Bagging Rights: Can a Simple Bag Transform African Homes?


F. Noy/UNHCR
Fuelwood collection for traditional stoves contributes to deforestation and global warming. Here, Darfurian refugees in Chad carry home a daily share of wood.

Fossil fuels, including natural gases, coal, and crude oil, play an enormous role in development, directly affecting the lifestyles of every single individual across the globe as well as impacting the energy systems and economies that they depend upon. However, roughly two billion people worldwide do not have access to modern energy supplies and, historically, there has not been a nation which has experienced growth or progress without dramatically increasing its use of energy.

Consider Africa. According to figures from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the continent is by no means short of fossil fuels, boasting over 132 billion barrels of crude oil, over 14 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, and 31,696 billion tonnes of coal. Over 80 percent of Africa’s electricity comes from fossil fuels alone and, theoretically, Africa should be able to meet its entire electricity needs solely from its own fossil fuel resources for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, a minimal amount of the African investment capital, produced predominantly from public funds, is spent on electricity generation. Africa’s overdependence on financial donations is well documented. These donations often go toward the development of fossil fuels for export, rather than toward meeting local needs, such as generating electricity for the millions of Africans currently living without a reliable electricity source.

World Bank figures show that, although Africa makes up around a sixth of the world’s population, the continent generates just 4 percent of the world’s current electricity. Three-quarters of this precious electricity supply is used by those in the comparatively wealthy areas of South Africa and northern Africa.

According to World Bank statistics, two-thirds of the African population still have absolutely no access to modern energy supplies despite living on a continent that is fossil-fuel rich. Specifically, the African Development Bank Group revealed that about 90 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa has no electricity access, with Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, and Sierra Leone among those most severely underpowered. In these areas, hydropower accounts for around 45 percent of electricity generation while biomass (predominantly firewood) constitutes around 56 percent of all energy use. These figures are staggering, considering that the rate of rural electrification in Africa is currently lower than in any other continent.

A number of social issues—poverty, illness, lack of education, and unemployment, to name a few—are closely linked to lack of energy. For example, cooking with poorly vented, wood-burning stoves can have significant health impacts. An estimated two million people die every year due to a lethal cocktail of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxides emitted from solid fuel used when cooking indoors. Millions of women and children across Africa are also tirelessly spending hours every day searching and cutting down the wood needed to keep their fires burning, meaning less time for schooling and employment.

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Wonderbag
Once the cooking process begins, food can be removed from open fires and placed in the Wonderbag, where it continues to cook without additional fuel use.

In order to provide for Africa’s current and future electricity requirements, the African Development Bank Group has estimated that some US$23 billion per year would be needed in this sector alone. Without this necessary investment, all future economic development and progress in Africa is under serious threat.

And the lack of electricity is not just affecting Africa’s economic development, but its environment, too. The example given of the endless harvesting of wood for fuel is staggering, and the World Bank estimates that over 45,000 square kilometers of forest in low-income countries across Africa were destroyed between 1990 and 2005, the equivalent of over 100 million professional soccer fields.

It is impossible and, I would maintain, ethically and morally wrong to ask those who are fighting against a realistic fear of starvation to put the needs of the environment above their own plight. But there is a viable solution for Africa that could balance the needs of humanity with the needs of the environment: renewable energy.

Africa has innumerable renewable resources and, arguably, one of the largest concentrations of alternative energy resources on the planet. The African Development Bank Group estimates that over 80 percent of the continent receives around 2,000 kilowatt hours per square meter of solar resources every year—one of the highest concentrations of solar radiation in the world. To illustrate this: 0.3 percent of North Africa could theoretically supply the entire energy requirements of the European Union through solar power alone. Other resources such as geothermal, hydroelectricity, and wind and ocean current power are all accessible and viable in Africa, provided that the right funding, support systems, and backing from individual governments be put in place.

Renewable energy can have many hugely positive impacts on nations and smaller communities alike. One such theoretical example put forward by the global think tank, Club of Rome, suggests using large arrays of mirrors in the African desert to concentrate the sun onto a large pipe. This process could heat up liquid to power conventional steam turbines in order to create electricity.

My own project, which is no longer a theory but a working initiative, uses the concept of efficiency. During a series of prolonged power cuts in South Africa in 2008, I remembered my grandmother’s cooking food in a Wonderbox, an age-old method involving padded cushions that use the heat of the food being cooked to complete the cooking process. Others may recall a similar invention called the Haybox. I subsequently developed a more convenient and modernized model, made with fabric and recycled polystyrene, which is now well known across African communities as the Wonderbag.

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Bright Source Energy
Africa has tremendous renewable energy potential, particularly for concentrated solar plants like this one in the California desert. A more extensive African electric grid could reduce reliance on antiquated cookstoves.

Like my grandmother’s Wonderbox, Wonderbag simply finishes the cooking process using heat first generated in the pot via stove or fire. Cooking subsequently requires only five to 30 minutes of conventional energy. Official field surveys have indicated that those using Wonderbags have dramatically reduced their fuel bills. In areas where firewood and charcoal are the main cooking fuels, using a Wonderbag provides an important method of reducing firewood-collection drudgery and safety risks as well as deforestation. Significantly, if used just three times a week, the bag can reduce a family’s fuel usage by up to 50 percent.

There is also published evidence that reduced consumption of common fuels leads to a lower number of respiratory illnesses caused by cooking smoke and fewer accidents in the kitchen. Furthermore, using a Wonderbag will not only save precious water due to minimal evaporation rates provided through the insulation but will also conserve food, as 20 percent of all staple food in Africa is burned in pots placed on open fires and unregulated stove tops. My own day-to-day conversations with Wonderbag users have also revealed that many experience improvement in their daily lives including the quality of their childcare and their personal productivity. As a result, we are already improving the lives of over 700,000 people in communities across South Africa, not least due to the creation of over 2,000 jobs and a target for 7,000 more over the next five years by opening new factories where Wonderbags will be produced.

Because each bag also saves over 0.5 tonnes of carbon each year, the Wonderbag has been officially recognized by the United Nations (UN) as a project that can earn and trade carbon credits. Organizations that are legally obliged to reduce their carbon emissions can do so, in part, by purchasing credits from developing countries. Carbon credits may only be bought from Programmes of Activity (PoA), a modality of project development under the Clean Development Mechanism of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. PoA enables developed countries to help low-income groups on a large scale. The funding earned through selling carbon credits provides companies such as Wonderbag the support needed to bring these social and environmental benefits to many millions of families around the world.

Developing nations are currently following in the developed world’s carbon footprints—an example they must avoid at all costs. Wonderbag, along with many other renewable energy devices, is proof that it is possible to turn sustainable energy into a commercial and profitable venture. Now is the time for us to educate the public and publicize the benefits and commercial advantages sustainable energy can offer. Despite figures that showcase the sheer volume of fossil fuels currently available in Africa, there is still the very real threat that global supplies are running out. We need to act now and put in place working alternatives.