From Monday to Friday, Catherine Banda, 35, wakes up early to cook porridge for children at Mwachentche Primary School in Traditional Authority Chiseka, Lilongwe.
“This has become a routine for me and my colleagues. Being a mother, I am happy that our children eat porridge at school. It improves their nutrition, school attendance and concentration in class,” says the mother-of-four, from Kapazanje Village.
Despite having to cook for about a thousand learners, Banda and her group are not chocked by smoke and deadly fumes that claim a life every eight seconds. They use a cookstove that uses less fuelwood and emits less smoke than open fires.
“We use three pieces of wood to cook and we do not face the hardships of cooking in a smoky kitchen. We believe that everyone, who volunteers to make the national school feeding programme work, should be protected from toxic fumes. Once we get sick, we cannot cook for children anymore,” she says.
The rollout of the meals is credited with increasing enrolment, attendance, concentration and performance of learners in many primary schools countrywide.
To Banda’s team, the clean, energy-efficient cooking technologies simplify their work.
Pauline Ganiza says most women, including pregnant women, are not reluctant when it is their turn to cook for the pupils.
“I’m pregnant, but I still come to cook because I know I am safe and nothing can happen to me. The environment is good for a woman like me. I don’t fear for my life and that of the unborn baby,” she explains.
Nearly 97 percent of people in Malawi cook using firewood and charcoal.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), this is a crisis faced by three billion people globally and close to 3.8 million people die prematurely each year due to household air pollution attributable to cooking using polluting open fires.
The United Nations health organisation ranks indoor air pollution from cooking as the leading cause of childhood pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.
WHO reports that when pregnant women are exposed to household air pollution from cooking, their infants are at increased risk of stillbirth, low birth weight, and decreased lung function. And 400 000 children under five die each year from household air pollution.
Gladson Ligomeka, headteacher at Mwachentche, says the meals that immensely benefit children need not endanger mothers’ lives.
He says: “If a mother is taken ill by smoke-related conditions associated with three stone fireplaces, the children will learn on an empty stomach.
“So, we want both parents and children to benefit from the programme. The cooks should be safe and the children should also be encouraged to remain in school.”
Foundation for Irrigation and Sustainable Development (Fisd) fitted the modern cooking stoves with funding from Japan.
“We need to encourage sustainable use of energy resources and national initiatives such as school feeding need to take the lead in using clean technologies which benefit the people as well as the environment,” says Fisd executive director Kondwani Nanchukwa.
Each year, the country loses up to two percent of its forest cover as the majority cut trees for cooking energy, new farmlands and settlements.
The National Energy Policy launched last November promotes the use of clean and energy-saving cookstoves to save forests, lives and air. However, the country has failed to meet its clean cooking goal to churn out at least two million cookstoves by 2020.
Nevertheless, activists and community members are pushing hard to ensure over 5 million cookstoves are in use by 2030—the deadline of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number seven on ensuring affordable and clean energy for all.
However, the waning forests remain under siege as access to electricity remains low and power blackouts persist.
In 2008, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology unveiled its School Health and Nutrition Strategy to provide nutritious meals to all primary schools in Malawi by 2040. However, the policy remains unclear on the energy people must use to prepare the meals. According to the United Nations Children Fund about 35 percent of school-going children benefit from the school-feeding programme.