Biomass to Electricity: Mulago Hospital experiment producing results

September 20, 2021

Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit kitchen staff have used firewood as the primary source of fuel

Through our solutions mapping exercise, the UNDP Uganda Accelerator Lab team released an open call for solutions to address the problem of deforestation in Uganda. From over 200 solutions, one particular submission sparked the interest of our team. That submission came from the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA).

As of October 2020, Uganda was generating 1,023.59 MW of hydro power. This hydro power is constantly being extended to different districts of Uganda and offers more than enough in terms of energy consumption for the country. Despite this, most Ugandans still use biomass (organic matter used as fuel) for most of their cooking needs, contributing greatly to the glaring problem of deforestation. This is partly contributed to by a stiff tariff making cooking with electricity an expensive venture. It is against under this backdrop that ERA applied to test electric cooking using the most appropriate tariff to encourage its use in high biomass consumption institutions like schools, hospitals and prisons.

Together with ERA, we decided to co-experiment and dive deeper, starting with Mulago National Referral Hospital. The hospital’s main kitchen and the Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit kitchen were to be fully converted to electric kitchens with an approved lowered tariff by the ERA board to aid the initial testing.

Entering the Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit at Mulago Hospital

Walking into the Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit kitchen to understand what was currently being used for cooking, the Accelerator Lab team found ourselves coughing and struggling to breathe due to the excessive smoke from burning firewood. Reflecting on our experience as we left the hospital, we could not help but wonder how those working in the kitchen, preparing nutritious meals to nourish children back to health, worked in this type of environment each and every day. On top of the smoke challenge, staff would often find that firewood was not dry enough, leading to delays in preparation and delivery of meals.

“We mainly use firewood and using firewood has many challenges,” explains Dr. Esther Babirekere, Paediatrician at Mulago Hospital. “Lighting these stoves can be a difficult task and firewood can generate a lot of smoke which is not healthy. We are preparing many meals each day and it can be a difficult task for our staff, so an alternative approach would make things easier.”

A reconstruction of the Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit kitchen was proposed, with the new design aiming to give staff a cleaner a more efficient space to work and serve. Electrical connections are ongoing to isolate the two kitchens from the main supply of the hospital and have them each on separate meters. This will aid in having a clear picture of electric consumption in the independent kitchens. In addition, baseline measurement and observation studies are being conducted to give a comparative picture. Meanwhile, to ensure continuity of service, we relocated staff to a temporary kitchen as construction and installation goes on in their kitchen.

The newly constructed kitchens of the Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit

Despite ongoing restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, the teams have managed to proceed with the reconstruction and civil electrical and mechanical works of the redesign for the kitchen, which are nearing completion. As we conclude the construction and baseline studies, we have been thrilled to learn some key lessons.

Unintended positive impacts: While we set out to pilot test electric cooking in the hospitals, the administration enlightened us on the several impacts and the lives this project could potentially change. The primary source of treatment in the Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit of the hospital is nourishment back to health of malnourished children. The hospital stays of these children are usually very long. With conversion to electric cooking, the hope is that food will be prepared in a timely fashion and in turn hospital stays may be reduced.

Partnership the key to success: With COVID-19 restricting movement, it was possible that we may have needed to pivot our approach. However, co-experimenting with ERA and the Mulago Hospital team has enabled us to see progress during this period from getting special permissions to carry out this work with standard operating procedures in place. The partnering teams have also been key in providing technical guidance on the initiative.

In the coming weeks, the team is looking forward to receiving additional equipment, complete construction works, and proceed with monitoring and evaluation processes that will be critical to this experiment. We look forward to positive results and many more key learnings, as UNDP and ERA continue to work together to promote alternative sources of energy, reduce the use of biomass, and in turn ease the impact of deforestation in Uganda.

By Kathy Ndieli, Accelerator Lab Intern; Hadijah Nabbale, Head of Solutions Mapping; Deborah Naatujuna, Head of Exploration; and Berna Mugema, Head of Experimentation.