The Killer in the Kitchen

December 22, 2014

Title: 1.6 Billion People Being Smoked To Death by Kerosene Lamps majority of them Women and Children (Compiled by Geoffrey Mburu, Regional programme Manager, Renewable World East Africa)

1.6 billion people are using kerosene and other biofuels for lighting globally according to a report by the IFC’s lighting Africa report; These people are being smoked to death by the continuous  inhalation of health damaging pollutants according to IFC’s Lighting Africa Solar Lighting for the Base of the Pyramid – Overview of an Emerging Market report – published in June 2010.


Right: Conversation with women outside the Kapsambu Health Center

Left “Tove” or Kenebe; the name given to the above commonly used paraffin lamp in Chebich for household lighting purposes.

The World Health Organization estimates that over 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution. Of these, 12% are due to pneumonia, 34% from stroke, 26% from ischemic heart disease, 22% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and 6% from lung cancer (WHO 2014).

Even worse, more than 50% of premature deaths among children under 5 are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution, and if that is not bad enough, the number of un-electrified people in Africa is projected to grow being that the population growth will continue to outpace electrification. This means that unless this trend is mitigated, women who are the chief energy users and managers at the household level will continue to die preventable deaths with together with their children.

Access to clean and affordable energy is therefore a life or death issue among the low income communities living at Chebich, Kapkateny Location in Bungoma County.

The biggest problem

As I sat with about twenty women in a discussion regarding their energy needs and priorities, their call was simple, resounding and unanimous; “our greatest problem, priority and need when it comes to energy is indoor house pollution”. Unlike the men who thought of watching the football and catching the evening news, these women clearly understood the health impacts of indoor household pollution for their families.

Health impacts

This lack of access to clean energy technology results in respiratory illnesses common among their children and themselves. This is because they cook with illumination provided by “Tove” (kerosene lamp pictured) while the children will sit with them in the Kitchen and do their evening reading under the same smoking light.

Income losses

Consequently, they have to invest constantly in treatment of these allergic reactions on their eyes and respiratory systems and have to seek treatment every now and then at the Kapsambu Health Center. The costs they incur could be used to provide other basic necessities like food, education and clothing.

Gender inequality

In effect, we may as well forget about achieving gender equality if access to clean energy is not prioritized for the bottom of the pyramid. Each of the women in our discussion sat holding a sick child on the grass within the Kapsambu Dispensary compound. This a clear indication that the health problems in the family take a lot of women’s time that would be otherwise used for productive activities. This time/income poverty and the increased burden in caring for the sick exacerbates the time income poverty among women in a negative cycle.


As a result, women and children in effect also have to bear the anguish of cooking in a polluted environment. Teary eyes and running noses are common among rural women and their children have to “wipe and pull” every now and then to avoid dropping tears and mucus on their books.


This has a domino effect on the children’s education since they study for shorter hours than their elect light class mates, suffer more absenteeism from school and affects their overall performance in school and in turn their ability to escape the poverty trap.

Above: A woman in Chebicjh splitting firewood for cooking; another major driver of indoor house pollution.

Renewable World taking action

This is the reason why Renewable World is developing a 50KW pico-hydro plant and related services that will both deliver power to the local coffee cooperative for income generation, and electrify over 500 households within a one kilometer radius; reducing the use of inefficient, expensive, polluting carbon based technologies used for lighting and production in the area. It is expected that this initial phase will demonstrate that access to decentralized clean energy improves health, education and income outcomes especially for the most vulnerable women and children in society.

It has been proven that access to clean energy/power can mean the difference between life and death. The statistics are clear and concerted efforts are required between NGOs, government and private sector in order accelerate the uptake of clean energy and save millions of lives.