The Problem

Every day, over 3 billion people in the world use open fires or charcoal stoves for cooking and heating; a reality that contributes to:

Poor Health + High Mortality
Widespread + Persistent Poverty
Deforestation + Land Degradation
Climate Change

Halima Bare with one of her children, East Africa  Photo courtesy of: Oxfam East Africa, via Wikimedia Commons.

Halima Bare with one of her children, East Africa

Photo courtesy of: Oxfam East Africa, via Wikimedia Commons.

Poor Health + High Mortality

Smoke from traditional cooking practices causes a range of serious illnesses, including pneumonia, lung cancer, and heart disease, and kills over 4 million people a year—more than the annual toll of HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria combined. About one quarter of these deaths occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, where Global HearthWorks concentrates its efforts. 

  • Household air pollution from cooking is the 4th greatest health risk in the world after high blood pressure, alcohol, and tobacco. 
  • Cooking over an open fire creates indoor pollution levels 10-20 times higher than the maximum levels considered safe in developed countries and is equivalent to smoking two packs of unfiltered cigarettes per day. 
  • Exposure to smoke from open fires is the single largest contributing factor to pneumonia, which is the leading cause of mortality in children under the age of five.
  • Use of charcoal stoves indoors produces hazardous levels of carbon monoxide and smoke and will cause more than 10 million premature deaths in Africa by 2030.

How clean cooking technology can help

Tackling the health impacts of traditional cooking practices requires identifying and designing the most appropriate stove technologies and effectively distributing improved stoves to the people who need them most. 

  • Cookstove technologies that eliminate or greatly reduce emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) have the greatest potential to mitigate the ill-health effects of cooking with biomass.
  • Currently the cleanest burning stoves (those using electricity, LPG, biogas, or ethanol) remain out of reach of most poor consumers. 
  • Improved biomass stoves that employ fan-assisted gasification technology have achieved higher emissions reductions than those that do not; however most gasifier stoves still remain too expensive for the majority of consumers who need them.
  • Efforts are currently underway to quantify the health benefits of various improved stove types and to reduce the production costs of the cleanest burning biomass stoves.  

Women "fuel donkeys" in Kenya slum.  Photo courtesy of :

Women "fuel donkeys" in Kenya slum.

Photo courtesy of :

Widespread + Persistent Poverty

75% of the world’s poor live in rural areas, where the majority uses open fires or rudimentary wood stoves to cook their food and boil water for safe drinking.  A reliance on wood fuel for cooking contributes to rural poverty largely by consuming the time and energy of women and girls, whose daily burden of wood gathering keeps them from engaging in productive activities, such as tending gardens, raising cash crops or attending school. 

  • In rural Sub-Saharan Africa, women and children can spend as much as three hours a day collecting firewood. 
  • With population pressure diminishing available wood supplies, women and girls must venture further away from their home villages to collect firewood, putting them at risk for sexual assault. 

Meanwhile, as the rural poor continue to flock to cities and towns for better lives, urban poverty is growing faster than rural poverty in the developing world.  The urban populations of the world’s two poorest regions—Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—are expected to double over the next two decades, with the majority of urban residents residing in slums without basic amenities such as clean water, sanitation and regular electricity.   

  • Cooking with charcoal and firewood on inefficient stoves is a primary contributor to the persistence of poverty in Sub-Saharan African cities. 
  • The poorest urban households can spend as much as 40% of their income on cooking (and heating) fuel.
  • Lacking the cash to purchase in bulk, the poor must buy charcoal or firewood in daily or meal-sized portions--the least cost efficient form.
  • The price of both firewood and charcoal in Sub-Saharan Africa has increased by more than 50% in real terms over the past several years and is likely to continue to rise as urban demand intensifies and forest stocks decline. 

How clean cooking technology can help

The adoption of a modern biomass cookstove can substantially reduce a poor household’s cost of cooking and free up funds for other needs, such as school fees, home improvements, or small business investments. 

