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Story Publication logo June 13, 2017

Malawi's Toxic Kitchens

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Rose Kandodo is cooking nsima, a maize porridge, on an improved cook stove in Nessa village. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2016.
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Globally, cooking smoke causes over 4 million deaths per year. Can improved cookstoves save lives...

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It is hot and humid. Vanessa Chirwa coughs. She sits on a wooden bench in the shadow of a mango tree, a fire in front of her. Now and then she lifts the lid of the pot and stirs the simmering sauce. "I have a headache and my eyes are watering. I have to cough and get a burning sensation in my lungs." She points to her chest. "The pain sits here, sometimes I gasp for a breath." All her neighbours know the stabbing chest pain. "This is tradition: as a woman, you have that pain." They rarely go to the doctor. "It's just normal."

The smoke of cooking fires makes Malawi's women and children sick. According to the WHO, 13,000 of the deaths in the country are directly caused by unclean cooking. Lower respiratory infections are the second most common cause of death amongst the population in Malawi. But the Ministry of Health prioritizes malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS.

Similar to cigarette smoke, soot particles and toxic substances from cooking smoke penetrate the respiratory tract. The pulmonary function is reduced, susceptibility to infection is increased; the smoke can lead to asthma, bronchitis, cancer and chronic heart and lung diseases.

It is a massive problem since around 98 percent of the population cooks with biomass fuel. "Improved" cookers that burn more energy-efficient than open fires could provide a solution: they can save up to 60 percent of wood. In addition, there are less harmful emissions and gases during cooking--it smokes less.

In Malawi, the National Cook Stove Steering Committee hopes to spread clean and efficient stoves in two million homes by 2020. Not an easy goal, however. Some can't afford a stove; some don't think it functional or desirable. For Malawi's women, clean cooking stoves are not the "leap into the better future" they had hoped for.

The German version of this article can be accessed here.

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