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Clean Burn: Can a Stove Save Lives, Forests, and Africa's Economy?

One company's ambitious plan to change the energy economy of sub-Saharan Africa, saving lives and the environment.

Preparing food can be dangerous. The World Health Organization calls cooking "a threat to the lives of the great majority" of the world's population because so few households have a proper stove, instead cooking indoors over open flame. In sub-Saharan Africa, preparing a meal is too often a slow, dirty process that fills the home with smoke equivalent to puffing two packs of cigarettes a day.

Danish biotechnology firm Novozymes is trying to combat these threats by building stoves that burn ethanol, rather than wood, in Mozambique. The company announced an ambitious goal at the Clinton Global Initiative this week: to provide alternative cooking fuel to 20 percent of Maputo, Mozambique's capital, by 2014. The company, known for making enzymes for biofuels, is partnering with the "food, energy and forest prevention company" CleanStar Ventures to offer an alternative ethanol-fueled stove and a locally-based system for producing the fuel.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 80 percent of homes burn charcoal or other biomass for cooking fuel, closer to cooking over a campfire than a kitchen range. To provide the charcoal for all those smokey ad hoc stoves, farmers have to chop down astonishing numbers of trees, which makes eating a danger to the planet, too. Already almost a third of Africa's forests have been lost, mostly to charcoal harvesters.

Thousands of huge bags of charcoal are transported throughout the Mozambique and sold as a source for heat and cooking. The World Health Organization estimates 2 million people die every year from the toxic combination of carcinogens and pollutants in cooking smoke.

Numerous companies are designing and producing cleaner stoves—the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves lists several. Many tackle the pollution problem by burning biomass more efficiently than open flame, thus consuming less wood and spewing less smoke. A few, like the BioLite stove, offer extras like electric power, enough to charge a cell phone and a fan that further helps reduce the poisonous plumes. But moving people away from wood-burning stoves altogether could solve several issues at once.

The biggest challenge to the Novozymes project is that it requires production of mass quantities of ethanol. "The development of a robust ethanol production, supply and distribution chain would be a necessary precursor to the widespread adoption of ethanol as a cooking fuel in Sub-Saharan Africa," says Radha Muthiah, executive director of the Alliance.

So Novozymes is working to develop a fuel production system and train people to harvest sugary plants that produce ethanol. "Instead of the rural families slashing trees and making charcoal, they are going to become farmers," says Thomas Nagy, Novozymes' executive vice president.

This project is notable because it applies systems thinking to make a sustainable, profitable cycle from local inputs and local ownership. "We expect the farmers to increase their daily income by a factor of four, five, six times," Nagy says. Many families make $1 a day or less harvesting charcoal, and grow just enough food to eat themselves because there isn't an adequate market system for selling excess.

"There's no incentive for them to grow more, because there is no market," Nagy says. "We are going to establish a sustainable agriculture community." Rural farming families will get access to an agri-forest system where they can grow cassava, beans, peas and other crops without cutting down trees. The beans and peas capture nitrogen from the soil, so they are used as rotation crops with the cassava, and can also be sold.

CleanStar will buy any excess beans, peas and various fruits from the farming families. "We will then dry the fruits and package it ... and transport it to Maputo where it is sold," Nagy says. The cassava will be combined with Novozymes' specialty, enzymes, to become a clean-burning ethanol for the stoves. Five hundred families who own small plots of land are already trading with CleanStar as part of the project.

To make large-scale cassava farming profitable, enough Maputo residents have to ditch their smoky culinary habits and switch to the company's ethanol stove. Cooking over an ethanol stove is a different experience, and many families resist the switch. Plus, the stove costs $30, a pretty steep price for families earning a few dollars a day.

"In a country with a per capita GDP of around $1,000, users cannot be expected to pay $30 upfront for a stove," says Muthiah of the Cookstove Alliance. "At the same time, substantially cheaper stoves are not likely to provide substantial health or environmental benefits." That's why she says public education must be included in plans like this one, so users are aware of better options. Innovative financing for customers is also crucial considering the high price, she says. That could mean discounts earned from carbon offsets, microloans, or other access to credit for businesses along the supply chain, especially women-run enterprises.

Novozymes and CleanStar are working with one such company, Zoe Enterprises, a female-founded local firm charged with distributing, marketing, and generally persuading the mothers of Maputo that cooking with ethanol is worth the extra cost. The pitch? It's cleaner, faster and, in the long run, might even be cheaper. Charcoal is getting more expensive as the forests near Maputo dwindle. As transport costs for charcoal increase, so does the price.

That's part of why Nagy is optimistic Novozymes can scale up. By 2014, the partnership hopes to have 3,000 farmers, providing fuel for 80,000 households. The total market for alternative cooking fuel in sub-Saharan African, he says, is around $10 billion. That's big change, and big business. "Our hope is that we can show to the world that this is a very very sustainable business model," Nagy says. "Not only sustainable for [the] environment, deforestation, and health issues, but also that the joint venture is actually able to make money."

Photos courtesy of Novozymes

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