Transforming the lives and health of billions of people living in slums
Dr Tasmiat Rahman is heading up the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and Modern Energy Cooking Services (MECS) supported project that is aiming to introduce the use of solar powered cookers in the heart of the Bangladeshi slums in a bid to improve conditions and reduce emissions. Currently they are often using wood on their stoves that create potentially serious health risks and huge environmental implications when burned.
Tasmiat said: "This project brings together the science and practicality of implementing an electric cooker (e-cooker) network in a slum environment, with the social and cultural implications of engaging with the slum community and instigating behaviour change. It is important as we know that cooking with wood can cause serious respiratory illness, particularly for women and children who are in the home environment a lot. We also know open flames in the home pose a huge safety risk for the families and that wood fires cause deforestation and the emission of dangerous greenhouse gases."
Bangladesh was chosen as the focus of the project as 70 per cent of its population relies on solid fuel for household cooking and heating, and up to 1000,000 deaths are caused there every year by Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP). The pilot e-cooker network was set up in the Bhashantek slum in Dhaka that is highly populated and where residents have a distinct lack of access to clean cooking.
Tasmiat said: "We chose Bangladesh because it has a high use of wood burning stoves and associated health issues, but we also needed to ensure any potential site could handle the logistics of having an e-cooker network installed. Our aim was to set up a hybrid system of solar power and on-grid energy, taking away the need for wood burning and gas - which comes with its own safety issues. We also wanted to avoid batteries that cause toxic waste."
The e-cooker network operates by using solar energy supplied by panels mounted above the consumers' homes. On a regular day, these panels generate enough energy to operate an E-cooker for the cooking process. Any excess electricity generated is fed into the national grid and in the absence of solar energy - such as at night or during winter - electricity is drawn from the grid to power the e-cooker.
One of Tasmiat's key aims was to ensure that the community felt comfortable being involved, would truly benefit from the e-cookers and received all the information they required from the start. In order to achieve this, he partnered with SNV - a global not-for-profit organisation that has a presence on the ground in the Bangladeshi slums.
While the solar panels were being installed, Tasmiat's colleague Professor Craig Hutton, Professor of Sustainability Science in Geography and Environmental Science at Southampton, worked with the team to analyse the results of surveys and workshops carried out by SNV to understand the social, cultural and perception based drivers of behaviour within the women of the households and specifically what are the barriers to the uptake of cooking with electricity.
Craig said: "The women in the family are the ones undertaking all the cooking and overseeing the wood burning stove in the home. There are also some strong cultural ties to the smoke produced by these stoves which we knew may be a barrier to change for some households. The survey of 100 respondents gave us the chance to ascertain the day-to-day practicalities for these women in the home and to gauge any possible obstacles to change, which we could then address."
The survey results identified most respondents mentioned coughing, burning eyes and headaches from the smoke when cooking, and those using electricity mentioned electric shocks as a common occurrence. This data was used to create a spatial map that helped the team identify the potential power consumption of the target community and at what times, so they could design the right capacity solar system.
60 women who would be using the e-cookers were invited to take part in face-to-face workshops. They all said they wanted to adopt an alternative fuel source for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it is cleaner, less expensive, safer and provides them with more time for other household activities.
"The e-cooker network, powered by a central 30kW solar system, is now installed and running in Bhashantek," said Tasmiat. "We have 60 homes with e-cookers and we are continuing to observe how the residents use them and engage with the change. Delivering a successful pilot network is key to helping us gain knowledge about how these systems work on the ground so we can reproduce it elsewhere. We are constantly assessing willingness among residents to pay for access to the e-cooker network and we keep a close eye on the complex social and cultural issues which may act as barriers to uptake."
The next steps for Tasmiat and the team include collecting smoke pollution data and power usage data via an Internet of Things network, analysing this information to help improve the system's efficiency, and gain insight into the influence of the e-cooker network in preventing the impact of smoke on the respiratory health.