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The night Fatimah died, it rained endlessly. Her sullen eyes – scarlet and dilated- shut in with a hot, almost steamy tear, as she let out her final cough which also would be her last breath.

Fatimah had battled myocardial ischemia for seven years – a heart disease she contracted from her many years of inhaling smoke from cooking with firewood. She worked as a village food vendor to ensure her three children live and get education, something she did not afford herself.

This story is one of the several million stories of women all over Sub-Saharan Africa, whose lives have been severely threatened by the harmful consequences of unknowingly inhaling smoke that comes from cooking with charcoal, wood, crop waste, and dung.

Across many villages, towns, and bigger communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, women rely on dirty fuel for cooking. Along with their children, they walking long distances to fetch wood.

Women carrying firewood in Malawi. Photo: http://www.planetstillalive.com/

Women carrying firewood in Malawi. Photo: http://www.planetstillalive.com/

Many, like Fatimah, are holed up in poverty and undignified human conditions with very little or no support. They can hardly afford safe cooking alternatives. In most cases, these women and girls are uneducated and as a result, are unable to make better and informed choices.

A World Health Organisation survey on the global burden of disease reveals that nearly 600,000 Africans die annually and millions more suffer from chronic illnesses caused by air pollution from inefficient and dangerous traditional cooking fuels and stoves.

This tragic and avoidable first-order public health crisis disproportionately harms women and children, placing them in an unpleasant position of the most “endangered species.”

In Sub-Saharan Africa, reliance on inefficient and dangerous traditional cooking is a large and growing problem. With more than 700 million Africans using solid fuels such as wood, charcoal, dung, and crop waste for their primary cooking needs, the penetration of clean cooking technologies in this population is alarmingly negligible.

Beyond the wide range of negative environmental and climate change effects of dirty fuel cooking, are its unimaginable health implications.

The release of particulate matter, carbon monoxide and other harmful products of incomplete combustion from solid fuel cooking is strongly linked to acute lower respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, cerebrovascular diseases, cataract and low birth weights.

Sufficient evidence also exist that asthma, tuberculosis, paediatric sleep disorders, depression, bacterial meningitis, depression, are closely associated with cooking with coal, firewood, dung and crop waste, including widespread minor ailments from smoke inhalation such as eye irritation and headaches.

So, like Fatimah, Sub-Saharan Africa houses an overwhelming population of women and children “smokers.” Smokers, not by intention, but by poverty which leaves them with no choice than to cook with dirty fuel.

New technologies for women

Femi Oye, a Nigerian social entrepreneur, brings clean and affordable cook stoves to these women in Africa. He lost his grandmother to a lung disease which, like Fatimah, she battled but could not conquer. His “Mama” was a smoker. Sh lived the most part of her life inhaling toxic emissions from cooking with kerosene and coal, all in an effort to support Femi’s and his few siblings’ education.

For four years now, Femi has exceedingly committed his resources, heart, and drive into building West Africa’s biggest clean energy investment company – Green Energy and Biofuels –  manufacturing clean cook stoves, as well as biofuel gel made from water hyacinth – an invasive plant-  and sawdust, emitting zero carbon and cooks food faster than kerosene, coal, dung and crop waste combined.

Femi’s biofuel gel for the clean cook stove innovation is also affordable, generating a remarkable shift from the use of dirty fuels to the adoption of clean cook stove by many households across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Food vendor Dado Sade builds a fire to begin cooking supper at her home in Kolda, Senegal. Her 2-year-old child, Daude Mballo, sleeps nearby. Photo: Holly Pickett / Oxfam America

Food vendor Dado Sade builds a fire to begin cooking supper at her home in Kolda, Senegal. Her 2-year-old child, Daude Mballo, sleeps nearby. Photo: Holly Pickett / Oxfam America

To date, over 200,000 households have so far switched to clean cooking technology and have also been provided with a unique platform to generate substantial income to move themselves out of poverty through a green business network developed by Femi.

Looking forward, the clean and improved cooking sector is poised for solid growth. With inputs of innovators and social entrepreneurs like Femi, the evolving demand and supply environments and historical uptake trends suggest that, even under conservative assumptions, the penetration of clean cook stove will rise to 36% (80 million households) in 2020.

Ayomide Atitebi

About Ayomide Atitebi

Ayomide serves as Country Director (Nigeria) for IDEAS – a UN accredited international environmental and public charity organisation. He is also the curator of #MyGreenStory.