It was the beginning of September 2021. I had been in Langas, an informal settlement in Kenya, for over 6 months and my fieldwork was coming to an end. I had spent immersive time within Kenyan households to understand how people procure energy for cooking, lighting, and heating their houses, the central topic of my PhD. Daily trips to buy charcoal or refill a gas bottle, the process of lighting a three-stone fire or a jiko, and the preparation of traditional meals had become part of the routine I shared with residents. I had gathered plenty of contextual insights into the reasons why people choose a fuel or a stove over another. With only a few weeks from my return to the UK, I wanted to reapproach the place that had hosted me for so long with the same exploratory eyes I had when I first arrived in Langas – to iterate, test, and continue to question the ethnographic understanding I had so far developed.
Fully embracing “ethnographic errancy”, i.e. approaching a social world with no fixed plans or expectations so that chance discoveries can emerge, I wandered along the muddy streets of Langas, a camera pending from my neck and a notebook in my hands. In the settlement, long considered a “slum”, there was only one tarmacked road. I soon took one of the unpaved roads streaming from it and heard a whistle. Knowing that I was the only mzungu – white person – in the settlement, and thus a source of curiosity for the residents, I felt called into question. Raising my head, I saw Robert, one of the people I spent time cooking with, trying to catch my attention. I reached him and, after some small talk, I told him that I was soon to leave Kenya. That piece of news granted me an immediate invitation for lunch. Walking toward his backyard, Robert jokingly pointed at my camera and exclaimed “You should leave that to me, I can continue reporting and taking pictures of dust and fire logs for you!”. We both laughed and, perceiving that he was attracted by the object, I showed him how it worked and encouraged him to take a few pictures with it.
Robert was an amazing cook. To make a living, he had embarked on what most people long considered a quirky business: selling deep-fried pork as a street food. Over the years, the controversial opinions about that delicacy had left space for appreciation, granting him a quite stable source of income. Robert’s cooking practices had been an interesting case study for my research. He cooked the pork on a sawdust jiko, a cylindric stove filled with sawdust and lit from the bottom with a burning stick. However, he relied upon a rudimentary three-stone fire to prepare his own meals. As common amongst bachelor men, he owned an LPG – Liquefied Petroleum Gas – bottle, which he only used to reheat the meals his mother prepared for him. These usually consisted of bean soup and githeri, a soup of beans and corn, which were cooked for hours on a big open fire. Being a chef, Robert had been very invested in explaining to me how different fuels and cookstoves confer distinctive flavours to traditional Kenyan meals. Firewood, for example, was a must of the authentic Ugali recipe, a simple paste of flour and water enriched in its taste by the smoke of the wood. Charcoal, instead, was good for cooking chapati bread, as it released consistent and uniform heat to the pan without burning it. During previous visits, he had extensively argued that, while gas was convenient to light and to use, it did not stand a chance to replace traditional fuels. Accordingly, that day he decided to honour my departure by cooking ugali and lamb meat on the three-stone fire, and he started gathering a pile of dried firewood from a small shed at the edge of his plot.
The small hut where the three-stone fire was located, however, was damp. The rainy season was at its peak and the logs, placed straight on the ground, struggled to catch fire. Seeing him struggling, I suggested using the LPG gas bottle instead. Robert widened his eyes and, likely disappointed by what he judged as a lack of appreciation of his traditional cooking practices, he exclaimed: “We are surrounded by these technologies from the West, but I do not feel comfortable with it!”.
I was not new to people’s reluctance to integrate modern cooking solutions within their established ways of cooking. However, Robert’s reaction surprised me: he was interested in my camera, but he refused to use LPG. I found that rather contradictory. The camera and the LPG cookstove: weren’t they both “technologies from the West”, carrying a set of materials and instructions designed elsewhere? What was different in his way of perceiving them, and in the values he attributed to them? While cooking, I tried to elicit this topic. Robert explained that while cameras were an innocent addition to local material culture, which did not interfere with the existing technology nor changed ingrained behaviours, LPG gas bottles were “more of a danger”. They risked substituting traditional stoves, as well as the practices and knowledge associated with their use. That simple explanation greatly added to my understanding of the place modern cooking technologies occupied within Langas.
