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Respiratory diseases plague Kenya as people cook with firewood to save money

Jane Muthoni Njenga making a fire on firewood
Jane Muthoni Njenga making a fire on firewood Copyright AP
Copyright AP
By Roselyne Min with AP
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Experts say cooking with cheap biomass like firewood is a big part of the problem.

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Respiratory diseases are affecting the health of millions of people in Kenya as many burn wood at home to save money. 

Although electricity access in the East African country has expanded from 20 per cent in 2013 to nearly 85 per cent in 2019, it’s still costly for many Kenyans.

"I have been using firewood all my life and wake up every morning to fetch it,” said Kenyan resident Jane Muthoni Njenga.

“However, the smoke from the firewood makes me cough over long periods and causes difficulty in breathing. LPG gas is quite expensive, and I cannot afford it," Njenga added.

When Njenga burns firewood in her kitchen made of iron sheets, the roof, walls and wooden pillars are covered in soot and the 65-year-old is engulfed in smoke.

Experts say biomass such as firewood is the largest contributor to respiratory diseases.

Data from Kenya’s health ministry shows that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is responsible for 1.7 per cent of deaths in the country.

"It is not only carbon monoxide but one of the biggest problems is particulate matters,” said Evans Amukoye, a scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute's respiratory diseases centre.

“The particulate matters are the ones we usually call PM 2.5 and this is associated with pneumonia, it is the one associated with asthma and so on. And it is usually brought around by fuel for cooking,” Amukoye added.

A government survey published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) in 2022 showed a high dependence on traditional fuels for cooking in Kenya, with nearly 9.1 million households, 68.5 per cent of the population, depending on biomass like firewood.

Lower-income areas are more vulnerable

Mercy Letting, a restauranteur in Nairobi, bought an induction burner which she says is faster in cooking and more efficient as she spends only 50 Kenyan shillings (€0.35) per day on electricity.

Letting used to cook with charcoal at her restaurant, which she says deteriorated her health with time.

She has seen an improvement in both her health and her bank balance.

"While using these stoves, I can use a sack of charcoal for two months, unlike before. Thus, I am able to save 4500 shillings (€32) in extra money,” said Letting.

“Moreover, in terms of my health, I don’t go to the hospital as often as before, and I am able to be at work throughout. This translates to more profits".

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However, families in informal neighbourhoods and rural areas mostly rely on firewood or fossil fuels for cooking.

Amukoye says people in low-income areas are particularly vulnerable, often being diagnosed with respiratory diseases later in life compared to middle-class people in urban areas with better awareness and access to health care.

Local companies producing “clean cooking” options like Burn Manufacturing struggle to cope with the cost imbalance.

"If we want to deliver a truly clean and efficient solution to users across Africa, it needs to be affordable for them," said Chris McKinney, the chief promotional officer at Burn Manufacturing.

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McKinney suggests carbon financing which can help the company subsidise the cost “to just a few dollars,” down from $50 (€46.3).

"In some cases 90 to 95 per cent reduction in cost," he added.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 2.3 billion people globally rely on open fires or fossil fuels like wood, charcoal, and kerosene for cooking.

The WHO attributes an estimated 3.2 million deaths in 2020 to household pollution, including over 237,000 children under five.

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For more on this story, watch the video in the media player above.

Video editor • Roselyne Min

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