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When Cooking Can Save the Planet

Tekea eith stove

Tekea with her hand painted stove in Aid Tekelezan, Eritera

This is a story that illustrates the important work of Vita in the Horn of Africa. Vita is an Irish NGO, and a partner of Irish Aid. The aim of the organization is to help communities to develop more sustainable and effective ways of harvesting sufficient and nutritious food and of making a living, in areas affected by climate change.

Tekea Tsefagherghesh is unashamedly house proud. Not unlike her fellow Eritreans, she keeps her home spotlessly clean –not an easy task in this mountainous, hot and often dusty sub-Saharan country which hugs the northern coastline of the horn of Africa. 

Tekea’s village, Adi Tekelezan, is over 2,250 metres above sea level and about 40 minutes’ drive north of Eritrea’s capital Asmara. Within the low walls of her compound are three traditional Eritrean dwellings. The smallest one is for livestock, such as goats or chickens, while the largest one is the family living and sleeping quarters. The mid- sized hut contains Tekea’s most proud possession; her self- built and much improved cook stove. Thanks to Irish Aid and Vita, there are over 41,000 improved cook stoves in Eritrea and the stoves programme is, as are all of Vita’s programmes, community–led.

Thanks to Irish Aid and Vita, there are over 41,000 improved cook stoves in Eritrea

Traditional stoves with their open flames and voracious appetites for fuel are hugely detrimental for both the health and welfare of families and their living environments. Tekea’s new stove however is much more efficient. It is very large, at over two metres in length and one metre high. It has various doors and openings to regulate the temperature as well as large round hot plates so that she can cook Injera, the traditional bread eaten all lover East Africa.

Tekea has decorated her stove with hand painted flowers and leaves to make it unique to her.  If you were to pop in to Tekea’s neighbour, Hidat Yitbarik, you would see a similar stove but one painted in a completely different way. The individual decorations have become a celebration of creativity for those installing the improved cook stove.

Vita supplies the moulds and the knowledge for the stoves, but the women themselves contribute towards the cost of each unit, as well as building each one with the help of the other village women. This method of involving the whole community ensures that no individual family is left out. Tekea is now a trainer, and works with Vita’s home economists to bring the programme to the wider community.

The huge advantage of the stove is that it uses nearly 70% less fuel that the traditional stove and any harmful fumes are funneled out of the small enclosed kitchen hut. All of the materials can be sourced locally, and even dung from livestock can be used.

The huge advantage of the stove is that it uses 70% less fuel

Fuel is a huge issue for the women of this continent. One of the most ingrained and sadly familiar images of Africa is that of women and children carrying obscenely heavy bundles of sticks, sometimes for a great many miles. Tekea used to be one of these women, gathering sticks three or four times a week and carrying them back to her home, or spending what little cash she had buying them instead. 

Tekea and her children in Eritera

Tekea and her children

Part of Vita’s programme is to supply a number of trees to each home that has installed an improved cook stove. The Moringa tree is a fast – growing and hugely beneficial tree, as all parts of it are useful. The branches are used for fuel, the roots help secure the soil in this arid and mountainous region and the leaves are both edible and highly nutritious. To date, Vita has planted one and a half million trees on the slopes around Asmara.

For Tekea, the drudgery of a life spent gathering sticks is dramatically reduced, and this has given her far more time to spend working to better her future and that of her children. Tekea, like more than 40% of women in Eritrea, rears her family of seven children alone. The extra income she can now earn is used to buy milk and help pay for her children’s education.

There is no denying that Tekea and her family are benefitting from the stove and Moringa planting projects. Climate change impacts on Tekea and her fellow Africans more than most; the rainy seasons have become unpredictable and shorter and the desert is encroaching on available arable land. Deforestation has caused massive soil erosion and this has polluted the water sources.  However, Tekea and her neighbours are also reducing their own carbon footprint due to the emissions savings from the improved cook stoves and the carbon-consuming trees. 

The key pillar of Vita’s strategy is sustainable development achieved through strengthening resilience and the adaptive capacity of people to climate change. Vita achieves this with an integrated approach that includes support with the production and installation of the stoves. The approach also enables families to access clean water and sources of renewable fuel for cooking. It also supports local reforestation and improved agronomy. Only by weaving all these work streams together can families achieve sustainable livelihoods and improve their situations. Vita is replicating this model throughout Ethiopia and Eritrea, and creating Green Zones that champion sustainable development. It is a programme that meets Tekea’s needs, while safeguarding the needs of the next generation.