MECS East Africa Launch profiled in Regional News

The MECS East Africa launch has been profiled in Business Daily. Many thanks to Sammy Mwiti for writing the article.

The full article text is here;

Sparking a Cooking Revolution By Sammy Mwiti

Cooking your favorite delicacy in East Africa is going to be cheaper and faster soon. It’s also likely to save the lives of thousands of cooks whose goose is cooked by relying on biomass fuels such as charcoal or firewood. Granted, cooking which is so central to our lives, thrills. But, depending on method, cooking also kills—in large numbers. For example, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), cooking with biomass fuels leads to 4 million premature deaths per year. That’s more than the deaths associated with HIV, TB and malaria combined. Therefore, it comes as a huge relief that in a major move, one of the world’s leading development agencies—UKAid—is focusing on household energy as opposed to electricity access for achieving universal energy access.

Through the Modern Energy Cooking Services (MECS) programme that was launched in Nairobi on 14 May 2019, UKAid, in partnership with the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) of the World Bank and Loughborough University UK, are striving to change the cooking narrative with a focus on replacing biomass cooking with more efficient, practical and affordable appliances powered by modern energy, while at the same time, integrating the climate change agenda. The five-year, £ 39.8 million (about Ksh 5 billion) MECS Programme seeks to break new ground by supporting evidence, research and insights into the drivers and pathways for economies to transition to modern energy cooking services, and investing in new technologies that make using electricity and gas more efficient, more practical, more desirable and affordable for poor households. MECS will also boost innovations in business models, financing and private sector delivery of modern energy cooking services.

As such, MECS goes beyond electric cooking and also includes work on new approaches to other fuels such as biogas, ethanol and LPG. The centre-piece of the programme is a Challenge Fund that provides grant funding to private companies, NGOs and researchers working on solutions in the areas of energy storage for cooking; grid and infrastructure adaptability; as well as alternative fuels, among others. The Fund is open to countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and comes with limited conditions to encourage start-ups, SMEs and community-based organizations to access the facility. The Closing date for the first round of applications is June 4, 2019. There are plenty of other opportunities in subsequent financing rounds.

“We have to acknowledge that cooking is a deeply embedded cultural practice, and therefore, business as usual approaches will not work in achieving sustainable development goal number 7 on access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all,” reckons Karren Chepkurui, a gender specialist with the MECS program.

Globally, the challenge is enormous. Based on UN and World Bank data, 3 billion people rely on biomass as their chief source of cooking while 1 billion people don’t have access to electricity. This implies, of course that 2 billion people who have access to electricity still rely on biomass. In Kenya for instance, consumption of electricity for cooking accounts for only 3%.

“There is a general lack of understanding of load for cooking in the development equation, leading to lack of funding for research, innovation and development” explains Mr. Daniel Wanjohi, an official of the Clean Cooking Alliance. And of the total global lending, less than 5 % is committed to investments in supporting the transition to the transition to modern cooking fuels, documented the World Bank in a report on its investments in energy access over the period 2000–2008.

It’s this state of affairs that critics say, betray underlying biases and a gendered approach towards household energy simply because it is predominantly, a women’s domain. To address this huge deficit, there’s need for a paradigm shift that places clean cooking agenda at par with electricity access. The tide is turning, however. Upward social mobility has by default, created modern aspirations for neatness and cleanliness in the kitchen, in many countries including Kenya and Uganda charcoal is more expensive than electricity, and costs of solar systems are dramatically coming down. Furthermore, the advent of more energy-efficient appliances and advances in technology such as Pay as You Go payment systems enables energy access to the bottom of the pyramid and the vulnerable. Above all, as a region we are increasingly getting more electrified. Based on World Bank estimates by 2020, Uganda will have a surplus, with 950 MW generation capacity; Tanzania will nearly double its capacity from 1500 MW in 2015 while Kenya will have 5000 MW by 2020, with renewables accounting for 84%. Ironically, despite having a surplus, while 26% people overall of people in Uganda are covered by electricity, and nearly 87% in urban areas, electric cooking barely registers nationally and is only 3% in urban areas.

“Increased electrification levels provide opportunity to reduce indoor air pollution – one of the most prevalent causes of premature deaths” stated Dr Simon Batchelor, Director of Gamos. who has worked for more than three decades in renewable energy and clean cooking in East Africa and Asia. “Energy efficient electric cooking solutions are on the horizon, following a path of other super-efficient appliances” he added in a key-note speech at the launch of MECS.

Mr Jechoniah Kitala who heads the Energy Programme at Practical Action agrees with this view adding however that to achieve impact at scale, “there is need for a market-driven approach, sustainable business models that integrate gender and social inclusion as well as conducive policy for decentralized energy systems”. Furthermore, with the right energy mix, challenges associated with electricity such as lack of access or insufficient access, burnt out wiring, blackout and low voltage can be overcome in many ways. For instance, you can trickle charge a battery, cook when you want and charge whenever power is available. The charge can also come from other energy sources such as hydro grids, wind power, micro or mini-grids, or even a home system. In fact, solar electric cooking offers a huge potential in addressing the energy need of poor households because it is easily adaptable to standalone and mini-grid situations when there are challenges with grid connectivity.

A particularly promising appliance is the electric pressure cooker (EPC). The EPC or multicooker is an appliance that is a combination of familiar things (an electric hotplate, a pressure cooker and an insulated hotbox)-with a fully automated control system. Arguing that researchers have tended to advocate induction hobs as a more efficient device than a hotplate, Dr Batchelor says that evidence suggests this is only part of the picture. “Recent eCook data suggests that a well-insulated (electrical) ‘multi-cooker’ is an even more efficient device. Able to cook the majority of foods, it is desirable for its cleanliness and ease of use” he states.