LPG adoption in Kenya has been encouraged by several political interventions. In a way, it can be considered as a policy-driven change rather than a natural societal shift to different technologies and practices. Identified as a major asset to promote clean cooking in the Majority World, LPG is a by-product of oil extraction that burns quickly and efficiently, with no emissions of particulate matter and other health-damaging pollutants that result from the combustion of traditional fuels like firewood and charcoal. Stored in sturdy and compact bottles, which are easy to transport and refill, LPG cookstoves require minimal equipment to function, are easy to use, and reduce the drudgery associated with the procurement and combustion of traditional fuels. In these respects, LPG gas bottles can be understood as gadgets of the “microworld of humanitarian design” that, with small and intuitive features, respond to the otherwise unmet needs of populations to access clean energy sources. To make them more affordable and accessible across the country, the LPG supply chain was strengthened through the construction of a new import terminal at the port of Mombasa, the establishment of additional refilling plants, and the liberalisation of the retail licenses, once monopoly of petrol stations and big supermarkets. In addition, LPG refills were made VAT-exempted from 2016 to 2021, while traditional energy sources were fought on various fronts: an extra tax was placed on kerosene, a moratorium enforced on logging activities, and a ban placed on the production and sale of charcoal.
The idea underpinning this agenda was that by making traditional fuels expensive and scarce, and LPG affordable and accessible, people would naturally transition to the latter. The Sustainable Development Agenda set energy transitions to clean and modern fuels like LPG as an imperative to achieve by 2030, recognising the outstanding reliance of over 2.4 billion people upon traditional fuels as a critical global public health, environmental, and social concern. The combustion of charcoal, firewood, and kerosene, mostly in low and middle-income countries, generates household air pollution (HAP), the second environmental risk factor in the Global burden of disease. HAP kills more people than HIV/AIDS and malaria with over 3.2 million estimated deaths a year through associated cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Harvesting firewood and charcoal for domestic energy purposes also impacts the environment, accounting for 40% of the global wood harvest. Cooking with them releases almost one-third of total black carbon emissions, a score comparable to the emission of the aviation industry. The drudgery associated with collecting and combusting traditional fuels in rudimentary devices is also a concern for social equality, with women bearing the brunt of time-consuming and tiring tasks that prevent them from accessing educational and job opportunities, with consequences for their financial and personal independence.
President Ruto recently announced the intention to achieve universal clean cooking across the country by 2028, however clean energy transitions still fall short of what is expected to reach SDG7 and only 24% of the population has access to clean cooking fuels and technologies. In Langas, most people employ the practice of “stacking”, intended as the combination of modern and old cooking options to meet their domestic energy needs. While policies and interventions envisaged household energy transitions as linear processes consisting of a simple switch from a device to another, those proved not to follow predicted patterns, nor to be uniquely motivated by fuels’ cost and availability. Even though LPG represented the most logical choice in terms of cost, health, environmental impact and social and gender equality, people only partially integrated it within their cooking practices and continued to rely upon traditional methods.
Robert offered several insights. The flavour expected in food and the values attributed to local traditions, ways of cooking, and material culture supported the choice of firewood and charcoal over LPG. LPG was recognised as fast and convenient to reheat food, but also dreaded as an unfamiliar and alien device. However, there were other social and material forces underpinning cooking choices. Women were concerned about their reputation if they relied upon the convenience of a modern cookstove (see Corinne in the poster). The uptake of LPG was linked to complicated decision-making processes and unbalanced relations of power, which subjected women to what their husbands classed as a financial priority (see Lucy in the poster). Kitchens, often separated from the rest of the households, were organised according to intricated structural and social arrangements in which LPG cookstoves struggled to find a space, especially if the property was rented (see Mary in the poster). Even when LPG became cheaper, people continued to struggle to pay upfront for a full refill, and preferred to buy charcoal or kerosene in small portions whose cumulative price was higher, but more accessible. Lots of residents, however, found LPG convenient when it rained, as it could be used indoor with no need to disperse the smoke originating from charcoal, firewood or kerosene.
In these respects, the combination of different cookstoves and fuels conferred energy users with high flexibility and a broad range of options amongst which they could choose based on their situated circumstances. The linear model of energy transitions imagined by energy stakeholders simplified access to domestic energy as a process that could be addressed by a single and universalistic solution, i.e. LPG gas bottles. This obscured both the complexity of accessing energy in places and the ritual and social components of cooking. It was furthermore unable to take into account the strategies residents had elaborated to face and respond to their situated energy needs. In these respects, the ethnographic accounts collected in Langas confronted energy transitions with radical contextual issues, showing how the drive toward clean and modern energy options needs to abandon universalistic premises and be developed in agreement with the communities involved through more contextual, nuanced, and responsive approaches.