Kemri to study fuel choices impact on community health

Monday, May 10th, 2021 00:00 |
Charcoal jikos. A study is set to understand fuel choices for users in Kenya and Malawi. PD/Photo/Courtesy

The Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) is involved in a new Sh30 million study seeking to understand the fuel choices of those living in East and Central African informal communities in a bid to improve health.

Kemri will work in conjunction with the UK’s University of Stirling and the University of Malawi.

Funded by the UK Research and Innovation Arts and Humanities Research Council, the study will examine factors behind use of solid fuels in cooking, which can be damaging to health, and develop practical interventions to tackle the issue.

In Kenya, the study will be conducted in Mukuru kwa Njenga and will aim to understand the effect of use of fuelwood, charcoal and other choices of fuels in the overall health of the residents. In Malawi, it will be conducted in Ndirande informal settlement in Blantyre.

The research will explore cultures, behaviours and lived experiences of those who rely on solid fuels –such as wood, biomass waste, charcoal and animal dung –for cooking.

Past research has shown smoke emanating from the burning of solid fuels is bad for people’s health and those worst affected live in slums and informal settlements in low- and middle-income countries, where they cannot afford to connect to the electricity grid and have crowded living environments with poor ventilation.

“Biomass fuel continues to be the main source of cooking fuel both in urban and rural setups in Kenya, due to its accessibility and affordability.

There is need to understand the relationship between its use and an emergence of unexplained non-communicable diseases in Kenya,” said Prof Sam Kariuki, Acting Director General at Kemri.

The study will lead to a better understanding of the norms and beliefs around food preparation and –most importantly –the barriers to alternative fuel use.

The findings are likely to have a wider impact, with three billion people worldwide cooking on solid fuels.

For around three billion people worldwide, solid fuels are the only available and affordable sources of energy, with around 840 million having no access to electricity.

Suitable interventions

Around 3.8 million deaths annually are attributed to household air pollution, which is responsible for half of pneumonia deaths in children under five, due to exposure while their mothers are cooking.

“It is worrying when you imagine the extent of exposure to household smoke in urban informal settlement areas when meals are being prepared, considering wood and charcoal are the most common sources of fuel,” observed Fred Orina, a researcher with Kemri.

The health implications of solid fuel use are exacerbated in low-and middle-income countries where children are often malnourished and suffer musculoskeletal damage caused by fuel gathering –such as picking large bundles of wood.

Fuel gathering also takes people away from income generation, schooling and socialising, and, as primary gatherers and cooks, women and girls are worst affected.

The data gathered will be summarised and communicated to the participating communities in a visual and interactive manner –for example, through pop-up exhibitions of posters and drawings from local artists, videos, and dots photography.

The team will further develop intervention ideas through a range of participatory activities – including theatre, role play and storytelling –in a way that is relevant to the residents of the communities.

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