As many of you may recall from last month’s article, energy is not a luxury to be taken for granted in Tanzania, East Africa. With roughly one in seven households having connections to the electrical grid, access to energy is an absolute privilege. When it is further considered that in rural areas, home to almost 75 per cent of the population, only one out of every 30 households has electricity — energy is an absolute blessing.
Looking at the numbers above with my Canadian eyes, it is easy to assume that six out of seven people in Tanzania don’t have energy. In reality, an assumption such as this is really more than improbable, it is absolutely impossible. Without energy, even the basics like a warm cup of tea are out of the question.
Throughout my life, I cannot truly recall an instance when I needed to actually think of where I would be able to access, far less how I was going to use, the energy I needed for even the most basic of activities like cooking my dinner. Thanks to marvels of the modern world, such as gas or electric stoves, the question of energy has always been something that I have been able to reflect upon after, not before, I have used it.
In comparison to the basic technology (open fires) and rudimentary fuel (firewood and charcoal) that are typically used in nearly every Tanzanian home, energy should be a simple affair. Aside from a shortage of matches, is there anything that can possibly make energy in East Africa a nuisance, far less a burden? Surprisingly, the answer is yes on all fronts.
At its most obvious, the consequences of energy use in Tanzania are visibly noted environmentally. With greater than 95 per cent of households relying on charcoal or firewood, deforestation is not a theory — it is an everyday reality. By current and conservative estimates, 91,200 hectares of forests are lost here annually. In the Canadian context, that is equivalent in area to a 4.5 km strip of land running the entire length of the Trans-Canada Highway from Brandon to Winnipeg and is significant enough to lead to the complete loss of publically forested lands in Tanzania by 2028.
By the basic rules of supply and demand, deforestation immediately leads to the scarcity of not just trees, but the majority of the nation’s energy supply. As such, with dwindling forest stocks and steadily increasing demand, energy prices rise. A typical Tanzanian household can spend upwards of 35 per cent of its monthly income on energy — with 54 per cent of this domestic energy budget locked in purchases for firewood and charcoal. As a Canadian, it is almost inconceivable to think of a situation wherein greater than 15 cents of every dollar I earn would go up in flames to supply fuel, far less provide the ingredients, of every meal I prepared.
For those who are unable to afford purchases of fuel wood in Tanzania, there is the option of collecting it for free. However, with diminishing supplies it is equally important to consider that the time and effort necessary to actually find the fuel can have astounding consequences.
In Tanzania, collecting fuel wood typically requires 1.5 hours per day of travel time and is largely the domain of women and youth. That works out to 10.5 hours per week, 45 hours per month, 547.5 hours per year — largely invested to attain the same amount of energy that the average Manitoban harnesses when turning on their stove. In terms of productivity, that is the equivalent of roughly 68.4 North American working days every year — or 13 solid weeks of school.
The impacts of energy have further ripples into the lives of women and girls when it is also recognized that cooking is viewed largely as a female affair in Tanzania. With close to every household in the nation employing the use of open fires (both indoors and outdoors) for cooking, there is virtually no escape from smoke inhalation and indoor air pollution.
While I have seldom seen a woman or youth with a cigarette in her hand in Tanzania, almost every lady I know in the country could be called a smoker. Respiratory illnesses directly associated with cooking, such as pneumonia, account for 14 per cent of deaths for children under the age of five in Tanzania and are poised to overtake malaria as the No. 1 killer in the nation.
Since I was a school boy, I had always understood energy as being the ability to do work. Yet upon living in Tanzania, I have often been left to question the soundness of what I always believed to be a solid definition. Far too often in East Africa, I have seen energy as only increasing one’s labours.
» Josh Sebastian is from Brandon-Westman and is currently working on international development projects in Tanzania, East Africa.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 18, 2012