Like many developing countries, much of South Africa smells of smoke. The open flame of indoor cooking adds the taste of fire to home-cooked meals for roughly three billion people around the world—as well as killing more than 2.5 million people prematurely via soot, also known as black carbon, inhalation, according to the World Health Organization. Others simply suffer from chronic lung ailments; the soot that escapes into the atmosphere from all these cooking fires is also helping to cook the planet.
The solution has been obvious for decades: cleaner cooking facilities—whether advanced cookstoves, biogas flowing from tanks where microbes digest sewage and trash, or other modern alternatives. But the mismatch between the care or skill needed to tend cookstoves or biodigesters and the daily lives of those who would use them have doomed most initiatives to establish such devices in homes. For example, the technology for solar cookstoves works but the stoves do not function after sunset, when the evening meal is prepared in many countries. Or the price of more advanced stoves, such as those that burn biofuel instead of wood or dung, rapidly outstrip such households' ability to pay.
That hasn't stopped ongoing efforts, such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves from the U.S. State Department, which hopes to distribute cookstoves to 100 million households by 2020 (although the design has yet to be decided). Thirty households in KwaDukuza received Philips's stoves as part of the event with President Zuma, and 170 more households got them in the surrounding iLembe district.
The Dutch multinational may also build a factory in the nearby country of Lesotho to produce 300,000 such smokeless cookstoves a year, with funding help from UNIDO. Doing so may help to solve the cost problem for South Africa and other neighboring countries.
The new stoves also cut soot emissions by 90 percent, according to Philips, although it requires electricity to do so. A fan blows air into the combustion chamber, enabling more complete burning that eliminates smoke, but at the cost of requiring a rechargeable battery to power it—and thus the need for an electricity source.
A satellite photo of Earth during the nighttime reveals large swaths of black across much of the African continent whereas tendrils of light create glowing webs that connect cities and communities in North America or Europe. To light the night, countries such as South Africa need to generate electricity for modern lights to replace kerosene lamps and paraffin.
That is where LED solar lighting systems can play a key role. Such systems, which combine the efficiency of a light-emitting diode with electricity derived from sunlight and stored for the night in small batteries, can turn on the lights in rural households. In addition to avoiding the expense of running lines to conduct electricity to these homes across Africa, such solar-powered solutions would bring modern energy services to the poor without contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.
The hurdle here is simple: cost. Every element of such a system—LEDs, solar panels and batteries—are too expensive for such households to afford on their own. Many people therefore pay (at higher costs per unit of energy) for small increments of kerosene for lamps or buy candles and recharge their now ubiquitous mobile phones from the grid where it is available. U.N. funding helped clear that financial hurdle for the 200 iLembe District households that received such systems.