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Clean Cooking in Uncertain Times: Innovation in Kenyan informal settlement helps sustain gas for cooking during COVID-19 lockdown

A report by the University of Liverpool, UK and Amref International University for CLEAN-Air(Africa)

To consider the use of consumer finance mechanisms that promote clean cooking, our UK NIHR funded CLEAN-Air(Africa) Global Health Research Group is leading the first study on long-term cooking and spending patterns using pay-as-you-go (PAYG) liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) smart meter data. The work is a partnership between the University of Liverpool, UK and Nairobi’s Amref International University. The study was conducted in the unique context of economic instability introduced by COVID-19 control measures. As clean cooking with LPG is particularly sensitive to economic pressures, PAYG LPG smart meter technology offers payment flexibility that is robust to consumers’ financial hardships, which can help resource poor households adopt and use LPG for clean cooking. 

PAYG LPG cooking/spending patterns during January 2018-June 2020 were analysed from 437 customers of one of the first commercial companies to offer this technology (PayGo Energy) in an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. The consumer data revealed that PayGo Energy customers purchased roughly one-quarter of the amount of LPG in a typical cylinder in Kenya (6 kg), suggesting that paying for a full cylinder of LPG is not preferred. During COVID-19 lockdown, there were documented changes in the frequency of LPG payments (increased by 20%), with an equivalent 20% decrease in the amount paid per payment. The change in payment scheme enabled nearly all (95%) households to continue using PAYG LPG during a three-month period after COVID-19 community lockdown, despite 95% of households reporting severe decreases in household income during this period. A previous longitudinal survey conducted by the CLEAN-Air(Africa) in the same study community revealed that 27% of households purchasing full cylinders of LPG before the lockdown reverted to polluting kerosene or wood during lockdown. Therefore, these findings reveal the effectiveness of permitting customers to alter the amount they pay for LPG in allowing households to maintain use of clean cooking fuels despite financial instability. 

The CLEAN-Air(Africa) Global Health Research Group is working to help support the ambitious aspirations of several governments in Sub-Saharan Africa (e.g. Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon) for rapid market expansion of LPG for clean cooking to address impacts of solid fuel reliance on environment and deforestation. As PAYG LPG helped sustain clean cooking fuel use in an informal settlement in Nairobi during a period of financial hardship, it may be a scalable technology in communities where the population mainly works in the informal sector or experiences seasonal changes in income. Several PAYG LPG commercial companies have already emerged in the clean cooking fuel market in urban areas of East Africa.

As studies conducted in Europe and North America have linked ambient air pollution exposure to increased COVID-related mortality, it is likely that household air pollution exposure may also lead to more severe symptoms from COVID-19 infection. By averting potential exposure to household air pollution from increased use of polluting cooking fuels, PAYG LPG potentially offered direct health benefit during COVID-19 lockdown. A speedy transition to modern household energy is thus urgently needed to improve health, the environment and livelihoods. PAYG LPG is a innovative consumer finance mechanism that can help accelerate clean cooking access.