The latest estimates from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation put the number of household pollution related deaths globally at around 1.6 million out of a total of three million deaths related to poor air quality, so it is a significant contributor.

With three billion people around the world relying on solid fuels for cooking and heating in their homes, concentrated in parts of Asia, Latin America, and specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is a problem that requires an urgent solution.

Fortunately, there is a solution that is already available in the form of LPG, that can go a long way to mitigating this death toll.

When solid fuels such as wood, charcoal, biomass and kerosene are burned in traditional stoves for cooking and heating homes, the incomplete combustion results in emissions of a whole range of different health damaging pollutants, including carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These pollutants are known to be associated with a range of cancers and respiratory diseases.

These are particles of an exceedingly small diameter, 2.5 microns or less, and it is that size that makes them of particular concern because they penetrate deeply into the lungs and pass through into the bloodstream leading to systemic effects.

There is now evidence for the role of this pollutant in a range of health outcomes, including pneumonia in children and stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer in adults.

These impacts are remarkably similar to those seen for exposure to tobacco smoke, which everyone knows of the damaging effects on health. Studies have shown that burning fuel in open fires is about the same as burning 400 cigarettes in an hour.

Reliance on solid fuels

In one Sub-Saharan country, Kenya, about 76 per cent of the population rely on solid fuels for cooking, almost exclusive in rural areas where the fuel can be gathered for free. It has been estimated from the latest data that almost 17,000 premature deaths are associated with air pollution in homes, or six per cent of all premature deaths in Kenya.

In response to this global burden of disease related to air quality, the World Health Organisation (WHO) developed a set of indoor air quality guidelines. These guidelines recommended a rapid scale up of use of clean fuels in countries that depend on these solid fuels to achieve safe target levels of pollutants for health.

Looking to LPG for a solution

LPG is one of the best ways to mitigate the danger of cooking with traditional fuels. There are almost no particulate matter emissions at the point of combustion with LPG which is what makes it so clean to use for cooking. It is also a relatively easy fuel to scale up to large numbers of people. The infrastructure required to create a large-scale LPG industry is relatively affordable for developing countries and the timelines are much shorter than any form of grid energy.

Because cylinders of LPG are so portable, it can be distributed even in difficult areas such as townships and remote rural communities. Countries like India, Indonesia and Brazil which have big populations in large topographically complex regions have all managed to achieve high levels of penetration with 90 per cent plus of the respective populations cooking on LPG.

Studying the African challenge

A project from Global Health Research Group Clean Africa was recently launched to gain an understanding on how best to support communities’ transition to household use of LPG. The focus was specifically on Ghana, Cameron, and Kenya, three countries that had clear aspirational targets for the household use of LPG by 2030.

One project in the Peri-urban community in southwest Cameroon looked at groups of 60 homes using LPG as a primary fuel against those that use wood exclusively in traditional fires. It recorded an overall average of more than ten times the safe levels from WHO guidelines in the houses burning solid fuel, while in homes using LPG the levels were below the safe target. It also identified significant reductions in exposure for both women and children.

Importantly, through modelling carried out by the Centre for International Climate Research and Climate (CIRECO) it was demonstrated that these gains in health were not made at the expense of climate through increased CO2 from the increased use of LPG. It actually revealed a slight cooling effect from scaling LPG transmission over an extended time horizon to 2100. This is assuming that the LPG market was to reach a hypothetical saturation level of 73 per cent adoption.

This data is important because, whilst recommending scale adoption of a fossil fuel like LPG there is always a push back from a currently very climate conscious world, so it is important to document the potential impacts. In the short to medium term, scaling adoption of LPG as a clean modern fuel we think represents one of the best solutions to address the substantial global burden of disease from house and air pollution.

Despite that there are still challenges that need to be overcome, particularly the infrastructure bottlenecks that hinder the product getting to market and make it prohibitive in terms of price for all but the urban rich in these markets.  Storage and bottling facilities, jetties, off-taking port infrastructure, adequate roads, all these things add to the complexity and cost of getting LPG to end users. To address these challenges governmentsmustboth prioritise and incentivise investment in this kind of primary infrastructure.

Driving local adoption in East Africa

One organisation that has been promoting the use of LPG as a cooking fuel is the Petroleum Institute of East Africa (PIEA). They have been working in partnership with the government and LPG market participants to ensure the regulations are abided and boost the levels of investment in the LPG industry.

According to Wanjiku Manyara, general manager, PIEA, one of the primary health benefits of cooking with LPG is the elimination of non-communicable diseases which are the major cause of illness and death of children under the age of five years. “It also improves economic productivity and gender equality-time,” she adds. “Time and monetary resources spent by mothers taking sick children to hospital and buying medicine will be saved and this time can be transferred to work and household budgets allocated to food and education.”

Manyara also believes that governments and regulators have not done enough to drive growth in a sustainable LPG market. “Most governments and regulators in SSA have barely scratched the surface on matters LPG,” she explains. “They need to audit and interrogate the root causes of the burden of disease and be guided by the findings and recommended solutions in drawing up deliberate policy, time bound holistic master plans and regulatory framework that will strategically displace polluting cooking fuel with LPG.”

One of these solutions that Manyarawould like to see is an improved storage infrastructure. “Storage and refilling plants need to be in close proximity to the consumers and retailers,” she says. “Ideally these should be within a five-minute walking distance for consumers.”

Like the rest of the world Africa has been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis, but it has allowed some positive impacts for the LPG industry. “Now with a tap on a mobile device you can order LPG to be delivered to your home,” she concludes. “COVID-19 on its own is already bad enough on our respiratory systems, who wants to compound the impacts of this disease with further exposure from charcoal, firewood or kerosene stove emissions?”

Learning from global experience

The message that we are constantly trying to drive home is that there must be government support at an extremely high level to drive growth in a sustainable LPG market. In India, getting LPG for cooking to the poor has been a priority of the Modi Government since he was elected in 2015. Some put his resounding re-election last year down to the support he received from rural women who credited him with being able to access LPG.

In Indonesia, the big kerosene to LPG project between 2007 and 2015 was driven by the vice president. The current project in Nigeria, which is growing very quickly now – or at least was pre COVID, is being pushed by the LPG Expansion Plan out of the vice president’s office.

Beyond high level support, good regulations, properly enforced are also important. Like any industry,LPG can suffer from unscrupulous actors that do not follow the rules and ruin the reputation of the industry. Having an engaged and energetic regulatory body can mitigate this problem and ensure that the industry continues to grow safely.

Future aspirations for the region

In terms of Africa, the industry hopes that the growth we see now in Asian countries like Bangladesh, India and Myanmar will one day be replicated in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the infrastructure bottlenecks are being addressed in markets such as South Africa, which has inaugurated two import terminals over the last couple of years and has a third under construction.

This should allow that market and all Southern Africa to grow in the next decade. But consumption is still extremely low overall and the challenges such as lack of infrastructure, corruption and poverty still exist.

It is our hope that we see LPG use continue to grow in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is one of the few places where the benefits that LPG provides to people is tangible. In the developed world it is easy to forget how fundamental being able to cook quickly and cleanly is to quality of life.

Written by Nisha Shah

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