Despite health risks, firewood use still thrives in Nigerian communities

40 years old Yagana Bante from Gasaki community
40 years old Yagana Bante from Gasaki community

Though Nigeria ratified the Paris agreement on climate change in 2017, the country still grapples with the challenge of women and children suffering from the effect of constant use of firewood and charcoal.

The International Centre for Energy, Environment, and Development (ICEED) said 93,000 Nigerians die annually as a result of smoke inhaled while cooking with firewood, with women and children as the most affected persons.

This means that at least 450,000 Nigeria women will die from cooking with firewood or charcoal in 5 years if an alternative method of cooking is not introduced at an affordable rate.

Even in the Federal Capital Territory, Nigeria’s seat of power, women in many communities still cook with firewood with similar signs of chest pain, teary eyes, headache, constant cough, and back pain which are all associated with cooking with solid fuel.

The UN also said that close to 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution from inefficient cooking practises using polluting stoves paired with solid fuels and kerosene.

This is also an indication that about 20 million people will die globally in five years from cooking with firewood if a deliberate attempt is not made to reduce this.

Many of these people live in under-developed countries like Nigeria, and a significant number in and around the nation’s capital, Abuja.

From Gwarko, Paikon Kore in FCT to Zhipe, Cheta, and Gazaki in Nassarawa State, PREMIUM TIMES visited many communities to investigate the use firewood and coal.

Gasaki

On a sunny Tuesday in Gasaki village, a community in Karu local government of Nassarawa, 40-year-old frail-looking Yagana Bante walked as if the ground was laden with ceramics to her boiling pot of ‘Burukutu’.

Mrs Bante, a burukutu seller and a farmer, who came to arrange the firewood to generate more flame looked very tired and sick.

Burukutu is a local beer that is made from guinea corn which is popular in the North-central part of Nigeria.

Cleaning her teary eyes, she tells PREMIUM TIMES how she has been cooking with firewood for over 30 years every day and how she has been battling with chest pain, cough, teary eyes, back pain for over 10 years.

Although she does not have a formal education background, Mrs Bante attributed the symptoms she has been nursing to cooking with firewood. She says she worked as a Burukutu vendor to ensure her seven children live and get an education,’ ‘something her parents could not afford to give her”.

“I am not the only sick person, even my female children are sick. Some of them have chest pain and headache as a result of inhaling the smoke with me but we must eat and sell now. We do not go to the hospital, how do you want us to pay?

“We all use local herbs for our ailment, it will go and come again,” she said.

Mrs Bante also underlined how exorbitant medical costs have excluded the poor from the needed healthcare.

Mrs Bante said most of the communities around Gasaki patronise a traditional doctor, ‘Dr’ Bori Danladim to cure all ailments rather than going to the hospital.

Her story is one of several stories of women in the rural areas, whose lives are being threatened by the harmful effect of inhaling the smoke that comes from cooking with charcoal and wood.

In the communities PREMIUM TIMES visited, women rely on solid fuel for cooking. Along with their children, they climb the hills to cut the trees and fetch the wood for cooking.

Most of the women like Mrs Bante, are poor and can hardly afford safe cooking alternatives. Also, these women and girls are uneducated, and as a result, are unable to make better choices or go to the hospital for treatment.

Another farmer, Margaret Daniel, corroborated Mrs Bante’s experience in a separate interview with PREMIUM TIMES.

“We are really suffering, we are ready for an alternative method of cooking as long as it’s not expensive, you can see we can’t afford it. I use to have headache, constant cough and chest pain,” she said.

Also, most of the women who spoke with this reporter complained of walking more than three hours daily to get firewood to cook. This shows the physical impact of poverty on women who spend roughly over 80 hours a month gathering firewood.

“We leave our houses before 5 a.m. and get back before 9 a.m. to get firewood. We usually trek to the top of the hills,” she said.

The women all chorused they want an alternative method of cooking and it should be affordable.

Statistics

Smoke from open fire is Nigeria’s third-biggest killer with over 95,000 deaths annually behind Malaria and HIV/AIDS, according to the 2017 draft of the National Gas Policy of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, obtained by Premium Times, and which quoted the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The policy also said the cost of traditional cooking methods is high, burning up to 90 per cent more wood than is necessary and costing poor families money and time that could be put to better use on education, health, and nutrition.

The policy further states that the use of firewood contributes to massive deforestation and desertification, especially in Northern Nigeria, which experts have identified as a driver of conflict as communities and herders move towards greener pastures.

