Many women and girls in Nigeria suffer the effects of cooking with firewood as the old tradition remains the cheapest means of cooking in many communities. The situation is further exacerbated by the recent scarcity and soaring price of cooking gas which has pushed many households back to the forest in search of firewood.
A survey by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) shows that 68.3 per cent of all Nigerian households still use solid biomass for cooking.
Sadly, why these families resort to cooking with firewood for economic reasons, they end up spending the little money they have on medication due to smoke related illnesses.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that smoke from the kitchen leads to 95,300 deaths annually in Nigeria – making it a leading cause of death after malaria and HIV/ AIDS.
Even though these statistics are worrisome, these women and girls cannot avoid cooking with firewood because, to some of them, the cost of buying cooking gas can provide enough quantity of rice for the family, so why wasting the little money they have on cooking gas instead of going into the bush to fetch firewood for free.
For instance, in Uroli community, Esan West local government area of Edo State, it was learnt that about 99 per cent of the households cook with firewood and charcoal.
When LEADERSHIP Sunday visited the community, a 70-year-old woman, popularly called Mama, was seen blowing air on the firewood with her mouth as she was cooking for her family.
Mama, who was rubbing tears from her eyes with her wrapper, was coughing while explaining the reason she had to abandon her cooking gas cylinder for firewood.
Speaking in pigin english, Mama said “This smoke affects my eyes and makes me cough but there is nothing I can do about it because I cannot afford gas. I have a medium size gas cylinder which I was using before now, but I can no longer use it because the price of cooking gas has increased and it is even scarce.
“Even if you have the money, you can’t even find the gas to buy in this community, unless you will have to travel to Ekpoma town before you can get gas to buy. As you can see, I don’t have the time, money and energy for that.”
When asked if she was aware of the health risks of exposure to smoke, she said “I know that this smoke is not good for my health but we must eat and we cannot eat raw food.”
Also, a farmer in Idoa, a community in the same LGA in the state, Ogie Ebosele, was seen blowing the fire with his mouth while roasting yam.
Ebosele who was obviously inhaling the smoke as the atmosphere was covered with smoke from the fire however, said that he would have loved to roast his yam with clean cooking technology but none was available.
“If I think of the smoke, it means that we are not going to eat because this is the only way we cook here. I don’t think anybody in this community uses cooking gas but some people have stoves. Even at that, many of the people who have stoves hardly make use of it because of the cost of kerosene.” he explained.
Mama and Ebosele are just few of the many Nigerians who are endangered by exposure to smoke from firewood.
Speaking on the health implication of cooking with firewood, the dean, faculty of environmental science, Nasarawa State University Keffi, Professor Nasiru Medugu Idris, told LEADERSHIP Sunday that “There are many health implication as reported by several published research and rewwports from government and non-governmental organisations on how cooking with firewood and charcoal has negatively affected women and children for example, irritation of their eyes (conjunctivitis), cataract which may result to partial or total blindness and low back pain from excessive bending, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), excavation of asthma, lung cancer, acute bronchiolitis in children are all reported in several studies as negative consequences of firewood and charcoal usage.
“There are also cases of increased prevalence of respiratory problems among women being reported in some studies. Therefore, the health problems caused by cooking with firewood are numerous and women are more vulnerable,” he said.
Also, the immediate past president of the Nigerian Optometric Association (NOA), Dr. Ozy Okonofua, said firewood produces smoke and whenever smoke is involved, it affects the eye, especially for persons who are very reactive or persons who have allergy.
“Anything like smoke, wind or dust generally irritates the eyes and when you are talking about firewood, occasionally, such firewood also releases sparks that come out from the wood. Occasionally, such sparks, when they get into the eyes, can have a negative impact on the eye,” he said.
Okonofua advised that as much as possible, people should avoid direct contact with fire and smoke. “People should not use their mouth to fan the fire, they should use other things to avoid getting too close to the fire,” he added.
On the effect of tree felling for firewood and charcoal on the environment, Idris said cutting down of trees for the purpose of firewood and charcoal can seriously lead to deforestation and further flooding because the topsoil has been expose; that is bared surface and in the future, this will lead to global climate change and thus, total forest destruction and depletion of the forest ecosystems and destruction of biodiversity and this might lead to food security crisis.
“We should note that forests store carbon and release oxygen that we take so their destruction will encourage global warming and finally extinction of plants and animal species within the ecosystems.
However, experts have identified access to clean cooking technology as vital to changing the narrative while charging the government on policy implementation.
According to Idris, clean cooking technology is achievable in Nigeria if the government is sincere with the pack it has signed recently, that is the climate change bill.
“Government needs to give priority to this sector in order to break even. Traditional cooking knowledge (fire-wood stove) has been with Nigeria since time immemorial. This should be discouraged in this 21st century. Government needs a high level of commitment with large scale investment from the private sector in order to drive clean cooking technology,” he urged.