  • The amount of savings depends on the efficiency of the improved stove, the cost and type of fuel used, and the consistency of stove use. 
  • Switching from an inefficient charcoal stove to an efficient wood-burning stove can reduce a poor household’s fuel spending by 50-80% (or as much as $1 a day)—a significant savings for families living on an average of $2.50 per day. 

Deforestation of Cherangani hills, Kenya   Photo courtesy of: Juliana (afromusing), via Wikimedia Commons.

Deforestation of Cherangani hills, Kenya

Photo courtesy of: Juliana (afromusing), via Wikimedia Commons.

Deforestation + Land Degradation

As the pace of urbanization has intensified, charcoal production has become a leading driver of deforestation in the developing world, and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the large majority of poor urban residents rely on charcoal to meet their cooking and heating needs. The growth of the charcoal industry—combined with the increasing rural demand for firewood—is contributing to land degradation, leaving rural communities more vulnerable to flooding, drought and crop failure. 

  • Local charcoal producers use approximately 10 tons of wood to make a single ton of charcoal
  • Almost 95% of the biomass used in cooking comes from non-renewable sources—the equivalent of each household clearing 40-60 five-year-old trees per year.
  • The felling of tress for charcoal production (as well as for infrastructure and agricultural development) causes mudslides, loss of watershed, and soil erosion, jeopardizing agricultural productivity and food security.
  • Africa is suffering deforestation at twice the world rate, in large part due to the expanding population’s high reliance (90%) on wood-based fuel for cooking and heating. 

How clean cooking technology can help

Introducing modern, efficient cookstoves, in combination with renewable biomass fuels, can reduce the pressure on forested areas and improve land fertility, while providing a potential source of income for smallholder farmers.

  • Using an improved cookstove consumes about half as many trees as cooking on an open fire.
  • Burning sustainably-harvested wood directly in an improved cookstove, rather than cutting trees to produce charcoal, can reduce the fuel demand placed on forests by up to 95%.
  • Interspersing fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing tree species with food crops can improve soil fertility and increase agricultural production, while providing a sustainable source of wood fuel. 
  • Planting fast-growing trees in woodlots on smallholder farms located near to cities and towns can provide a cash crop for farmers and a source of sustainable fuel for urban households using modern wood-burning stoves, undercutting demand for charcoal
  • Producing “green” charcoal briquettes or pellets from crop waste or food-processing waste rather than from wood can provide an alternative source of sustainable fuel for rural and urban households, while creating income-earning opportunities in rural areas.

Cyclists travel on the road on a hazy day in Huaibei, Anhui province, China   Photo courtesy of : The Christian Science Monitor.

Cyclists travel on the road on a hazy day in Huaibei, Anhui province, China

Photo courtesy of : The Christian Science Monitor.

Climate Change

About 730 million tons of biomass (wood, agricultural wastes and dung) are burned for fuel each year in developing countries, releasing as much as 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.  In addition, burning solid biomass in open fires or inefficient stoves emits high concentrations of a number of short-lived pollutants—in particular, black carbon and methane—that have significant climate consequences at regional and global levels. 

  • On a pound for pound basis, methane’s climate impact is 20 times greater than that of CO2 over  a 100-year period and 84 times greater in the first two decades after its release.
  • Black carbon, or soot, which results from incomplete combustion of biomass (as well as fossil fuels and biofuels), has about 2/3 the climate impact of CO2 and now ranks as the second largest human contributor to climate change. 
  • Black carbon emissions have their greatest climate impact in mid to northern latitudes where the light-absorbing particles can fall on snow and ice and speed the melting process; however, the climate effects of black carbon are also being felt farther south, inducing changes in rainfall patterns from the Asian monsoon. 

How clean cooking technology can help

Improved cookstoves—if properly designed and disseminated—can reduce a large share of the climate damaging emissions caused by cooking with biomass.

  • Over its lifetime, an improved cookstove can save more CO2 than taking a car off the road for a year.
  • Switching to renewable biomass fuels—such as sustainably harvested stick wood or “green” charcoal briquettes—can help to preserve forests, which play a vital role in the global carbon cycle.