By Kandeh Yumkella, former UN Under-Secretary-General and Chair of UN-Energy and Nick Hurd, Senior Adviser to Bboxx and former UK Minister*
Access to modern clean cooking services, especially via Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG), is a key part of achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 7 – to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. However, it is too often overlooked.
It is unacceptable that in 2020 the vast majority of the population in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to clean, reliable, and affordable fuels and technologies for cooking. More global attention urgently needs to be given to this ‘silent killer’ development issue.
The underlying failure to act on the clean cooking crisis carries an exponentially high cost. The World Bank recently noted that this currently costs the world over $2.4 trillion each year, due to the negative impacts on people’s health, the environment, gender equality, and lost economic opportunities. Cooking with dirty fuels is expensive and there is a high opportunity cost attached to the longer time needed to cook and to collect firewood.
The costs to the environment are dire as cooking with wood has been responsible for vast swathes of deforestation and land degradation. In Uganda alone, 80% of rural households use firewood for cooking which is contributing to deforestation at an alarming rate. Similarly, cooking with charcoal emits extremely damaging carbon emissions.
The World Health Organisation has warned that indoor air pollution from cooking with dirty fuels is causing four million premature deaths a year, due to heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. These profoundly negative impacts are also disproportionately harming women. On the front line — collecting, transporting and cooking with firewood — women are shouldering the physical burden and are predisposed to risks of violence. Additionally, the time spent on these actions cuts into the time that could be spent on leisure and employment.
However, it is now increasingly well-known that LPG can be a more viable, affordable and significantly cleaner alternative to traditional fuels used to cook in the Africa. LPG is a clean burning fuel and its carbon footprint is 50% lower than coal.
Yet inaction continues – and it is simply costing too much. This issue cannot be ignored any longer.
A historic lack of concerted political urgency has been the key factor in the slow progress to resolve the clean cooking crisis. Greater political will is now fundamental if we are to significantly move the needle on this issue.
Looking at intra-governmental progress, a High-Level Coalition of Leaders for Clean Cooking, Energy and Health has been established, which includes political representatives from ministries of health, energy, and finance from around the world. Led by Kandeh Yumkella, this body has accomplished significant developments to-date in rallying political leaders around this important issue. In addition, global bodies like the World LPG Association and the Clean Cooking Association are doing important work in raising awareness of this global problem.
Recent commitments and targeted actions by African governments should also be celebrated. Just last year, the Mano River Union sub-regional conference on renewable energy and clean cooking, including Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, led to a joint call by MPs and Ministers for ‘determined actions on clean cooking, at the highest level’. Earlier this year, Rwanda’s government introduced a charcoal cooking ban in Kigali. Kenya will soon be launching the second Kenya Off-Grid Solar Access Project facility which includes a subsidy for clean cooking.
Private technology companies also have a significant part to play. Next generation utility Bboxx, which has positively impacted the lives of over one million people through access to solar energy, recently partnered with USAID to increase clean cooking access in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is one of largest Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) clean cooking programmes in Africa to-date. Only 4% of the DRC population has access to clean cooking facilities – and this initiative will leverage innovative PAYG technology to make clean cooking accessible at scale. This shows how technology and innovations in this sector have grown in leaps and bounds in recent years.
It is vital to consider the other pieces of the puzzle in making clean cooking access a reality for everyone in Africa. Oil and gas companies will be instrumental in developing this area as many are repositioning their businesses and pivoting towards clean energy, with a key focus on how to increase access to LPG which is needed for clean cooking.
For example, a coalition which brings together a wide variety of industry actors, including Bboxx, is exploring ways in which LPG can accelerate progress on UN SDG 7. Looking at developments across the sector, Shell has been working with the Clean Cooking Alliance to help tackle this issue using innovative technologies, and Vitol-backed Eni Ghana and the World Bank signed a Memorandum of Understanding earlier this year to expand access to clean cooking too.
Nevertheless, the lack of collective political urgency and consequently funding, is a major stumbling block to this sector’s development. While there is indeed momentum to build on, billions of dollars will still be required in public and private funding for modern energy cooking solutions to take off.
Whilst the World Bank officially launched the $500 million Clean Cooking Fund within Rwanda in recent months, it is vital that more countries be made recipients to the Fund. Other investors need to join and contribute too, as no one entity can tackle this issue alone. Subsidies should increasingly be explored by governments across Africa to ensure that clean cooking solutions can be scaled in a way that is affordable for all.
Catalysing private sector participation and synergies with governments will be the key to unlocking the true potential of the nascent clean cooking sector. Companies like Bboxx can leverage existing expertise gained from off-grid Solar Home Systems and apply this to the clean cooking sector. Know-how of the business models, distribution networks and customer relationships are needed to get this sector off the ground.
Ultimately, we need to build a policy environment that helps companies to lower costs, grow and innovate more quickly, and blended financing is required at scale to achieve this.
We are still a long way off meeting UN SDG 7. But if we can collectively convey the political urgency of this essential sector, we can truly transform lives and drive forward meaningful progress on clean cooking access in Africa.
* The Right Hon Nick Hurd is Senior Advisor to Bboxx, a next generation utility which manufactures, distributes and finances decentralised solar powered systems in developing countries. He served as a Member of Parliament in the UK for fourteen years before standing down in December 2019. His experience includes service as UK International Development Minister at the Department for International Development (DFID), where he led the Energy Africa campaign to support the acceleration of the off-grid movement. He also served in the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) as Minister of State for Climate Change and Industry, and in the Cabinet Office as Minister for Civil Society.
Dr. Kandeh K. Yumkella is the Former United Nations Under Secretary-General. He was also previously the first Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All and chaired UN-Energy, the coordination body of United Nations agencies dealing with energy related issues. Additional roles have included the Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and a former Minister for Trade, Industry and State Enterprises of Sierra Leone from 1994-1995. He holds a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from the University of Illinois, a M.Sc. Agricultural Economics, Cornell University; and a B.Sc. in General Agriculture, from Njala University College, Sierra Leone.