A burning challenge: Sustainable cooking energy for East Africa

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As is common in the developing world, people in East Africa still typically cook their meals with wood or charcoal – i.e. locally available biomass. Usually over a simple fire. But resulting deforestation, resource scarcity, and respiratory illnesses mean alternatives are urgently needed. CDE researchers studied the implications of possible short-term improvements.

In rural and poor urban households of East Africa, meals are still prepared in an age-old way: over an open fire or a rudimentary cookstove, fuelled with locally available biomass such as wood, charcoal, or even rice and corn husks. And this traditional way of cooking is not likely to end anytime soon: Predicted population growth of 40% in the next 15 years and cost obstacles leave little room for manoeuvre – until other more sustainable, cost-effective, and clean sources of energy are finally widely available in the region.

Many hurdles
In the meantime, improvements can and must be made. There are growing risks of resource scarcity, forest degradation and related consequences – not to mention the carbon emissions caused by burning biomass. And lastly there is the most troubling threat: damage to people’s health. Burning biomass to cook fills the air in people’s homes with fine particles and carbon monoxide, the harms of which can be fatal: According to recent WHO figures, around 14,000 related deaths occur every year in Kenya and 18,000 in Tanzania. Globally, the WHO estimates 4.5 million people die yearly of such pollution-related respiratory illnesses – more than malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS combined.

Transitional scenarios
So what can be done? CDE researchers together with project partners in East Africa conducted studies in Tanzania and Kenya, examining possible ways of improving people’s cooking systems using locally available biomass fuels and relatively simple and economical technological solutions. To this end, the researchers modelled and compared a few scenarios:

    1. Business as usual (current system, 2015)
    2. A future scenario with support for a mix of biomass fuels, in which diverse, locally available biomass fuels are combined with improved cooking systems and promoted in a targeted way. Promising biomass fuels include:

  1. Sustainably managed wood
  2. Biogas made from animal dung (in livestock-keeping areas)
  3. Briquettes made from pressed farm residues
  4. Jatropha plants grown around farm plots as “living fences”, whose seeds or oil-derivatives are dense in energy.
    3. A future scenario without support for biomass, in which the same mix of biomass fuels and improved cooking systems are available but are not promoted – or are even hindered by local policies.


Demand for cooking energy will increase by about 40% in the study regions through 2030. This graphic shows the number of meals (in millions) that can be cooked today and in the future based on locally available biomass. The red line indicates predicted demand. The two future scenarios are: (a) with support for a diverse mix of biomass fuels and improved cooking systems, or (b) without support for biomass fuels. (Data, R. Bär 2018; graphic, C. Bader 2018)

Graphs are inspired by KatiRG’s block: d3js clickable stacked bar chart

Worst scenario: Business as usual
The results of the comparison show: Without target promotion of a mix of diverse biomass fuels, local resources will not be sufficient to cover future demand for cooked meals. Even policy support for biomass does not guarantee meeting everyone’s needs. But the evidence makes clear that doing nothing is the worst choice.

Read the Policy Brief online:
Ehrensperger A, Wymann von Dach S, Bär R, Okoko A, Lannen A. 2018.
A Burning Challenge: Making Biomass Cooking Fuels Sustainable in East Africa. CDE Policy Brief, No. 13. Bern, Switzerland: CDE

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