Accordingly, the policy also revealed that about 30 million households and more than 100 million Nigeria households depend on wood as a source of energy for cooking but this has come with collateral damage to human health, environment, economy and peace of the country.

Cheta

For most women in Cheta community, another community visited, most of the women use firewood and coal for their cooking and food selling

The women do not know that cooking with firewood is one of the major causes of the illness they have been experiencing.

One of such is Magaret Daniel who said she has been coughing and having a severe chest for years ”but she never knew it was the firewood smoke”.

“I have been ill for over five years, I am not the only one with this illness. I went to the hospital, did the test but I have no money to pay so my best bet is the herbal doctor,” she said

According to her, most of the women in the neighbouring villages also suffer from illness related to cough, chest pain, headache and back pain.

She said most of them have had to stay at home and could not fend for their wards when the symptoms appear again.

However, one of the elders in the Gasaki community popularly referred to as Baba Audu said over 20 people have died in the village from illness associated with cooking with firewood and charcoal.

Baba Audu blamed poverty and lack of exposure as reason for the predicament of the people.

“They don’t go to the hospital for treatment, the majority of the women in this axis prefer herbs so they continue drinking the herb till they die. This also applies to other communities. The women need to be sensitised,” he said

Zhipe

A visit to Zhipe, another community in Nasarrawa State, showed a similar tale.

The community has been suffering from illness associated with cooking with firewood and charcoal. Even without the reporter explaining the associated diseases with cooking with firewood, the women and the children reeled them out.

The Chief of the community, Alhassan Muhammadu, said it is extremely painful that all the women in his community suffer from the effect of cooking with firewood. Some have also died from it, he said.

Mr Muhammadu said his son Besiru also developed breathing problems due to constant exposure to smoke from cooking with firewood.

PREMIUM TIMES also observed that cooking with solid fuels is one of the factors that drives child mortality and morbidity.

Mr Muhammed who hurriedly entered his chamber came with an X-ray result of his son’s chest when he was five years old.

“We thought it was asthma until we went to the hospital. He is 9 years old now but we noticed the problem when he was four years. The doctor said it was because the mum usually backs him and exposed him to smoke but he is better now.”

The chief said there are over 300 women in the community while the men are over 150.

Like Mrs Bante in Gasaki village, the chief also clamoured for a clean and a healthy method of cooking for his people.

PREMIUM TIMES observed that the same pattern of not going to the hospital is also dominant in Zhipe community. Only the Zhipe chief and his household go to the hospital, most prefer herbs.

Herbalist

After establishing that most residents in the communities prefer the services of the traditional doctor, the reporter travelled for 40 minutes on a motorcycle from Zhipe Village to pay a visit to the most preferred traditional doctor in Cheta-Gasaki village.

“Do you want to check your lucky star?, Do you want to ward evil away? Is anyone threatening you? , What do you want to see Baba for? Sit down, he is coming,” a young woman whom the reporter later found out will be interpreting asked her politely.

The herbalist who introduced himself as Bori Danladi said he has been in the profession for over 38 years.

“Almighty God gave me the powers and I don’t carry any test out on them, once they told me how they feel, I give them the leaves and other things. People are also on admission here but we have discharged some of them. My patients come from everywhere,” he boasts.

He said the common diseases among residents of communities who patronises him especially women are ”chest pain, teary eye, headache and back pain” among others.

Like Nassarawa, Like Abuja

The tales of the women in Paikon Kore and Gwarko community of Gwagwalada area council in Abuja were similar to the experiences of the women in Nassarawa State.

Most of the women in Gwarko also wanted an alternative method of cooking.

The chief of Paikon Kore community, 80-year-old Yusufu Barwa started reeling out the ”popular illnesses associated with cooking with firewood”.

“I know they are suffering from chest pain, headache, and eye problem. Some of them die from it too. There are more than 500,000 residents in Paikon Kore,” he said.

Alternatives

There are alternative clean methods of cooking which are safer than cooking with firewood. Among them are power stove and Briquette.

Checks also revealed that the price for a kilo of Briquette which is between N100 and N170 is equivalent to the price of a bottle of kerosene (N150-500) but the price of bundle firewood (N400- N600) is much more expensive than a kilo of Briquette.

Most of the women also confirmed that a bottle of kerosene does not last for a day.

Briquettes are an alternative source of renewable energy produced mainly from agricultural wastes such as palm kernel fronds, coconut barks.

