Briket in use on a cookstove. One briket lasts about 7 hours before burns out completely.
By Denis Israel
Forty percent of the world population still relies on biomass for cooking, lighting, and heating, according to 2014 World Health Organization data. This has significantly burdened the resources on the planet and those living on it. Unsustainable biomass collection depletes forests and contributes to soil erosion and loss of watersheds, placing additional pressure on agricultural productivity and food security.
In 2016 when war broke out in South Sudan, thousands crossed over to Uganda as refugees and settled in the northern region, specifically in Bidibidi refugee settlement in Yumbe District. The rapid construction of this settlement meant that huge numbers of trees were cut for construction of shelters and biomass. During this time, refugees primarily used the three stones methods to cook, adopting firewood and charcoal, which is both dangerous and costly to the environment. To date, Bidibidi refugee settlement hosts about 227,000 refugees within approximately 250 square kilometers. It is estimated that the average daily consumption of firewood by refugees in northern Uganda is 1.6 kilograms per person and 2.1 kilograms by the host community.
In response to this situation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has partnered with several non-governmental organizations and various startups such as Zeed Energy to provide clean energy cooking alternatives to refugees in the settlement. The organization creates cooking baskets and clean cookstoves that use brickets. Not only are these methods cheap, they are also environment-friendly, healthy and locally sourced.
Christine, a 21-year-old mother of two who lives in zone 1 in Bidibidi, expressed her joy and excitement for having chanced on an opportunity to cook using clean energy methods.
“I prefer using brickets and cooking basket because of the time I spend. I used to cook using about two to three bundles of firewood every two weeks, but not anymore because just one bricket is enough for a full meal,” Christine said.
To Christine, this means she does not have to walk about four hours after every fortnight in search of biomass for
cooking. The raw materials used for making these brickets are readily available, including potato peals, groundnut husks, grasses, maize corps, simsim stocks, cassava stocks leaves, and many other typical household materials. A bricket goes for about 1,500 Ugandan shillings (about $0.41) per kilogram in the settlement but also refugees who cannot afford this amount can bring biomass and exchange this material for brickets. The brickets are locally produced using raw materials that are locally sourced from within the settlement.
Sarah Basemera, the director of Zeed Energy, added that some refugees were also impacted through trainings that enabled them to make the cookstoves, brickets and cooking baskets themselves.
“It used to cost more, especially cooking basket, since the clothes needed to contain the energy were tailored using sewing machines. But now it is cheaper especially for the refugees since the baskets are handmade,” Basemera said
Christine and her husband both received training from Zeed and now work at the center in the settlement. When preparing for instance beans, one only has to leave it on fire for about 30 minutes and then remove it and put it in an insulated cooking basket and cover properly. The food will continue cooking using the heat concealed in the cooking basket.
Reports from the World Health Organization reveal that the health risks of household air pollution are substantial. As the primary managers of household energy, women are disproportionately at risk for harmful emissions exposure every day. Recent global health estimates show that household air pollution leads to over 4 million deaths annually, while millions more suffer from cancer, pneumonia, heart and lung disease, blindness, and burns. Approximately 300,000 of the deaths, 88% of which are women, are attributed to burns resulting from traditional cooking fires.
At a community dialogue in July organized to collect feedback from refugees who have been using the products, an elderly woman, Margaret, asked if she can as well be given the chance to try out the clean energy products.
“I have been seeing people who are using this cookstove and the cooking baskets no longer go to fetch firewood with us and they are happy,” she said.
In the first month, about 302 brickets of about 600 kilograms were given out. In mid-July, the production stood at 1,000 kilograms per month, which translates into about 40 households that are now using the clean energy sources for cooking. With more refugees showing interest in using these new methods, the production of both bricket and cooking baskets is estimated to double in the coming months.