Researchers highlight benefits of clean cooking technologies

The important role of academic institutions in ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all under SDG 7 was underscored during the Africa Climate Summit held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 4-6 September 2023.

‘Energy poverty’ is one of the biggest challenges the African region faces, and it is critical to harness existing natural resources, include new technologies and innovation, and build towards the relevant green skills required to feed into the growing demands of the transition to sustainable economies, Kenyan President Dr William Ruto said in his opening remarks.

Political leaders and academic and industry experts attended the summit, held under the theme ‘Driving green growth and climate finance solutions for Africa and the World’. It aimed to facilitate critical discussions on issues, including the breakthroughs, opportunities and challenges around climate adaptation, de-carbonisation, green energy, sustainable food systems, and climate justice.

Ruto called for the adoption of sustainable approaches across sectors and institutions that would reduce environmental impact and provide solutions to mitigate climate change but also help the region leapfrog to the green transition.

“Our renewable resources are not just an environmental necessity, they are the ultimate catalyst of radical social and economic prosperity. They can fuel sustainable growth, drive economic growth, create jobs, and uplift millions from energy poverty while reducing our carbon footprint continentally and globally,” he said.

Industrial energy and related skills are, therefore, necessary to anchor energy demand as a means of tackling the widespread energy poverty still prevalent across the continent. The numbers are stark: nearly 600 million Africans lack access to electricity, 150 million grapple with unreliable power provision and almost one billion have no access to clean cooking energy.

“The abundance of our renewable resources, the possibilities offered by new technologies and new climate financing offer enormous possibilities for us. We have the capability to provide reliable and cost-effective energy access to all Africans by 2030,” Ruto said.

Towards clean cooking models

One of the emerging themes during the summit was the use of innovative solutions to drive sustainability, such as clean cooking technologies and fuels.

Strathmore University, one of the leading institutions on sustainable practices in Kenya, hosted a side event in partnership with Modern Energy Cooking Services and the Global LPG Partnership to explore Africa’s potential to pursue clean cooking by using organic municipal solid waste generated from urban cities to produce bio liquid petroleum gas (bioLPG) which is propane from renewable sources.

The university is part of the global Race to Zero campaign.

A summit panel discussion, which examined the use of organic waste to produce renewable bioLPG, brought together experts in the clean cooking sector to share perspectives on the potential for producing bioLPG, identified as more sustainable at scale across Africa based on evidence collected in three case studies from Kenya, Rwanda and Cameroon.

The discussion focused on a study that assessed the quality and quantities of organic waste that is used to form feedstock for the production of bioLPG and the development of a robust framework for the production of bioLPG in the African context.

The discussion will feed into the ongoing development of the Kenya National Clean Cooking Strategy.

Elizabeth Muchiri, the East Africa director at the Global LPG Partnership, said biogas generation remains untapped and has not been implemented at an industrial scale in urban Africa, despite studies showing strong growth in municipal solid waste, estimated to reach 250 tons per year by 2025, with a projected 57% organic fraction.

She added that producing biogas at scale and reforming it into bioLPG for clean cooking had several benefits. It was identical to conventional LPG and could use existing LPG distribution infrastructure, market structures, and regulatory regimes.

“Production from waste has co-benefits, including reduction in methane and CO2 emissions, improvement in air quality and environment, and improved urban sanitation,” Muchiri said.

The potential of new technologies

According to the World Energy Outlook 2021 report, a lack of access to clean energy remains acute in Sub-Saharan Africa where the majority of people depend on harmful cooking options such as charcoal, resulting in nearly half a million deaths per year due to household air pollution.

Hope Njoroge and Sandra Banda, who are part of the UNESCO Chair for Climate Change Resilience and Sustainability at Strathmore University, shared their perspectives on some of the ongoing clean cooking projects at the institution.

Njoroge, the climate change lead and a researcher in the bioLPG project, said one of the key goals at Strathmore University is to mainstream sustainability into learning, teaching and research.

“The bioLPG project is deeply embedded in the circular economy and our main goal with this concept is to recycle waste and innovate around green solutions which contribute towards renewable energy targets and achieving net zero,” she said.

“Our study looked at the quality and quantities of waste in Nairobi and other policies that would allow bioLPG plants to be constructed in Kenya where organic waste in urban cities forms about 60% of municipal waste. Currently, we only have 4% LPG penetration in our region.”

Njoroge said African countries, particularly their urban cities, struggle with waste management and the bioLPG concept provides a solution whereby organic components of waste are converted for biogas generation through a technology called ‘cool’ LPG. “We then stabilise the bioLPG, store it and distribute it for household and industrial use.”

She added that some of the challenges faced in conducting research into clean cooking technologies included putting policy into action, for example, the Kenya Waste Management Act of 2021, and a lack of industry players in the production of clean cooking appliances.

“The lack of equipment to conduct thorough research is also a drawback. For projects on clean cooking technologies and fuels, for example, we would need a chemistry department with a laboratory at the university. However, even though we possess the skills, we do not have the equipment. We need to start developing testing labs in the country which will help to give proper metrics and analysis to adopt clean cooking methodologies,” she said.

Research on sustainable cooking

According to Banda, who is a green hydrogen and energy-modelling researcher, Strathmore University is leading an innovation project called Productive Use in Rural African Markets Using Standalone Solar (PURAMS) which aims to develop a cooker prototype using solar energy in Rwanda, Kenya and Mozambique.

The PURAMS project is one of eight innovation and research projects funded under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 LEAP-RE project that seeks to drive long-term partnerships in renewable energy between Africa and Europe. The solar electric cooking (e-cooking) prototype could contribute to sustainable cooking models which would help address energy access and efficiency.

“As academics, we are using innovation to influence policy and strategies that advance clean cooking in the region. In the project, we also assess market readiness and the policy environment in the three countries regarding what needs to be done to advance such technologies from an implementation and capacity-building perspective. The project ensures that, as we move to decentralised energy systems, we are also building clean cooking appliances that can be used in rural and urban households as well as industry,” she said.

Universities have an opportunity to contribute to the climate change and energy transition conversation by developing data-driven research and policy approaches that can be implemented to guide government and different stakeholders in decision-making, she said.

“As researchers at Strathmore University, the prototype we are developing will help in the adoption of clean cooking methodologies and contribute to more sustainable cooking strategies for Kenya, while decreasing the dependence on biomass fuel for cooking,” she said.