How healthy are school kitchens in Sub-Saharan Africa? And what are their impacts on the environment and climate? While providing vital, balanced nutrition for many children who would otherwise not receive this, more than 90% of African schools rely on wood fuel and charcoal for cooking for students and staff.
In Kenya alone this results in more than 1.3 million metric tonnes of wood being consumed each year by schools and colleges. This has huge environmental impacts on forest reserves in the region, while the dangerous levels of air pollution from burning wood fuel in open stoves adversely affects the health of those learning and working in the school environment, and in the surrounding communities.
A documentary on impacts of wood-fuelled school kitchens and transition to clean fuel
Our new documentary film tells the story of this major health and environmental challenge through the accounts of cooks, students, the head teachers of two schools, and those leading an exciting new initiative aiming to convert school kitchens to clean fuels right across East Africa.
The video was produced by the University of Liverpool’s NIHR-funded CLEAN-Air (Africa) (CAA) Unit, a research programme collaborating with teams in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Cameroon. It is committed to providing the evidence needed to accelerate the urgently required transition to clean cooking in homes and institutions across the continent.
The film is grounded in CAA’s research on air quality in the schools. This has demonstrated average (24-hr) kitchen levels of small particles (PM2.5) more than five times the ‘interim’ safe level of 35 micrograms per cubic metre set by WHO. During cooking, levels reached more than 1000 micrograms per cubic metre.
The first of the two schools featured in the video, Kwa Njenga Primary, is located in the sprawling informal settlement of Makuru, in Nairobi’s Eastern suburbs. The head teacher, Lenah Kariuki, explains why the meals provided are so important for the children and the work of the school:
“Around 2,300 take lunch here every day, some take food home for siblings, so it’s ‘absolutely necessary’ … most are from very poor backgrounds … and this may be the only meal they get each day.
“Lunch is prepared in this smoky kitchen … we have maize and beans (the local food known as ‘githeri’). This has to be cooked soft as we are using hard grains, so it can take many hours to get soft enough for kids. If it’s not well cooked they will throw it away, won’t finish the food; if it’s soft they eat, enjoy and are OK to learn.”
“If they miss a meal, it is very hard to concentrate in class, so you find some sleeping, some dozing, some are so … that you’d think they are sick, all because they have missed the lunch here. They will come here even when they are sick. The programme has helped us sustain the population of the school, because we have very few cases of absenteeism.”
A toxic working environment for cooks and pollution that spreads throughout the school
Each school day morning, Phylis Shanyisa comes early to Kwa Njenga Primary, where she joins Leah Ruuai to begin preparing the midday meal for the children and staff. The food is cooked using large wood-fired stoves which create a toxic environment of smoke for the cooks, and also expose children and teachers as the pollution permeates throughout the school to classrooms and the playground.
Phylis has worked in this kitchen for almost ten years, and the income is vital for her family. But the conditions have started to take a toll on her health:
“Aaah! This work hurts us a lot. I do not have anywhere else … it is just here where I depend on so that I can feed my children. I wonder how I can leave my job but I cannot quit this job. Even my eyes, when the sun shines and I walk outside I don’t usually see. I just close my eyes and my legs somehow locate where to step.”
A school that has converted the kitchen to clean fuel
The other school in our film has a very different story to tell. Alliance High is a boarding school in the forested suburbs on the opposite side of Kenya’s capital city. But until recently, and like Kwa Njenga and many thousands of other schools a cross the country, Alliance were cooking all of the meals for pupils and staff on wood fuel. Concerned about availability of wood supplies, and possessing a dairy herd, they tried biogas. Unfortunately, this was not able to provide sufficient energy for the school’s cooking needs, so they reverted to the use of wood.
Then, in 2020, taking advantage of a new loan facility offered by the Equity Group Foundation, the school kitchen was converted to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).
Eric Naivasha, Associate Director for Energy, Environment and Climate Change at the Equity Group Foundation, explains the motivations and goals of the loan facility:
“Each school is cutting an average of 100-150 trees per month. You can imagine that burden in terms of deforestation. When you even look at 10,000 Secondary boarding schools in Kenya – 10 million trees being cut in a year. And we realised that if we did not do something about how people cook, then we’ll surely turn this country into a desert …. and, you are going to have huge health burdens, because when you look at the data … 22,000 people dying every year [in Kenya] from indoor air pollution – diseases that can be prevented by reducing pollution in our kitchens.”
“That’s the struggle we have in schools. So, it’s an environmental issue, it’s a health issue, it’s a cost issue, it’s an efficiency issue. I dare call it a human rights issue, because when you go to some of those kitchens, you cannot stand in that kitchen for more than a minute, because of the inhalation of [smoke]. And we said we need to do something about this. So, we started the ‘Clean Cooking Programme in Schools’, as a realisation that our trees that we are planting are in danger, but also we realised from research we are losing a lot of people from IAP.”
Initial success, and the potential to scale-up the clean-up of school kitchens
This rapidly growing finance initiative has proven successful at Alliance and a growing number of other schools. Here, Alliance Principal David Kamau, reflects on how the LPG conversion has worked for the school, including considerations of cost, the kitchen environment, and overall sustainability.
“The cost is not very different, it’s almost the same, especially in the recent past fuel prices have gone up, especially because [of the] crisis in Ukraine, and generally prices of fossil fuels have gone up, and so LPG prices also have gone up [and] are quite variable.”
“When you look at the impact that it is having on the environment, and we are not cutting trees any more, and we need those trees of course to clean up the environment. We are looking at a cleaner kitchen now we don’t have the smoke; there used to be a lot of smoke, [a lot] of soot, of course which was a health hazard for the cooks, and so, definitely it’s a cleaner environment for them.
But the cost in terms of other benefits is what makes it a very exciting project and a very exciting way to provide energy in the kitchen. And so it is something that is fully sustainable.”
The kitchen staff can remember how the pollution affected them, and what they did to mitigate the irritation. They also recalled some of the practical challenges of getting the food ready on time when cooking with wood:
“There was a lot of smoke. Sometimes we used to take milk so as to reduce the irritation in the chest. We had this problem, especially with cooking githeri. And sometimes the food was not getting cooked properly … yes, you get to lunchtime and the rice is only halfway cooked … because the firewood used was not spreading the fire to all parts. It’s not like how the gas burners can be balanced.”
African governments now targetting scale-up of healthy school and other institutional kitchens
With African governments now setting ambitious targets for schools and other public institutions to move to the use of clean cooking fuels including LPG and electricity, loans provided by Equity Group and Kenya Commercial Bank, both of which are operating in a number of East African countries, look set to transform institutional reliance on wood fuel across Kenya and East Africa.
The CLEAN-Air (Africa) programme is now working to carry out a comprehensive evaluation of the impacts of the transition to clean fuels on air pollution, health, costs, and sustainability. The team’s new ‘state-of-the-art’ laboratory at KEMRI, Nairobi, will play a key role in this research.
This video was filmed and produced by Nigel Bruce (Emeritus Professor of Public Health, University of Liverpool) and narrated by Daniel Pope (Professor of Global Public Health and Programme Director, University of Liverpool). The work was made possible by our African partners, two of whom feature in the video (Willah Nabukwangwa and Gohole Arthur), and other members of the CLEAN-Air (Africa) team based at KEMRI.
All images in this articles are taken from scenes in the video documentary. For more information, please leave a comment below, and we will get back to you.