Richard Smith: Trying to save the forests of Western Kenya

Richard Smith

Until very recently the Western Highlands of Kenya (once known as the White Highlands) were thick with forest, but many of those forests have been cut down. A friend in her mid 20s pointed out to me fields on the edge of Eldoret, the main city in the region, that were forest when she was a child. An older friend said that the region was covered with forest just 20 years ago.

It’s not surprising that forests are disappearing in Western Kenya. Many people are hungry and need land, and traditionally people cook with wood. It used to be, my older friend told me, that the forest produced enough dead wood for everybody, but now there are more people and less forest.

So Western Kenya is a place where carbon credits (which I hope you pay when you fly anywhere) can potentially be employed effectively by giving people more carbon friendly ways to cook. There are also potentially direct health benefits because women across the region have high rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and right heart failure caused by cooking over fires in small kitchens.

I was visiting AMPATH (Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare), an organisation that has worked on HIV and is now turning its attention to chronic disease (see earlier blog), and we set off to visit homes where an NGO had installed a new stove that would both use less wood than the traditional way of cooking and produce less smoke.

The first house was actually a small homestead high on a hill with beautiful, almost English, views. (It’s easy to see why the Europeans were concentrated in the White Highlands, which are at something like 8000’ and have an almost temperate climate.) The homestead comprised a wooden house, a kitchen in a separate building, a grain store, one other wooden building, and a sizeable yard. The farmer owned the property and a few acres, and these people were clearly much better off than the woman we had visited the previous day, living with several children in one small, rented hut. The man from the NGO said that it made sense to install the stoves only in houses that were owned by the occupants.

As we came close to the kitchen we could see and smell the smoke. The farmer’s wife showed us into the kitchen that was perhaps two metres in diameter and two metres high. The smoke was enough to make it hard to see and to make our eyes water. The cooking for lunch was underway, and the women cook three times a day. (It’s always women, males once circumcised as boys are not allowed in the kitchen. We had a pass.)

Down to our left we could see the traditional stove made with clay. It’s low down, perhaps a foot high, and has a place at the side to put in the firework, a place on top to place a pot, and an oven at the side where the cooked food is kept, ready for when the men come back from the fields. My colleague grew up in such a home, and his father and two grandmothers still live there; he explained how the food kept in the oven is very “sweet” because it cooks so slowly. This is the opposite of fast food.

On the right hand side was the new stove, a cube made of brick that had an open front and an open top. I was expecting something that would be closed. A wood fire burnt in the stove, and ironically was giving off more smoke than the traditional stove. The man from the NGO told us, however, that it burnt less wood than the traditional stove, and the farmer’s wife agreed that this was the case. But it was immediately apparent to my friend that this stove—with one top and no oven—would not replace the traditional stove; it would be used in addition, so burning more wood, and defeating the point of the innovation. The farmer’s wife agreed.

We then visited two other houses. In one house, the new stove had been installed directly in front of the old stove, so making cooking more difficult. The woman in this house also used her traditional stove to incubate hens’ eggs, something the new stove would never manage. Another woman lived in a house built of brick that has once belonged to British settlers. The house had a British stove, but the Kenyan woman had quickly abandoned it because it required her to cook standing up and the traditional way is to cook sitting down. Instead she’d cooked for years in a kitchen blackened by smoke, and she often slept there because it was warm in the cold nights. She doesn’t yet have one of the new stoves. My friend told me that his grandmother also slept in the kitchen because of both the warmth and the smoke. She needs smoke to sleep.

There’s clearly more thinking to be done with making these stoves acceptable and useful, and more promising is a biogas plant that we saw under construction. The farmer explained how he paid for the materials but an NGO had paid for the construction. At the heart of the small plant in his backyard is a 12 metre cubed underground chamber. As we peered down into it, a lot of little boys sprang out. The farmer showed us the place where he will put in the faeces (cow, human, chicken, and whatever else might be available) mixed with one part water. The gas will be produced in the chamber and piped to his house. He expects to have enough gas to supply his home and perhaps one other. Slurry came out at the others side and will be used as fertilizer.

These are innovations that matter to all of us if are to avoid climate change that will destroy us, but it’s no easy business finding ways to cut carbon consumption so that those of us in rich countries can fly with a less uncomfortable conscience. (I’ve written this in Nairobi Airport on my way to Dhaka via Doha; and my laptop is plugged into the wall.)

Competing interest: RS is the director of the UnitedHealth Chronic Disease Initiative, which together with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute funds 11 centres in low and middle income countries of which the AMPATH centre is one. UnitedHealth does not at this stage fund the AMPATH centre, but he visited Eldoret together with colleagues from NHLBI. UnitedHealth paid his expenses.

  • Paula Braitstein

    Dear Dr. Smith – thank-you so much for your thoughtful contribution on this subject. I would just to like a make a couple of comments.

    The people living in rural areas surrounding the forests are not the major threat to the forest – mostly they do survive off the dead wood that has fallen, and they understand pretty deeply how much their survival generally depends on the forest – both in terms of fuel, construction materials, and for water.

    The major problem is actually the demand from towns like Eldoret for charcoal and firewood (for cooking). Gas cookers may be the solution but nobody has looked at the carbon impact of gas cookers vs. charcoal – and somehow everyone seems to overlook the fact that it's the rapid urbanization, combined with poverty, that is leading the destruction of what is left of the forests. And did you know about the international market for charcoal? Tons of it (literally) gets exported to the Middle East every day – smuggled out, along with our ivory, rhino horn, and indigenous wood used for pretty carvings to decorate rich peoples homes.

    I support initiatives like the Carbon Zero stoves (I'm actually the one who helped bring them to this region). If nothing else, the initiative raises a lot of awareness amongst local communities about the need to conserve wood, to protect their health, and to find innovative ways to do both. I agree we still have a long way to go. Through several barazas that we held prior to the stove project implementation, community members made numerous suggestions about how to improve the design from the user point of view – the problem, because the engineers did try, is that modifications such as making the stove bigger, or having two elements, is that you immediately lose the carbon reduction – rendering the stove useless from the perspective of reducing the carbon footprint.

    The other major, related problems (ok there are several), are things like insufficient support for the Kenya Forest Service for the purposes of patrolling remaining forests; the insidious corruption among the police who more or less facilitate the destruction of the forest; a lack of education and awareness among the people about the value of old-growth forests; lack of investments from local, national, and international bodies in replanting indigenous forests and, even more importantly, preserving remaining ones. For now, you can't even get carbon credits for protecting existing forests – but you can get them for planting new ones (that will take hundreds of years to mature). And the community can profit from the forests – it just takes some creative investments.

    So you're right, there is a long way to go. And you're also right, that our collective survival depends on being able to save those forests that remain. Have you ever been to Rwanda? It's basically one big clear-cut. Kenya is close on its heels – but it's not too late yet for her few remaining stands of old-growth trees – and the animals and people who depend on them. The forest around which we are building the Carbon Zero stoves is the major watershed for Eldoret. Time is running out…. let's do what we can to turn the trend around and support the local communities to utilize the rich natural resources remaining for collective – and individual – benefit in the short- and long-term.

    Thanks for thinking about it.

    Paula Braitstein