Sierra Leone’s long road to clean cookstoves

In Sierra Leone, 99 percent of the population still uses polluting cooking methods

Cooks prepare lunch in February at a school kitchen in Freetown, Sierra Leone, that has moved to using Wonder Stoves. They are designed to be more fuel-efficient and contain heat better, making for a safer working environment in the kitchen. (Guy Peterson for The Washington Post)

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — For years, Hawa Augusta Kamah, a cook at a private school here, spent hours every week in a cramped open-air kitchen toiling over large charcoal-burning stoves preparing food for 600 students. With every breath, she inhaled smoke and ignored the uncomfortable feeling in her chest that would grow more intense the longer she was exposed to the heat emanating from the stoves.

But, she said, everything changed about two years ago when the school swapped out the old stoves for models designed to cook more cleanly.

“This one is better,” Kamah, 45, said on a sweltering day in February. It was just after 9 a.m., and the new stoves were already fired up, steam rising from each of the massive silver pots on top.

These stoves are part of a decades-long global movement to displace open-fire cooking and uninsulated stoves, which can be significant sources of climate-warming emissions and hazardous indoor air pollution. The replacements, insulated metal contraptions, are designed to be better at containing heat and can cook food more quickly. While they’re not as clean as gas or electric appliances, they’re meant to be an improvement for people who rely on burning solid fuel, such as wood, charcoal or other forms of biomass.

Globally, about 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from forest degradation are connected to harvesting wood fuel, according to a report released last year by the nonprofit Clean Cooking Alliance. About one gigaton of carbon dioxide equivalent is produced every year from burning wood fuels — which accounts for about 2 percent of global emissions, roughly the same share as aviation, the report notes.

Exposure to smoke and other pollutants from household cooking fires is linked to an estimated 3.2 million premature deaths annually around the world and remains one of the main drivers of pollution-related disease and death in Africa.

Yet making the switch to cleaner cookstoves has been difficult. As of 2020, about a third of the global population still doesn’t have full access to clean fuels and technology for cooking, according to the World Health Organization. In Sierra Leone, roughly 99 percent of people are still primarily using dirty cooking methods, despite years of efforts to spread the use of improved technology.

Even Kamah, who said she prefers to cook with the improved stoves at school, is using an inefficient hand-me-down stove at home.

“I don’t have money,” said Kamah, who previously cooked over firewood and three stones set up on a corrugated metal sheet. Her monthly pay, she said, is 800 leones, or about $40 — the country’s minimum wage — and most of it goes toward rent, utilities and caring for her three children.

Now a local effort to push cookstoves is gaining steam, with government officials, entrepreneurs and artisanal stove makers all trying to get the appliances to more Sierra Leonean households — namely by attempting to address major obstacles, such as cost and a lack of willingness to use new technology.

Hannah Max-Macarthy, managing director of a Freetown-based company that helped supply the new cookstoves to the school, said women like Kamah remind her of her own mother, who died at 46 after a lifetime of smoking fish over open fires.

“Every woman that I can reach now to help save her health is almost like reaching out to my mother,” said Max-Macarthy, 44, whose company manufactures cookstoves branded as Wonder Stoves.

A stove maker’s challenge

Wonder Stoves have been around since 1990. The company makes insulated cookstoves designed to reduce the amount of fuel needed to cook. Compared with an open fire, these stoves should produce less smoke and be more comfortable and safer to use.

But that kind of cookstove has made marginal inroads in Sierra Leone. While data on cooking methods in the country is scarce, anecdotally most people are still using less efficient cookstoves or three stone wood-burning fires, experts say. Having a gas or an electric stove is a luxury accessible to only a small minority.

Since Max-Macarthy’s longtime partner, Tapsir N’Jai, took over the Wonder Stoves business from his father more than 10 years ago, the pair has set out to overcome challenges faced by other cookstove advocates around the world — specifically, persuading people to change the way they cook.

To do that, Wonder Stoves has enlisted women to test prototypes and used their feedback to improve its product, said N’Jai, 50. One common complaint is that the cookstoves don’t have legs, or a stand, so women often have to bend over to cook.

So when N’Jai was working on a new version of the stoves, he said, Max-Macarthy had one request: “Come up with a new design, do whatever you have to do — as long as it has legs.”

New models of the stoves are now equipped with legs. And instead of featuring commonly used insulating clay liners, they will also include ceramic wool insulation, which makes the stoves lighter. Additionally, the inner basket of the stove, which holds the charcoal during cooking, will be removable, so that users no longer need to haul in the entire stove when repairs are needed.

