The seemingly simple task of cooking a meal poses significant health risks for those living in poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa this is certainly the case. However, the techniques to mitigate these health risks exist—they just need to be scaled up.

The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), through its regional offices in Cameroon, India, Indonesia, Kenya and Peru, aims to do just that. ICRAF carries out research and development of tree-based bioenergy innovations that are socially responsible, ecologically sustainable and economically viable—some of which are presented in this article. The Centre is building out capacity of farmers and scientists, communicating their experiences and contributing to policy development.

The Problem with Cooking

Cooking-related health risks take a number of forms:

  • Poor households that can’t afford to purchase woodfuel (charcoal or firewood) sometimes use unsafe sources of fuel such as plastic bottles and old shoes.
  • The use of woodfuel itself generates smoke, often exacerbated by inefficient cooking stoves and poor ventilation. It is common to find women and children coughing, sneezing and suffering from headaches in smoky kitchens, where they spend a lot of time. More serious complications such as bronchitis, lung cancer, asthma and tuberculosis have also been linked to prolonged exposure to smoke while indoors.[1] Household air pollution causes 4.3 million deaths annually and is a leading cause of mortality in women and children.[2]
  • Further, the collection of firewood is tiring and time-consuming, limiting women’s productivity and detracting from educational opportunities for girls. A study in Zambia showed that women spent 800 hours per year collecting firewood.[3] A different study in Uganda revealed a distance of 8-12 km is covered in the process, involving 4-6 hours per trip. With 4-6 loads per person, per week, approximately 830-1870 hours per year are spent collecting firewood.[4] These figures may actually have increased since these studies were done, as firewood is becoming increasingly scarce.
  • Collecting firewood can also be dangerous, exposing those performing the chore to the risk of rape or animal attack.
Njenga.Woman.w.Wood Njenga.Women.Carrying.Wood

Photos courtesy of ICRAF

Innovative Solutions

Agroforestry, organic fuel briquettes and improved cook stoves are some of the innovations that could significantly improve access to affordable and cleaner cooking energy for the poor while empowering women and allowing children more time for studies and leisure.


Intercropping trees with crops or pasture or setting aside some space for a woodlot makes firewood and charcoal more accessible. Most of the firewood collected from farms comes from tree prunings. At Kibugu village in Embu County, Kenya, for instance, over 70% of households source firewood from the pruning of trees planted on tea and coffee farms, and this significantly reduces the time and money spent on cooking energy (Mahmoud et al., forthcoming study). Further, short-rotation forestry, where farmers grow trees that form coppices easily and harvest wood on a rotating basis of about five years (depending on tree or shrub species), would not only supply firewood and charcoal for domestic use but could generate income from sales of the surplus for domestic and industrial use.

Fuel briquettes from organic by-products

Fuel briquettes are a local innovation that provides a cheap and clean source of cooking energy. They are used in homes, hotels, chicken hatcheries, for drying tea, and in many other ways. Fuel briquettes are cheap, as they are made from by-products from other production processes. They produce low emissions with no soot, burn more evenly than many other fuels, and last much longer.

Fuel briquettes are made by compacting dry organic by-products such as charcoal dust, sawdust, animal dung, grass, maize cob, coconut shells, sugarcane bagasse, or banana peelings, and are used like charcoal or firewood. Carbonizing organic by-products before producing the briquettes enhances the quality of briquettes intended for cooking in houses.

By using these organic fuel briquettes, households reduce their expenditures on cooking energy, women and youth gain employment opportunities and generate income from the sale of briquettes, and trees are saved. In Nairobi’s Kibera area—the largest slum in Africa—70% of households within a radius of 250 meters from a briquette production site use fuel briquettes for cooking and those who produce them save 70% of income spent on cooking energy while those who bought them save 30%.[4]  In war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia, disabled women are also able to generate income from the sale of briquettes. When briquettes are used for drying tea, for example, there is a reduction in energy costs, boosting profits to farmers.

Efficient cook stoves


One of the more novel innovations that could reduce the burden of sourcing firewood, reduce spending on cooking fuel, save trees, and improve kitchen air quality is a domestic gasifier. Fuel in gasifiers burns in four stages: drying, pyrolyzation (carbonization); gasification; combustion. The gasifier produces charcoal during cooking that, if harvested, can be used for further cooking or as biochar for soil amendment. The gaseous fuel burns more cleanly than solid fuels like firewood. Some of the improved cook stoves made from clay have an open space with a door under the cooking pots that keeps chicken warm.   The next step in developing the gasifier cook stove is to meet social needs such as heating space and allowing people to sit around the fire, which promotes social cohesion.[6]

Efforts to alleviate poverty and to empower women could be accelerated by scaling up best practices in agroforestry and organic waste recycling for energy and by continuing to develop efficient cook stoves. Further research is required to understand the social, economic and environmental factors influencing the adoption of innovations in these communities, and how to adapt solutions according to local need. Agroforestry can make a difference in alleviating energy poverty while sustaining social and ecological systems, while also contributing to the empowerment of women.

Dr. Mary Njenga is a post-doctoral fellow on bioenergy at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) based in Nairobi, Kenya. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (WOCAN). Mary is also a visiting lecturer at Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, University of Nairobi, researching and training on the bioenergy-environment-gender nexus. Mary has over 15 years’ experience in research and development on urban agriculture, community-based natural resource management, environment, bioenergy and gender.

[1] “Fuel for life–household energy and health,” World Health Organization, 2006

[2] Lim S.S., et al, “A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990–2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010.” Lancet, 2012: 380, 2224–60.

[3] Malmberg C. C., “Case Study on the Role of Women in Rural Transport: Access of Women to Domestic Facilities.” Sub-Saharan Africa Transport Policy Program, World Bank and Economic Commission for Africa Working Paper 11. World Bank, 1994.

[4] Agea  G., Kirangwa D. Waiswa D. and Okia C., “Household Firewood Consumption and its Dynamics in Kalisizo Sub-County, Central Uganda.” Ethnobotanical Leaflets 14: 841-855, 2010

[5] Njenga M., et al. “Implications of charcoal briquette produced by local communities on livelihoods and environment in Nairobi, Kenya.” International Journal of Renewable Energy Development (IJRED). 2 (1) 19-29, 2013. Available online. ISSN 2252-4940

[6] Njenga, M., et al., Keeping healthy and saving trees: “Cooking with a gasifier saves fuel and time, reduces smoke and produces charcoal for other uses.” Miti, The Tree Business Magazine for Africa. Issue No.26 April-June 2015, 37-39.