The CEO of Light up Energy Solutions, Martins Chinedu, said briquettes are preferable to conventional cooking fuels because they are eco-friendly and cheaper

“Eco-friendly in the sense that, its contribution of CO2 into the atmosphere is completely minimal and the fact that they are produced from agricultural wastes makes them way cheaper and affordable. A kilo of charcoal briquettes is enough to cook your meal for two days,” he said.

He said the reason why the world is shifting to renewable energy is ”because of its lack or at least minimal negative effect on the environment and health”.

“Briquette is designed to be flammable from beneath, so once you light it, just give it around 5 mins to heat up, then you can place your pot on it. The holes in between ensure that it is properly aerated so no smoke,” he said

Experts

Speaking on the negative effect of cooking with firewood, a medical doctor, Patricia Mmodu, said the effect include irritation of the eyes (conjunctivitis), cataract which, he said may result to partial or total blindness and low back pain from excessive bending chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), excavation of asthma, acute bronchiolitis in children.

Ms Mmodu said firewood burning also contribute to weather and climatic changes such as global warming.

“People cooking with firewood could also have a respiratory condition like what we call Chronic Obstruction Pulmonary disease, this has to do with long term exposure to smoke, the people will have a chronic cough, difficulty in breathing. It is usually progressive and it is irreversible; it is a progressive condition which leads to irreversible airway obstruction,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Director of World Ecological Concepts Limited, Seyi Olawuyi, said cooking with firewood is one of the factors that contribute to deforestation which is having negative impacts on the environment by fuelling climate change.

He said there is a need to raise awareness on the need to shift to the use of energy clean methods of cooking. “There is a need to let the women especially those in the rural areas know about the negative effects of indoor pollution.”

Also, the director of the Nigeria Climate Innovation Center (NCIC), Bankole Oloruntoba, said the kind of effect cooking with firewood and coal has on women and children ”is about the same effect cigarettes have on a chain smoker”.

“The solution is that women should have access to some clean cooking stove method or technology. If this happens, we are bound to see in another three to five years a drop-in kind of health-related cases around the chest, back pain or sight problem,” he said.

N9.2 billion project for clean cooking technology?

“I am aware that President Goodluck Jonathan administration in 2014 committed N9.2 billion to procure 750,000 cookstoves and 18,000 wonder bags, to be coordinated by the Ministry of the Environment but there was a lot of controversy around the project and the contracts. The contractor sued the federal government and the Ministry of Environment,” Hamzat Lawal, the Chief Executive Director of Connected Development said.

He said the federal ministry of the environment should see how to get those stoves to communities and households ”because none of them got the stoves”.

Mr Lawal said the few clean stoves that were brought in then were stored at the velodrome of the National Stadium.

He said the government must take responsibility to ensure that they provide alternatives to rural households and communities.

“Mind you, people are still cutting down trees and we talk about how can we re-fertilise the ecosystem and communities that are affected by desertification and desert encroachment,” he said.

He said what Nigeria is facing is an energy crisis. “Just imagine how many lives will be saved if we have a clean cooking stove plant”.

Shifting responsibility

The Federal Ministry of Environment officials shifted responsibility when asked questions concerning the N9.2 billion for clean stoves.

Federal Ministry of Environment
Federal Ministry of Environment

When contacted, the newly appointed Minister of State for Environment, Sharon Ikpeazu, did not respond to the multiple calls and messages sent to her.

However, a senior staff of the Ministry told PREMIUM TIMES Mrs Ikpeazu was attending the New Yam Festival in her village.

“Madam will not attend to anybody now because she left for her village to celebrate the new yam festival,” the source said.

When asked about the government’s intervention via the ‘Clean Method of Cooking in Nigeria’, the spokesperson, Saghir el Muhammed, directed the reporter to ‘Dr Tarfa’, Director of Climate Change at the Ministry

“Dr Tarfa is the best person to answer this, I will give you his contact and I will call him too,” he said.

Dr Tarfa did not respond to the calls and text messages put across to him until five days after.

Mr Tarfa also directed the reporter back to the spokesperson. “I cannot talk to you, let the spokesperson follow you and tell me if it was the Minister that assigned it,” he said.

The reporter also sent a Freedom of Information (FOI) letter to the Ministry and waited for over seven days. She has not received a response at the time of publication.

Climate experts have lamented that the Federal Ministry of Environment does not share data or information on climate matters which can help resolve a lot of questions.

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