducing emissions that contribute to climate change.

However, the report added that achieving clean cooking would require the availability of affordable energy sources such as Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), natural gas and electricity, and a range of technologies across the country.

Carbon offsetting is a process that permits polluters who release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to financially assist countries, like Liberia, experiencing a negative climate impact. The money would go for activities like planting trees, establishing wind and solar power systems — and clean cookstoves. 

Some cooking equipment manufacturers oppose the offset program for cookstoves because they are afraid the lower prices will undercut the domestic market. They say they won’t be able to compete because of high import fees and distribution costs. 

“The issue of carbon credit is one major issue that is threatening our very existence. We need to find ways to be able to resolve the issue or else we will have serious issues with continuity,” says A. Mohammed Barrie, founder of the Muhumma’s Partnership for Development in Africa.

Barrie says that his organization is in negotiation with a company in Denmark to import solar cookstoves. 

“Our solar cookstove has the solar panel, and it has a battery, and the cook itself and the other accessories you can use to charge your phone and put your light buds on basically is meant for cooking,” Barrie adds. 

The cookpot/cookstove industry has pledged to push for changes that will protect the environment better. Richard Dordor, president of the Charcoal Union, says the organization is promoting efficient and sustainable charcoal consumption by replanting trees and producing stove cans to contain the smoke.

“Charcoal can come from other sources, not just trees and agricultural waste,” Dordor says, suggesting coconut shells as an alternative.

Clean cookstoves were part of Liberia’s 2015 Rural Energy Strategy Master Plan to make available clean cookstoves, solar lamps, and efficient appliances to all rural inhabitants by 2030. The plan called for the distribution of electricity to the population outside of Monrovia— reaching 10 percent in 2020, 20 percent in 2025, and 35 percent in 2030. Progress is already off track. By 2021 less than 8 percent of rural Liberians had electricity. Officials concede these goals will be difficult to meet.

Steven Payma, business development consultant for the Rural and Renewable Energy Agency that is spearheading the plan, says the government has not provided the necessary funding to transition to cookstoves.

Payma says there is a need to implement programs that will subsidize the cost of clean stoves, but this kind of financing opportunity has not been accessed. 

Market expansion of cookstoves 

Meanwhile, Carbonibus, the carbon offsetting project, has promised to collaborate with existing businesses, on producing and distributing clean cookstoves. “This may involve setting up an assembly line with the assistance of local manufacturers or partnering with existing cookstove distributors to distribute our improved cookstoves,” Bakal says.

Carbon credits are a new market that Liberia can explore given its vast forests that store carbon to reduce emissions, but the government has no official policies or procedures regarding carbon credits, environmental experts say. 

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) head of Inclusive Green Growth, E. Abrahman Tumbey says Liberia can leverage opportunities in the carbon market as required in the 2015 Paris Agreement but must establish procedures to allocate the funds, particularly focusing on establishing “how the communities in the forest areas get a share of those resources”.

For the past three years, UNDP and EPA partnered with Green Gold Liberia to train women in seven counties, including Gbarpolu, Bong, Bomi, and Grand Cape Mount, to make clean cookstoves. Approximately 111 women trained produce 1,110 stoves. 

In March this year, UNDP and EPA convened a one-day carbon readiness retreat in Margibi County to engage stakeholders in how Liberia can venture into the carbon market. Moses Massah, head of the Energy and Environment Program at the UNDP, agrees that producing low-cost stoves is critical and that the price must be subsidized to be affordable. Massah called on the government to increase funding for the EPA to enable the entity to function effectively. “Environment and climate are the bedrock for sustainable development so if the government is pushing to promote sustainable development, then they have to increase budgetary allocation for the environment,” he said.  

Article source writer: TINA S. MEHNPAINE of Daily Observer Liberia