Kerosene Shortages in Addis Ababa Underscore Need for Shift to Clean Cooking Fuels

Over recent weeks, long queues at fuel stations in Addis Ababa have been common occurrences. There’s a sense of desperation amongst the the people queuing; the queues move slowly in spite of the weather, which at this time of the year is characterized by searing heat or a deluge of rain showers. What could be so important? The answer is cooking fuel. From the queues, it is obvious the city is experiencing kerosene fuel shortages at an unprecedented level.

Kerosene fuel queue at Bole-NOC fuel station in Addis Ababa
Kerosene fuel queue at Bole-NOC fuel station in Addis Ababa

Together with charcoal, firewood and electricity, kerosene is a commonly used cooking fuel in Addis. Usually burned in a cheap wick stove, this stove/fuel combination rarely satisfies consumers. Users commonly complain of smoke, which causes eye and respiratory irritation. They also report that kerosene’s strong odor causes meals to smell. Alarmingly, the stove is unsafe and causes serious burns and even deaths among mostly of women and children.

Despite these serious problems, households are forced to continue to use kerosene for cooking due to lack of other options. This is true for the more than 100,000 condominium houses all over the city which are small and unsuited for traditional cooking fuels.

Noticing several queues at many of the fuel stations across Addis, I became curious and spoke with some of the women standing in the long lines. One of the women I spoke with was named Kidist. Kidist is a housewife and a mother of two living in Addis. When I asked her about cooking energy, she noted her frustration, saying “It has always been a challenge, but it is becoming one of the toughest challenges I face.” Spending so much time at the fuel stations is making her life increasingly difficult. She has to take many taxi rides to find a station with available kerosene supply.  When she finally finds one, long queues, like the one she was standing in when I met her, complicate things further as it is common for the fuel stations to run out of stock while people queue.

Out of the commonly used cooking fuels, kerosene is Kidist’s only option. Her landlord prohibits her from using electricity, and even if it was permitted, its cost and frequent outages would make its use unfeasible. She has a small house where firewood is not an option and she is scared of charcoal because of carbon monoxide exposure.

Kidist is not the only one facing the extreme challenges that arise from a lack of cooking energy. Several hundred thousand households in the city and millions all over the country experience the same problems. Speaking with others in the queue revealed similar experiences and  illustrated the reality that I know from working in the sector for more than a decade.

The challenge, if not a crisis, we are facing in the household energy sector is a call for Ethiopian Government and all other stakeholders to focus on other alternatives. Ethanol, made from sugar production byproduct molasses, is seen to be one of the most viable options in Ethiopian context. For a country with scarce forex, a shift to locally produced, renewable and clean ethanol fuel for cooking is a smart move. This will have a tremendous benefit relieving women from burden of cooking related challenges while eliminating the country’s dependence on expensive imported fuel and health and environmental problems from dirty fuels.

Moreover, the success using of ethanol for cooking is well documented. Since 2005, Gaia Association has worked as an implementing partner to UNHCR in the Jijiga refugee camps in Eastern Ethiopia. The organization has distributed over 7,000 ethanol cookstoves and supplied over three million liters of ethanol fuel. This program has been a huge success, with refugees reporting high levels of satisfaction and garnering support from policymakers, the Administration of Refugee and Returnee Affairs, and UNHCR. Moreover, Gaia Association’s sister organization, Project Gaia, has had similar success in commercial projects in Haiti, Kenya, Nigeria, and Mozambique.

Ethanol for cooking is a viable solution to the problems faced by Kidist and her fellow Ethiopians and should be treated as such. Gaia Association and its partners are currently working towards commercializing the ethanol stoves and fuel to make them readily available options for families like Kidist’s.

By Wubshet Tadele Tsehayu