A cook is pouring injera batter on a Mirt stove. Photo: Energypedia.
A cook is pouring injera batter on a Mirt stove. Photo: Energypedia.

Why biomass dependency is the “most urgent problem to solve in Africa”

More than three billion people globally rely on biomass fuels, such as coal, charcoal, and firewood for cooking and heating. The problems associated with this use have been known for decades, but making a switch to cleaner fuels means overcoming several tough obstacles. Those are challenges that the IGE program will take on.

The participants in the Inclusive Green Economy in Practice (IGE) program, the 2023/24 IGE fellows, will focus entirely on the issue of biomass dependency and the development of effective policies to address this problem. Sustainable Energy Transitions is the theme of the program during 2023/24. (The previous two cohorts were covering a broader scope of topics.) The reason for this focus is that biomass dependency consists of several interlinked sub-issues and is, according to many researchers, currently the most urgent problem to solve in Africa. It includes for instance health problems, deforestation, biodiversity loss, climate change, poverty, a burden on women and children, and security issues.

Over half a million deaths per year

The participants in the program are civil servants from five African countries, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda – a region that is heavily affected by the consequences of using biomass fuels.

In Africa, more than 600,000 people die prematurely from deceases caused by smoke from burning biomass (for example more than 50,000 in Ethiopia and over 30,000 in Tanzania). Women and children are the most vulnerable to this since they spend more time in their homes. Some examples of diseases include tuberculosis, asthma, cardiovascular

disease, pneumonia, respiratory infections, and lung cancer.

Adds to climate change and loss of biodiversity

Another negative effect is the loss of forests.

“The net deforestation rate in Ethiopia is 72,000 hectares per year,” says Abebe Beyene, an EfD researcher who has undertaken several studies on the use of biomass fuels. 72,000 hectares is the equivalent of approximately 140,000 soccer fields. Deforestation in turn has of course negative effects on climate change and biodiversity.

Abebe Beyene, EfD Ethiopia. Photo: EfD
Abebe Beyene, EfD Ethiopia. Photo: EfD

Loss of income and risk for violence

There are also social problems related to biomass fuels. Women and children spend a lot of time collecting firewood, time that could be used for a paid job or studying. In addition, when the forest becomes more and more scarce they have to go further and further to find firewood.

“Studies estimate that a typical household spends on an average 10 hours per week collecting firewood. That is 500 hours per year,” says Abebe Beyene.

“And on top of that comes the risk of being a victim of violence, while they search for firewood.”

Can save 50% of fuel

A switch to electric stoves is not a realistic alternative in the foreseeable future in rural areas since the population in the countryside is very scattered and it would be very expensive to connect to the grid. Almost all urban households have access to electricity but experience frequent interruptions. As a solution, that is feasible in the IGE countries, as well as other African countries, and has been tested in many studies is to continue to use biomass as a backup and hence convince households to adopt improved cookstoves, such as the Mirt stove (mainly used for baking injera, a flat pancake).

“Our studies have shown that households can save 22-31% of their fuel by switching to a Mirt stove (i.e. compared with a traditional three-stone tripod). On average, one Mirt stove avoids the burning of approximately 634 kg of fuelwood per year,” explains Abebe Beyene.

The stove pays off itself

The U.S. Interagency Working Group has estimated the global social cost of carbon to be $44 per ton which means that the annual global benefit from reduced fuelwood burning is $29 per stove per year, which substantially exceeds the $12 initial cost of the stove.

“That means that if the government would give away Mirt stoves for free, the stoves would pay back their own cost in a short time. And since we are talking about a global cost and global savings, it would also make sense with international transfers to support this transfer and enhance climate mitigation potentials,” he says.

Objections from government and households

However, it is unfortunately not that easy. There are several barriers to the dissemination and adoption of fuel-efficient cookstoves in Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular which include affordability, lack of finance, lack of awareness, cultural factors, etc. The African governments, according to Abebe Beyene, may be reluctant to subsidize clean cookstoves as they do have budget constraints. This may require targeted subsidies and alternative ways of financing clean cookstoves. In addition, the issue of biomass dependency concerns many different ministries and other stakeholders such as NGOs and civil society but there is a lack of coordination between them.

Bringing together representatives from many different government agencies in the IGE program is indeed a way to create better collaboration and coordination to create policies.

To make matters even more complicated, there are also some cultural obstacles to switching to improved cookstoves: Many people continue to prefer biomass fuels because they think that certain food tastes better when cooked with biomass. For example, many Ethiopians prefer to use charcoal for their coffee ceremonies instead of using electric stoves.

“It will take a lot of information and convincing to make people understand the benefits and want to make a change.”

The goal is now that the IGE program will generate a lot of constructive ideas and fruitful collaborations to contribute to sustainable energy transitions. 


By: Petra Hansson

News | 17 August 2023