After a lifetime crouching over charcoal stoves in cramped, airless huts, many Tanzanian women find the whites of their eyes are stained red by the time they hit sixty. In rural areas, where superstition is rife and education poor, these women might be decried as witches, and brutally murdered by fearful neighbours.
This practice is not unusual. Far worse though, and a much greater killer, is the stealthy poison which causes the reddening of the eyes – toxic air pollution which a large proportion of women and children are exposed to every day. The World Health Organisation has described the indoor air pollution from smoke fumes as a worse threat to life than TB or malaria across many developing countries, where the money to improve cooking conditions for the average family simply doesn’t exist.
Thankfully, efforts to find more economical and environmentally-sound stoves have turned up alternatives which are also easier on the lungs and eyes.
Furaha Johnhaule, 30, exchanged her traditional stove of three stones placed in a circle on the ground to support a cooking pot for a reusable metal stove in late 2007. She suffered from chest pains and coughed a lot, and had red, sore eyes. Just six months later her health is much improved. She has cut her outgoings on charcoal and is able to prepare meals more quickly than before.
Johnhaule and her husband and two children live in a brick house on a sloped terrace away from the main drag of Njombe, a fair-sized trading town in Tanzania’s rural southern highlands. Like most families, she cooks in a separate shelter outside. She bought her new stove from a local blacksmiths, Kisangani, who noticed that using sawdust instead of charcoal for cooking also significantly reduced the amount of smoke these stoves produced.
The stoves are made from a sheet of metal which is lined with clay. Sawdust or other agricultural residues are then used as fuel. Cooking with biomass in this way dates back to the discovery of fire, but that does not make it primitive. “I kept watching the carpenters throw away sawdust,” says Reuben Mtitu, whose grandfather set up the blacksmith workshop he now runs to provide skills and employment for local young people. “I wondered why they wasted so much, and started to think of ways we could put it to good use instead.”
Johnhaule collects sawdust from a local timber mill and refills her stove around twice a day. It smokes less and boils water for her ugali, beans, rice and chai in half the time of a traditional stove. All her friends rushed out and bought one as soon as they could, and the Kisangani blacksmiths had already sold 3,500 when they won some funding from British sustainable energy organisation the Ashden Awards to expand production.
“We convinced the community by explaining how the stoves saved money as well as energy, and when one person buys one, they then tell their friends,” explains Mtitu.
The group first became concerned about the environment when they realised how many trees were disappearing from the slopes which rise up beyond Njombe and into neighbouring regions. Their workshop in town and the others they have set up in nearby villages provide training and jobs, but a side effect of producing tools, stoves and clever community water pumps they are also starting to roll out, is the amount of charcoal burnt. So they began planting trees to reforest some of Tanzania’s bare hillsides, and now plant 500 acres each year with precious indigenous hardwoods and cypress and pine trees.
Across the unmade road from Johnhaule’s house is an open air charcoal packing plant, where about 20 workers take chunks of the blackened wood and pack it into large sacks, smearing themselves in its carcinogenic residue in the process. It isn’t possible at this stage to completely phase out the use of charcoal - sawdust is readily available in town, but Mtitu and his Kisangani colleagues have had to develop a different stove for rural areas, which consumes less charcoal than the traditional three-stone arrangement.
It might be a cliché, but in Tanzania great – and environmentally responsible – minds think alike. Two days drive from Njombe, high in the north of the country in the lake region of Mwanza bordering Lake Victoria, the Mwanza Rural Housing Project (MRHP) are piloting the same idea.
Their revolutionary method of firing bricks outside using agricultural residues has transformed the local landscape, enabling people to build brick homes instead of crude mud huts. Now the organisation is pioneering biomass stoves in the area.
Click below to watch a video about MRHP
MRHP’s work doesn’t stop with the stoves. Their brick-making business has helped build 100,000 homes in 70 villages and they have set up reforestation projects. Doing work of this kind enables them to contact women spread over expansive rural areas, and educate them about sexual health and HIV at the same time, and they are training local entrepreneurs to make and sell the stoves.
MRHP still struggles to raise money to sustain its activities, but there is evidence of work wherever you drive around Mwanza in the shape of ruddy bricks piled in smoking open kilns. The region is known for its unusual Dali-esque rock formations, but now MRHP’s blocks of burnished bricks are as much a feature of the landscape as the ancient granite.