How an eco-innovation is helping Africa’s most vulnerable

Welcome to Bidibidi

Every day, tens of thousands of people flee their homes to escape conflict and persecution. There are now more registered refugees in the world than there are citizens of the United Kingdom. From Turkey to Tanzania, sprawling camps have become commonplace. That is the state of our world.

Only three years ago, Bidibidi was a tiny village in the remote woodlands of northwestern Uganda. Today, it is the world’s largest refugee camp, a scorching dustbowl packed with nearly 300,000 of the one million South Sudanese who live in Uganda. If it were recognized as a city, it would be the second largest in the country.

Years of civil war in South Sudan have brought with it drought, famine and economic collapse – hastening the flight of a proud people. Mary Kaku, a Bidibidi resident reflected, “There was too much bloodshed, too many people shot, so I left on foot.”

Uganda has perhaps the world’s most compassionate refugee policy. It provides each new arrival with a plot of land on which to build a home, rights to basic medical care, and freedom to work, study and travel. A requirement that aid agencies apportion 30 % of their projects to local Ugandans ensures that that the country benefits accordingly. The policy serves to develop an impoverished region through the creation of jobs, schools and health centres. Adam Rajab, Country Director for the Alliance with Communities for Rural Engagement (ACRE) is a Ugandan citizen with decades of experience in the development sector. His attitude towards refugees mirrors that of his government. “These are human beings and we need to make sure that they feel at home.”

Bidibidi Russell Galt

Photo: Eco Mojo.

From woodland to dustbowl

The inhabitants of Bidibidi may have little but they are not sitting idly. Everywhere people can be seen industriously bettering their lives: tilling the soil and sowing seeds, baking mud bricks to build new homes or harvesting grass to thatch them, cracking stones to pave new paths, and collecting firewood to cook ugali. These are people who, by sheer necessity, are principally reliant on locally sourced natural resources.

Although the ecological footprint of an individual refugee may seem almost negligible when compared to the gigantic stomp of a typical Westerner, when 300,000 refugees suddenly settle in an area known for its rich woodland and grassland habitats, the ecological impacts become vividly discernible. Some government estimates suggest that over 11 million trees have been felled as a direct result of the conflict in South Sudan. Denuded, exposed and prone to dust storms, Bidibidi is a case in point. “Before the refugees came here, this area had a lot of trees”, said Adam Rajab. “You can see now that many have been cut to be used as firewood…”

According to Chatham House, forcibly displaced people burn around 65,000 acres of forest every day and of those who live in camps, some 80 percent have absolutely minimal access to energy i.e. barely enough to cook one meal per day.

Photo: Eco Mojo.

The misfortune of firewood

Balancing on his crutches, Geregil Charles, the elected Chairperson of Village 8 in Bidibidi, lamented, “The women waste too much time collecting firewood when they could be at home, cooking or looking after children.” Depletion of the resource has forced the women travel increasingly far in their search for it. “The alternative”, Charles expounded, “is for them to acquire it from local communities in exchange for food rations.”

“Women and children are most adversely affected by the use of firewood for energy”, said Jessica De Clerck, Managing Director of Potential Energy, an NGO promoting clean energy in the region. She cited a 2005 Médecins sans Frontières report which documented 500 rape cases in Darfur, Sudan. The likelihood of women and girls being raped was found to increase four-fold when they ventured away from settlements in search of firewood, water or grass.

Another social cost of traditional fuel use is that of air pollution. Pollution from open-fire cooking results in over 4.3 million premature deaths each year exceeding those attributable to malaria, HIV and tuberculosis combined and this includes some 20,000 forcibly displaced people.

With so many South Sudanese streaming into Uganda, the risk of xenophobia flaring up has to be carefully managed. According to Adam Rajab, “demand for land and firewood creates tension with the host communities”. Some locals complain that they aren’t benefiting sufficiently and that there aren’t as many jobs available with aid agencies as they had been led to believe.

Photo: Eco Mojo.

A fuel-efficient stove

Recognizing the problem of vulnerable women and girls spending hours each day to collect firewood and poisoning their lungs to cook over it, the US Government asked Dr Ashok Gadgil, Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division, to find a solution.

“We must figure out how to use the Earth’s resources far more efficiently if we are to bring prosperity to the population of the planet” said Dr Gadgil. In that vein, he assembled a team and together they set about designing a fuel-efficient stove. After many years of intensive lab and field research, the Berkley-Darfur Stove was unveiled and readied for mass production.

The stove is twice as efficient as a conventional stove. “The firewood I buy will now last six days; before it would only last two to three days” said Mary Kaku, proudly stirring porridge.

Manufactured in India and shipped to East Africa, tens of thousands of the stoves have been distributed by partner organisations such as ACRE and Potential Energy. Rajab Hadija, Executive Director of ACRE notes that, “People have been appreciating how the stoves work and they feel that more and more of them should be given out.”

For his work, Dr Gadgil won the Lifetime Achievement award of the 2012 Zayed Future Energy Prize. The $3.5 million Zayed Future Energy Prize recognizes and rewards innovation, leadership and long-term vision in renewable energy and sustainability. The award is named in honour of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the late ruler of Abu Dhabi and the founding father of the United Arab Emirates.

Photo: Eco Mojo.

Every little helps

The people of Bidibidi speak proudly of their former lives as farmers, bankers, teachers, tailors, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. Many have witnessed unimaginable horrors in their homeland and journeyed hundreds of miles by foot to reach the relative safety of Uganda. Their determination of spirit is palpable, yet their existence is precarious. A stove alone cannot transform the situation for refugees but it can lessen a perilous chore, alleviate pressure on local natural resources and reduce tensions with locals. Combine it with other low-cost green technologies such as solar panels, vertical farming rainwater harvesting and entomoculture and suddenly the situation for refugees could begin to look very different. Certainly, no-one in Bidibidi is passing up the opportunity to reduce their firewood usage by half with all its resulting benefits.

This is a guest article written by Russell Galt, Co-Founder of Eco MoJo. The video was produced by Russell Galt and Steven Bland of Eco Mojo. Email: info@ecomojo.biz

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