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Why is open-fire cooking so bad?

In many countries, cooking still falls predominantly to women, leaving them and their children at particular risk from smoke and fumes
In many countries, cooking still falls predominantly to women, leaving them and their children at particular risk from smoke and fumes

Traditional approaches to cooking are causing untold harm to women and children around the world and severely hampering poverty reduction efforts. Our guest blogger, Stanley Ellerby-English, explores this problem and what is being done to combat it.

Sitting down to dinner with your family is one of life's simple pleasures, enjoyed by people the world over. Even in the UK, not known for its cuisine, the Sunday roast remains a strong family tradition to this day. Equally, in many cultures, eating together is more than just utilitarian; it has enormous significance and demonstrates the strong relationship that participants share. This is why it is especially distressing that, for so many, cooking these meals is dangerous and damaging.

Whilst cooking over an open fire in developed countries is mostly limited to camping trips or summer barbecues, for 3 billion people worldwide it is an everyday reality. This is usually done inside with little ventilation and using whatever fuel is available, often wood. There are obviously a variety of traditions when it comes to cooking over open fires, but two things remain fairly constant. Firstly, it's bad for the health and wellbeing of those involved, and secondly, “those involved” predominantly means women and children.

A simmering problem

Cooking, and its related activities, still predominantly falls to women in the developing world and this is usually done at the same time as caring for children. This puts both women and children at the sharp end of the negative effects of open fire cooking. The clearest of these is the increased respiratory health problems that accompany spending all day in a smoke-filled room. In fact, it is estimated that every year around 1.9 million premature deaths can be attributed to this. To put this in perspective, the World Health Organisation estimates that in 2012 around 1.6 million people died as a result of HIV/AIDS, and the impact of open fire cooking doesn't stop here.

The inefficiency of open fires means a lot of fuel is needed, which often means foraging from nearby forests by women and girls. This is time consuming work and every moment spent doing it is a moment that children could have been learning or women could have been earning money to supplement family incomes. Even more worryingly, research suggests that women and girls are at increased risk of rape and violence when gathering fuel for cooking, so less fuel could also mean safer lives.

Cooking in Port-au-Prince thanks to food aid from SOS Children after the 2010 earthquake
Open fires often use dirty fuel and inefficient cooking methods,
worsening the dangers for users and the environment

It is clear that better, more efficient cooking methods could have a positive impact for women and children who are currently using open fires. However, they are also a major contributing factor in climate change. Not only is the fuel often especially dirty, but its inefficient use means that far more needs to be burnt. Some research suggests that universal adoption of cleaner and more efficient stoves would be the equivalent of reducing CO2 emissions by 25 to 50%, a large figure by anyone's standards.

Changes could benefit billions

The impact of changes could, therefore, be huge and change the lives of billions. Luckily, realising these benefits may be simpler than this pay-off might suggest. Stove Team International, who are part of the broader Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, is showing how change really is possible as long as the right approach is taken.

It was started by an American woman after she witnessed the challenges that women in Guatemala faced, whilst volunteering as a chef in the kitchen of an NGO. Instead of running it as a charity, simply distributing cleaner stoves to those who needed them, she decided to instead set up factories all across Latin America. These factories employ local people and sell the stoves at local prices. In this way it has been able to grow exponentially and serve more and more families across the region.

This is certainly not the only project of this kind and, from India to Burkina Faso, similar organisations are working to bring better stoves to poor families. However, it is a great example of the sort of approach that will have the biggest impact. Local production puts local people at the heart of the solution, meaning that they can react quickly to changing conditions and demands. Approaches will, of course, need to fit the particular contexts, but solving the simple problem of how people cook would be a major step in building a more equitable and prosperous future for all.

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