Smoke in our kitchens is a really big killer

Thursday January 25 2018

In-door air pollution from wood smoke. FILE PHOTO | SARAH OOKO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

When, with a stroke of a pen last year, Health Cabinet Secretary Cleopa Mailu banned the smoking of shisha, the decree sparked interesting but diverse opinions. Some praised the CS for wisdom; others vilified him for killing business and pleasure that the piped tobacco offered.

The most important thing is that there was debate. And rightly so. Shisha was ubiquitous in the towns. It was at the disposal of especially mid-class, who had money to smoke. To the partying youth, it epitomised status. And smoke, they did without any care about the health risks.

I followed with great interest the debates, the parodies, the directives, the cheers and the tears around the shisha ban. From the animated discourses, it was clear that shisha was a big deal. 

Yet, there is a bigger and subtler smoking problem. Its enormity and impact makes shisha looks like an angel.


Our kitchens in households and institutions, especially in the rural areas and low-income dwellings in urban areas, are dens of deadly smoke. Every time a meal is prepared in these kitchens that use biomass – firewood, cow-dung, and charcoal - there is a corresponding health hazard as a result of indoor air pollution.


When carbon burns, it reacts with air either to produce carbon dioxide or in most cases due to inefficiency in combustion, deadly carbon monoxide. We have heard heart-wrenching cases of deaths as a result of carbon monoxide from charcoal. Cooking with open stoves that use firewood or paraffin is akin to inviting a health risk. Yet, this goes on without any ministerial decree to end the catastrophe. And the reason is simple: Unlike shisha, which affects the lives of the elite citizens, a demographic that is at the full glare of the media, the rural scene is different. 

The smoke in our kitchens  is linked to ailments as pneumonia, asthma, respiratory tract infections, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and pulmonary disorders. It is women and children spending a lot of time in the kitchen, inhaling the smoke, who pay the biggest price. 


Worldwide, 3 billion people are at risk of this pollution. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that 4.3 million people die annually due to indoor pollution. Here is the distribution of the causes: 12 per cent due to pneumonia; 34 per cent from stroke; 26 per from heart disease; 22 per cent from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and six per centfrom lung cancer.

Indoor air pollution is preventable. But it requires concerted efforts of different stakeholders. The government must lead with funds, policies and goodwill to ensure that we tame this silent killer in the rural kitchens so that Kenya achieves its goal of 100 per cent access to clean cooking by 2030.

We should spare a thought for those rural folks. We need to pursue clean regimes such as electricity or LPG.


At the Rainforest Alliance, we are working on models to eliminate the use of wood for tea drying and alternative cooking technologies. This will not only save our forests but also cut on the deadly emissions.

Another critical area to consider is use of improved cookstoves. Improved cookstoves are fantastic energy savers and help to cut emissions because they allow for higher combustion. We also need standards for cookstoves. Such jikos must be designed in such a manner that combustion of wood is near 100 per cent. We need more education on ventilation of kitchens. This way, we shall contain the numerous complications and even deaths associated with smoke in our kitchens.

 Ms Torotich is programme manager, The Rainforest Alliance. [email protected]