Other cookstove manufacturers in Sierra Leone are innovating as well. Two Freetown-based companies that launched in recent years — Teranga and Women in Energy Sierra Leone — are also focusing on improving fuel by working to produce briquettes made of agricultural residue or waste that should burn cleaner than traditional firewood or charcoal.

“Whether you can afford [gas] or electricity, you can still have access to improved cookstoves that can reduce some of the problems,” said Margaret Mansaray, founder and CEO of Women in Energy Sierra Leone.

‘Do you have cookstoves?’

Before she became part of a local network of Wonder Stove retailers in 2020, said Cecilia Binta Faulkner, 56, many people passing her packed storefront in the bustling Congo Town market in Freetown often asked her the same question: “Do you have stoves?”

Now, Faulkner, who displays stoves alongside plastic chairs, cases of bottled water, and large basins full of groundnuts and rice, said she can typically sell 10 units a month, usually on credit, with some models going for 500 to 650 leones each, or about $25 to $33 — more than half of the country’s monthly minimum wage.

Many women, Max-Macarthy said, want these cookstoves. “They just can’t afford it upfront. That’s the biggest bottleneck.”

In comparison, traditional three-stone fires cost little to nothing to operate and are often the preferred cooking option in more rural areas.

In Matainkay, a village more than 25 miles from the heart of Freetown, Sallay Koroma is one of many residents who cook over open fires.

On an unshaded patch of dirt, she prepared food in a scorched black pot that sat several inches off the ground on top of three large stones darkened by soot. Charred branches shoved between the rocks jutted out in every direction.

Koroma, who is in her early 30s, said she is bothered by the smoke and knows there are other options available.

“But I got used to it so much that I can’t do away with it,” she said as she ladled chicken feet coated in a thick, reddish-brown sauce from another pot into a plastic container. And, she added, firewood is cheap and easy to get.

Making cookstoves more affordable

To help lower costs and increase cookstove access, private cookstove companies say they need local government support and access to international funding set aside to reduce carbon emissions.

“We want to change the cooking landscape or the cooking narrative in Sierra Leone,” said Sahr Abraham Grass-Sessay, Teranga’s founder.

Sierra Leone is rolling out similar efforts as part of its commitment to the Paris climate agreement. In 2021, the country set out to increase the share of the population that uses gas for cooking to 25 percent — up from less than 1 percent as of 2019 — and make energy-saving cooking solutions accessible to all households by 2030. In February, the Energy Ministry launched a drive to distribute an initial supply of 2,000 stoves, with a goal of a million over five years. If distributed one per household, that would cover about 80 percent of the country’s estimated 1.2 million households.

But advocates say the amount of available funding for clean cooking falls far short of meeting needs.

Meanwhile, the movement to transition the country away from open-fire cooking has created economic opportunities for some rural villages.

Matainkay, a known source of clay, has become a makeshift factory of clay liners for cookstoves, with dozens of artisans making the pieces by hand.

Under the shade of a weathered black tarp held up by branches, Tamba Johnson, 42, placed a thick slab of gray clay into a worn metal mold. He shaped the clay with deft movements, smoothing it with pottery tools fished out of a plastic container half full of murky water. Minutes later, he gingerly removed the metal casing to reveal a familiar shape: a flat-bottomed round basin.

The sale of these liners is one of the village’s primary sources of income, said Johnson, the site chairman.

With their clay liners, the village’s workers are helping put thousands of cookstoves into the market. Every three months they prepare 100,000 pieces, Johnson said.

They supply private companies, such as Teranga and Women in Energy Sierra Leone, as well as artisanal stove makers, who fashion versions of the clay-lined charcoal appliances out of scrap metal and sell them for much lower prices. One stove maker said he sells his products in Freetown for 25 leones, or about a dollar.

These units, which are usually made and sold in front yards or along roadsides, often lack health and environmental standards or certifications, said Kandeh Yumkella, a member of Sierra Leone’s parliament and former chair of UN-Energy, who has been a leading voice in the country advocating clean cooking. Still, Yumkella said, they probably make up the vast majority of the cookstoves used in the country.

On a February afternoon in Matainkay, 70,000 liners lay in neat rows drying, waiting to be fired in brick ovens. Rubbing his clay-caked hands together, Johnson surveyed the legion of liners.

“This is an essential job in this nation,” he said.

Ishmael Sallieu Koroma in Freetown, Sierra Leone, contributed to this report.

Friday May 19, 2023