He also stressed the need for the government to revisit and review its policy on the energy sector. For example, on the recent increase in domestic cooking gas, saying the increase in the price of domestic cooking gas is likely the reason why more women are abandoning their cylinders as their income level cannot cater for their daily use.
According to him, the only way out of this, is for the government and the private sector to exploit less polluting cooking sources such as electricity, gas, ethanol, solar and high performing biomass stoves that are affordable for a common person in our society today due to the country’s income level.
He noted that the country would gain if the majority are using the clean cooking stove in Nigeria in the area of reducing harmful emissions of particulates and black carbon from the popular firewood, adding that Public health and living conditions would be improved especially respiratory related diseases.
Collaborating Idris view, the executive director, International Centre for Energy, Environment and Development (ICEED), Ewah Eleri, said people have been cooking with firewood since almost creation but he regretted that over 90 per cent of the heat that actually comes from the fire is lose to the atmosphere and less that 10 per cent of the heat generated by the firewood actually cooks the food.
Eleri described cooking with firewood as a technology that is very primordial and inefficient, adding that a lot of energy that should have been used for cooking is lost to the atmosphere.
However, he said the issue has become very important now because a lot of people are raising environmental concerns from excessive use of firewood.
“As our population increases, and the number of households increase, so also the demand for fuel is increasing because most people now use firewood to cook. In addition to agriculture, fetching of firewood to make charcoal and burn as firewood represent a large proportion of deforestation in the country.
He said deforestation does not only lead to denying our soil of nutrients so that it is rich for agriculture, it also contributes to climate change because of emission of carbon dioxide.
“So whichever way you look at it, this is a disastrous use of our natural resources.
“if you look at our population, we actually export cooking gas, so we have cooking gas and in many African countries, they are also trying to see how they can use the renewable energy that comes from the sun or being able to convert it to electricity and cook with it or cook in the afternoon with solar energy.
“Look at the situation where the price of cooking gas has gone up to three times, you have a situation whereby families that were once cooking with gas are now going back to firewood because of the high cost of cooking gas. The price is now almost four times the price, you know in many ways, people who have climbed up the cooking energy ladder are now climbing down that ladder to firewood, so that is the situation where we have found ourselves in our country.
“The trend is not good, the trend is wasting energy, the trend is killing our people, it is causing deforestation and climate change,” he said.
On the way, Eleri stressed the need for the government to have a clear national policy that makes cooking gas affordable, provide improved cooking gas for rural people who might have access to cooking gas or who may not be willing to use cooking gas, so that they can still use wood but use it efficiently.
He said the government needs to ensure that the LPG industry has the infrastructure that they need to be able to expand supply on LPG.
Speaking further, the environmentalist told LEADERSHIP Sunday that aside from infrastructure, the government also needs to ensure that the country satisfies its domestic market first before supporting cooking.
In his word: “While the country is seeking to expand the use of cooking gas, the price is on the other hand rising and the government is not able to reduce the price, so we need to have a clear national policy that make cooking gas affordable, that provides improved cooking gas for rural people who might have access to cooking gas or who may not be willing to use cooking gas, so that they can still use wood but use it efficiently.
“Government needs to ensure that the LPG industry has the infrastructure that they need to be able to expand supply on LPG. Aside from infrastructure, government also need to ensure that we satisfy our domestic market first before exporting cooking gas so that our domestic market will be satisfied first instead of exporting the cooking gas that we have.
“Our government should remove all the VAT and taxes on imported LPG. It is possible that as we expand our use of cooking gas that domestic production may not be enough, therefore, all imports of cylinders, of cooking gas should be exempted from VAT until such a time that we are able to produce our cylinder, so those are some immediate steps that we need to take and it is also possible that we need to make sure that more companies that are in the cooking gas value chain have access to good credit, loans from the bank of industry, through the CBN. Government has promised to do so but we want to see the implementation so that from people who produce LPG to those who retail them and sell them they have access to funds that the interest rates are not so high.
“Another thing that can be done is for the government to work with partners to create awareness around this issue, the government can make them affordable and make people realise that cooking with gas saves their lives and saves money and improves the living condition of women, then people will begin to demand for it.”
Acknowledging the federal government’s commitment however, Eleri said “The government has developed a plan through the economic suitability plan to be able to expand the use of cooking gas. There is already a plan in place, the government has established a national gas plan under the office of the vice president.
“The government has added clean cooking gas to its updated NDC; our pledge to the Paris agreement, and has pledged that by 2030, at least 48 per cent of all households in Nigeria will be cooking with cooking gas and that in addition to that 48 per cent which is almost half of the households, that 13 per cent will be using improved stove, which means you can still use wood and charcoal but use it effectively through the technology that reduces smoke, saves wood, charcoal, which means it saves money for families.
Recall the former President, Goodluck Jonathan, in 2014, committed N9.2 billion on clean cooking technology.
However, eight years later, the aim is not achieved as poor women and girls still suffer the effects of cooking with firewood and charcoal.