How do you cook your food? I usually first prepare the ingredients and then turn the stove on, but not for all of us does a blue flame appear at the click of a stove switch.
Now try to imagine that you spend one day every week to collect wood for cooking. You have to wake up early and trek long distances to reach the source of fuelwood. Once you find the suitable trees, you have to cut them and gather the wood pieces to make a sufficient headload. Then you have to make the way back home carrying the wood twice your weight on your head or your back. Often you are also balancing the weight of your child with the wood. Most probably you reach home in the evening, and only after that can you start cooking. But when you run out of fuelwood, in less than a week, you have to go through the process again. That’s the reality for an average rural woman in Africa.
The fuelwood problem
The fact that people in many African countries do not have gas or electricity for cooking is not news; the fuelwood problem has been around for decades. In the 70s and early 80s, the main concern was deforestation, and a “fuelwood crisis” was declared with projections of rapid and total destruction of the biomass resource. This theory was later questioned by research that demonstrated that deforestation is a more complex phenomenon in which agriculture is the primary driver and that the fuelwood problem goes beyond a simple supply-demand equation. Consequently, there was a sharp decline in projects that sought to boost fuelwood supplies, and the forestry sector shifted attention away from wood energy issues.
Concerns about fuelwood have however remained. Now, the most prominent worry is the health impacts of inhaling cooking smoke. The Global Burden of Disease report shows household air pollution from the use of solid fuels is a leading risk factor for disease, responsible for 4 million deaths annually, almost all of them in the developing countries. In sub-Saharan Africa it is the second major health hazard, exceeded only by malnutrition. What is more, this indoor problem is also an outdoor problem because cooking smoke also contributes to climate change.
But does the challenge really stop there?
This week the 14th World Forestry Congress has gathered the most prominent actors in the area of forestry to discuss a vision for forests and forestry for 2050. For the first time ever the congress is hosted in Africa, and its theme is about forests and people. The inclusion of “people” prominently in the forest debate has ensured that the issue of fuelwood has come across in several sessions during the conference, and has once again brought energy access back to the forestry debate.
At the thematic session on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition, I presented the results of a new study on the connection between fuelwood access and food security. This review is the first attempt to draw a link between these two prominent issues, since it was raised by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO in the 1990. At that time the connection between food security and fuelwood access was considered intuitive, but warranted further investigation before action could be taken.
Surprisingly enough, two and a half decades later the review we performed could not find many studies that explore how food security and energy access depend on each other. While 43 out of 131 articles reviewed alluded to the link, less than 5 had concrete data to support the existence of the connection between energy access and food security.