Samrawit (not her real name) is 36, a widow, with four children. She lives about 14 km outside Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, and earns about 30 birr (1.5 USD) per day collecting firewood for sale. She cooks with firewood herself, and has chronic respiratory problems, along with back pain from her work.

Across Ethiopia, 92% of households cook with wood and other biomass, with severe consequences for public health and the environment. Policy-makers and NGOs thus see a transition to modern stoves using clean fuels, such as ethanol, as top priority. Yet the supply of such fuels is now unreliable, and there are concerns about the impact on communities. How would women like Samrawit handle the transition?

It is this dilemma that led SEI to launch “Fuel from Waste: Demonstrating the Feasibility of Locally Produced Ethanol for Household Cooking in Addis Ababa”, a collaboration with the Gaia Association and the Ethiopian government financed by the Nordic Climate Facility and the World Bank.

The project set out to test the technical, financial, environmental and socioeconomic feasibility of producing ethanol for cooking on a small scale, using decentralized micro-distilleries. The idea was to provide a new livelihood opportunity for women like Samrawit, who would sell ethanol instead of wood – and in the process, increase the availability of ethanol for cooking in Addis.

“It is widely acknowledged that we need to move away from smoky biomass cookstoves, but what is not very clear is how transition to clean fuels can be achieved,” says SEI Research Fellow Caroline Ochieng, the project leader at SEI. “We have worked a lot on the demand side of clean cooking, but not on the supply side. We saw this project as a chance to better understand what it takes to achieve this transition.”

Ethanol for cooking in Ethiopia

The project built on the Gaia Association’s 10 years of experience promoting ethanol as a clean cooking fuel in Ethiopia. Gaia has distributed roughly 8,000 ethanol-fuelled “CleanCook” stoves in the country, mostly in refugee camps, and has demonstrated that the stoves reduce indoor air pollution to below the thresholds recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). The stoves can also help avoid up to 3 tonnes CO2e per year of greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet Gaia and others promoting ethanol for cooking in Ethiopia have faced several supply challenges. For instance, in 2010–2011, the sugar companies from which they bought ethanol sold it for transport fuel blending instead. This led some households already using ethanol for cooking to switch back to biomass..

At least as important as a reliable ethanol supply was the chance to provide new livelihood opportunities for women like Samrawit. The partners thus teamed up with the Former Women Fuelwood Carriers Association (FWFCA), which has more than 4,000 members who, with government and donor support, have been engaged in activities ranging from weaving and milling, to selling ethanol from the sugar companies.

The idea was to set up a micro-distillery that would be community-owned and -run. Not only would the women earn income from the plant, but also learn valuable skills through training in various operational aspects of the plant, as well as business skills.

A long-awaited opening

The plant was inaugurated on 8 October. It has the capacity to produce 1,000 litres of ethanol per day, enough to meet the daily cooking fuel needs of 1,000 households. The ethanol will be made from wastes such as (blackstrap) molasses, a by-product of sugar production, or potentially also from discarded fruit and vegetables from nearby markets. At the inauguration, guests and project participants were able to see the equipment at work, a preview of what they hope will be a successful venture.

The plant is near middle-income condominiums, a large potential market for the fuel produced. Although these households have electricity, frequent power outages lead them to combine electric cooking with kerosene stoves. The ethanol would provide a cleaner alternative.

Getting to this point, however, took more time and effort than expected. There were challenges acquiring the land and obtaining necessary permits for importation and eventual installation of the plant equipment. To be able to operate, the plant still needs to have recycling facilities set up for the wastewater, as well as an electrical grid connection and a laboratory to monitor the quality of fuel produced. Moreover, a support system will be needed to help the women with the operation of the plant. The partners have proposed a second phase for the project to address those issues and draw further lessons from the implementation.

“These are aspects that would not be possible to tackle within the time-frames that most funders provide for these types of projects: generally 2 years,” says Ochieng. “Through this project, we have come to appreciate the complexity of the fuel transition process, and identified many new research questions related to land use, ownership and other logistical challenges that will be part of a transformation agenda moving forward in Ethiopia.”

SEI Deputy Director Jakob Granit attended the inauguration with Ochieng and echoes her assessment of the value of this pilot project.

“SEI is not typically engaged in implementation projects, but in this case we wanted to move beyond research and be part of the delivery of a renewable energy production facility, to learn about the challenges on the ground,” he says. “The spirit of entrepreneurship and the team effort to realize this facility cannot be overestimated. We are eager to draw out lessons from this project to inform future efforts.”

Ethiopia’s current five-year plan for the energy sector includes ambitious targets to disseminate biomass-saving stoves, domestic biodigesters, biofuel stoves, and solar cookers. There are also plans to introduce more ethanol micro-distilleries. The lessons learnt from this project will be useful for the government and for others aiming to try similar approaches in Ethiopia and beyond.

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