Rwanda’s health and forests need a clean break with cook stoves

Rwanda should aim to fully phase out the use of wood and charcoal for energy by the end of the decade.

This morning as I headed into work in Kigali, truckload after truckload filled with charcoal rumbled by me. Most would be sold in different sizes from a full bag of RWF 15 thousand to  small bundles of RWF 1 thousand to fire up household stoves for the evening meal. 

Although these truckloads of charcoal are a common sight, I always find them unsettling. As head of the Sustainable Growth team at UNDP Rwanda, I recently led the launch of a green project to restore 263,000 hectares of damaged forests and biodiversity in the MAYAGA region. That charcoal cargo represents yet another forest area destroyed, and the further impoverishment of Rwanda’s rich ecosystems. Even as Rwanda replants trees, more forests are felled for fuel.  It is as if we are giving a patient blood infusion in their right arm, while they bleed from their left.

This outcome is not inevitable. According to the National Strategy for Transformation (2017-2024), more than 83.3% of households in 2014 were dependent on firewood as a source of energy for cooking. Rwanda aims to reduce the percentage of households using wood fuel and charcoal for cooking from 83.3% in 2014 to 42% in 2024. But this effort is stalling.

We need to be more ambitious. Rather than gradually reducing dependence on forests for fuel, Rwanda should aim to fully phase out the use of wood and charcoal for energy by the end of the decade. This would inspire innovative action and more rapidly position Rwanda as a middle-income, climate-resilient and low-carbon economy by 2035. It would also save lives.

Currently, some 1.9 million out of 2.41 million Rwandan households use wood and charcoal for cooking, creating a dispersed but massive problem of indoor air pollution.  

Indoor air pollution is so damaging to health that in 2004 the World Health Organization labeled it the “Killer in the Kitchen.” Globally, it causes more than 4 million premature deaths every year—50 percent of which are children under the age of 5. Close to half of deaths due to pneumonia among children under 5 years of age are caused by soot inhaled from household air pollution. 

Clearly, we have good reasons to end the use of firewood and charcoal for cooking, and strategies have been tested to promote the shift to low-carbon energy sources. Energy-efficient cooking stoves, the use Liquified Petroleum gas (LPG) and of biogas have all been tested in urban and rural areas of this country of one thousand hills.

But these proposed solutions have been constrained by cost, availability, and acceptability. For instance, 6kg of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG)—the minimum cylinder size available on the market—costs RWF 6,000.  This is three times as much as many Rwandans earn in a day, and 60 times more than they would spend on a daily purchase of charcoal for cooking.

We have had more success with biogas—but mainly in large-group settings like prisons and schools. As of 2018, all of the nation’s prisons were using biogas from latrines for cooking. Unfortunately, it has been a less viable solution for rural households that cannot afford maintenance cost.

The main solution promoted for household use, has been more energy-efficient cook stoves, which has attracted millions of dollars from donor funding.  The World Bank’s largest clean cooking operation in Africa is in Rwanda. While this approach may gradually reducing dependence on firewood, it does not end the destruction of Rwanda’s forests. And, for a variety of reasons, households have hesitated to embrace it—not only in Rwanda but globally as well.

To be sure, it is worthwhile to minimize harm. But to center policy on a half-way measure when total transformation is needed will only prolong the agony of the patient.

It is time to move on from partial solutions to accelerating a fundamental shift to alternative energy sources. Government agencies, private companies, and donors need to rigorously investigate and scale up alternative energy sources.  Promising alternatives include:

·      Transformation of municipal waste into clean cooking energy

·      The ecologically sound production of biofuel crops such as maize, sugarcane and cassava

·      Capture of methane gas from the waters of Rwanda’s many lakes, including Lake Kivu

·      Expansion of biogas use in large group settings such as schools and hospitals

In addition, policies must more clearly support the development of viable alternatives for Rwanda’s poor households. Just last month, His Excellence President Paul Kagame restated the county’s intended shift to “incentivizing renewable energy and reducing subsidies for fossil fuels”.  Such policy action will spur more rapid change.

Rwanda’s partners are committed to support the country’s clean, green development.  Together, we can implement transformative solutions—and make a clean break with households’ use of firewood and charcoal by 2030.