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Ethanol Transforming Lives in Nairobi’s Kibera Slums

It is now a fact that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environment health risk with the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimating that more than 7 million people die of air pollution annually. Indoor air pollution caused by burning traditional biomass, accounts for 4.3 of these deaths.  To put this in perspective, that’s more deaths than caused by HIV/AIDs (around 1.6 million per year) and malaria (around 627,000) combined. A recent Lancet report indicates that indoor air pollution is a major health concern particularly in Africa with women and young children being affected disproportionately because of the long hours spent in the kitchen. According to the Lancet report, early life exposure to indoor air pollution has been linked to a range of adverse child health outcomes including low birth weight and pneumonia, and continued exposure can lead to more chronic respiratory diseases and even cancer. In Kenya, over 68% of the population still cook and heat their homes by burning solid fuels including firewood, charcoal, dung or agricultural waste in their home, which often have poor ventilation. This means that more than half the Kenyan population faces the threat of indoor air pollution.  

The high dependence on firewood and charcoal by a large percentage of the population is a major cause of deforestation. Kenya’s forest cover has been reducing over the years and it currently stands at six percent. In addition, most of the traditional biomass is burned in open fires and primitive stoves, leading to high emissions of carbon dioxide. Studies show that in developing countries, about 730 million tons of biomass is burned per year, amounting to more than 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted into the atmosphere. A large population in Kenya is also dependent on kerosene for cooking and lighting. The country remains a net importer of petroleum products with petroleum imports accounting for about 25% of the national import bill. The risks associated with kerosene are many, there have been many instances of kerosene accidents reported including poisonings, fires and explosions, especially in the urban areas. Kerosene fumes are also known to be a major contributor of health complication from indoor air pollution and also to greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

 A switch to cleaner fuel provides a strategy for dealing with the challenges accompanying these unsustainable fuels. This is exactly what Safi International, a company promoting ethanol fuel and stoves in Kibera slum is trying to address.  The young company aims at replacing wood, charcoal and kerosene with a cleaner, safe and affordable ethanol powered cookers within Kibera, one of the largest slum in the World.  Ethanol is an alcohol that is produced by fermentation of sugars from various crops such as sugarcane, sorghum, maize, cassava and wheat. In Kenya, ethanol is produced by sugar companies from sugarcane molasses. It burns with a clean blue flame that is soot free and is much safer than paraffin. The company launched the Kibera ethanol cooker project late last year and since then, more than 800 homes are now using the cookers and more than 10,000 litres of ethanol fuel has been sold. The ethanol cooker comes with a patented burning technology; it has a strong flame that cooks faster compared to conventional cookers. It also comes with a robust and modern design. With KCIC’s support, the stove and the fuel have been tested and approved by Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI). So far the customer feedback is overwhelming. According to  Winnie Abuto, one of the residents using the cooker,

‘I now spends fewer hours preparing meals for my family and the cooker is safer even with small children around’.   

The cooker costs, 2500 shillings, which may be out of reach for many in Kibera. To make the cooker affordable to these families, the project has set up a revolving fund, with assistance from UKaid. The fund is now allowing local groups (Chammas) to lend money to their members at zero interest.  Loan repayments are then made via MPESA till number. The project distributes the cooker and ethanol fuel through distribution centers established within the slum hence creating jobs within the community.