Why Rural Energy Poverty is a Threat to Both the Environment and Women

When we think about the term “energy poverty,” we picture households in the dark, without electricity. These households tend to be in the developing world, particularly in rural communities of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia. But energy is much more than electricity and modern appliances. Rural households, even those in remote communities in sub-Saharan Africa without electricity, consume energy for basic needs of cooking, lighting, and heating. Their primary sources of fuel — wood and charcoal — pose the world's greatest environmental threat and harm women and children at disproportionate rates. 

Forty percent of the world's population (2.8 billion people) rely primarily on wood and charcoal for their energy needs. Because the burden of collecting and carrying wood and cooking meals falls primarily on women and girls, they experience higher levels of exposure to harmful pollutants such as the carbon monoxide that is released from the burning of biomass. These pollutants also have an acute effect on young children, who often remain by their mothers’ sides while they cook. According to the World Health Organization, indoor air pollution caused by the burning of these fuels kills 4.3 million people annually.

Yet despite these statistics, this issue gets hardly any attention. To put things in perspective, indoor air pollution in the homes of 40% of the world’s population is at least 10 times worse than the outdoor air in Beijing or Delhi. But while the air pollution in those big cities has resulted in the rethinking of energy use and concerted cleanup efforts, indoor air pollution in much of the developing world remains invisible and a non-issue for governments and institutions.

The collection of wood and/or charcoal as well as preparing food with inefficient cookstoves and the pollution that it releases indoors keeps girls out of school and women from partaking in productive endeavors. While the development community is now focusing on investments in rural electrification through solar lamps, micro grids and such, access to clean cooking energy largely remains unaddressed. It is about time we recognize that indoor air pollution is a major development issue which contributes to the vicious cycle of poverty which traps women and girls disproportionately.

While the scale and severity of this issue might seem daunting, solutions exist and represent one of the best investments we can make in ensuring sustainable and equitable community development. Improved cookstoves represent one potential solution. By burning wood and charcoal efficiently and (ideally) conducting smoke outside through chimneys, these stoves limit the emission of harmful gases, and improved cookstoves are cheap and can often be constructed using locally available materials. However, clean cookstoves only represent a partial solution since they still require wood and charcoal as fuel — using these stoves does not address issues of deforestation and associated environmental degradation. We need a holistic approach to tackling the dual challenge of indoor air pollution and environmental degradation that is culturally appropriate, affordable, and scalable.

Biogas is perhaps the most applicable alternative fuel for rural communities in the developing world. By making use of animal and plant waste (which are usually readily available in rural agrarian communities) biodigesters produce methane gas which can then be used for cooking and heating. Biodigesters do not produce the harmful gases that are emitted from burning solid biomass. While biodigesters are more expensive than clean cookstoves, after a short period of time they turn out to be a very worthy investment since they have a much longer lifespan compared to cookstoves and make use of materials that are readily available.

BioD is a novel biodigester which addresses indoor air pollution and environmental degradation by providing an affordable source of alternative energy for cooking in rural communities. Constructed with readily available materials, the BioD takes animal and plant waste and produces both methane to be used as cooking fuel and a nitrogen-rich sludge, which is an excellent fertilizer. Operating the device is simple and requires only 15 minutes every day. This device has undergone thorough testing in several rural communities in Madagascar and is currently being scaled up in partnership with local and international NGOs through a market-based approach.

The environmental issues that we are faced with today are intertwined with human rights challenges. Rural women in developing countries who have been historically disenfranchised by our institutions and structures will bear the brunt of environmental degradation including climate change. The onus is now on us to recognize and address rural energy poverty, and in doing so improve the environment and the lives of rural women around the world.

Hatch International’s BioD  team has developed a low-cost and effective biodigester that converts organic waste into methane gas which can then be used as a cooking fuel in biodiversity-threatened nations such as Madagascar. The ultimate goal is to have a self-sustaining social enterprise run by a community within the next two years. For more information or to help support the project, please click here.

This blog post was written by Rahul Mitra, Co-Director of Hatch International’s BioD Project.