When Ms. Helen Kugonza gave birth to conjoined twins in her home district of Hoima, Western Uganda, she was puzzled about the future of her children and how she would manage to raise them. Not only were her twins conjoined, but they were under-weight and suffering from malnutrition. Helen wasn’t aware that her children could be separated, until a health specialist advised her to visit Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala. At first, she feared losing her children in the process, but with support from counsellors at the hospital she began to trust doctors at Mulago Hospital to commence the procedure.
Dr. John Sekabira, Pediatric Surgery Director at Mulago Hospital, concluded that the procedure would be possible but given the poor nutritional status of the children they would first need to undergo a nutritional plan to gain sufficient weight and improve health markers, in turn improving the likelihood of a successful procedure.
Dr. Sekabira worked with Dr. Esther Babirekere, Head of Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit at Mulago Hospital, who prescribed the children a special diet called Ekitoobero: a special mixture of various nutrient-rich foods, prepared under specific conditions to optimize nutrient retention. Preparing this meal was previously very time-consuming and inefficient while the Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit was using firewood as cooking fuel. Though, now that the kitchens have been fully converted to electricity via the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Electricity Regulatory Authority’s (ERA) Biomass to Electricity project, such special meals can be easily prepared.
“We have been able to feed the babies to the right weight with high quality nutritional food value, because we now have a fully equipped electric kitchen,” said Dr. Esther Babirekere. “Since the conversion, the chefs no longer spend hours preparing food and suffering respiratory complications due to smoke from the burning firewood. Also, all children in this ward are now getting their food on time.”
In 2019, the UNDP Uganda Accelerator Lab team ran a call for solutions for combatting deforestation throughout the country. ERA responded with the solution of converting large institutions’ kitchens from cooking with biomass (organic matter such as charcoal and food fuel) to instead using electricity, what would become the Biomass to Electricity project. The main premise of this experiment was to inform the possibility of reducing the national electricity tariff rate and encourage large institutions such as hospitals, schools and prisons to make the switch to electricity. As the Accelerator Lab team reflects on the journey of this experiment, it has been interesting to note how other unique results have emerged.
Before conversion to electricity, the Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit would use on average 96.5 kg of firewood to prepare meals for around 100 people daily. Firewood would be delivered using a truck that carried on average 1.65 tons of wood, costing an average of 700,000 UGX ($200 USD) per delivery. The Biomass to Electricity project design hypothesized that as electricity is made affordable compared to alternative energy sources - in an environment with relevant enabling policies and awareness on electric cooking - then households and institutions would be motivated to adopt electricity as the primary source of energy for cooking, thereby reducing carbon emissions and the impacts of deforestation.
The Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) has since made amendments to the existing electricity tariff structure applicable to customers served by Umeme Limited (Uganda’s main electricity distribution company) and approved a preferential tariff of 451.4 UGX/kWh for this project. Upon approval of the preferential tariff and full conversion of the Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit kitchens to electricity, the UNDP Uganda Accelerator Lab team understands that the Mulago Hospital administration will likely re-allocate the budget for firewood to instead cover the costs of electricity for cooking.
Political Commissioning of the fully converted Kitchen
During the recent launch of the Biomass to Electricity project, Minister for Energy and Mineral Development Hon. Dr. Ruth Nankabirwa explained that given the Government of Uganda’s frustration by the tremendous negative impacts of using biomass for cooking - from the depletion of forests to health challenges such as respiratory complications – the Government has decided to reform the electricity sub-sector. She noted that Uganda currently enjoys sufficient electricity generation which can effectively meet the energy needs of its population for industrial, commercial and domestic purposes, adding that “Therefore, shifting focus to accelerated access to electricity, increased affordability and reliable electricity supply is a step in the right direction.”
Meanwhile, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative Ms. Sheila Ngatia noted that Uganda has lost 122,000 hectares of forest on average every year from 1990-2015, with demand for charcoal especially from institutions and homesteads being among the leading factors for reduction of forest cover. With this alarming statistic, she emphasized the need to work together with Government to reverse the situation if the country is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
ERA Chief Executive Officer Ms. Ziria Tibalwa Waako revealed that, following learnings from this experiment, ERA plans to convert 50,000 households and 500 institutions from using biomass as the primary source of energy for cooking/heating to instead using electricity. “There could be fears of high electricity tariffs and unreliable power supply,” she said. “At ERA, we have designed a special tariff of 451.4 UGX per kilowatt-hour for institutions and 412 UGX per kilowatt-hour for domestic consumers under this project. We are also looking at further lowering the tariffs as the consumption of electricity grows.”
As we continue to study the possibility of further reducing electricity tariffs to encourage Ugandans to adopt electricity as the preferred energy for cooking, the UNDP Uganda Accelerator Lab team is so far delighted that the experiment is already having an impact. The sparkle in the eyes of Ms. Helen Kugonza, whose conjoined twin babies were successfully separated and are now happy and healthy, makes us proud and we pat ourselves on the back with a collective sigh of delight.
By Hadijah Nabbale, Head of Solutions Mapping.