GROWING up in the dusty streets of Qacha’s Nek, ‘Mamoreheng Ratoko frequently rubbed her eyes and was resigned to the deterioration of her vision with each passing year.
“It was normal for everyone exposed to smoke from the fire to have watery and itchy eyes. It is still normal even today.
“We have been cooking using firewood, animal dung, cloth and even plastics for decades now, and I accepted this,” said Ms Ratoko, who is now a grandmother, after being asked if she was aware of the health risks posed by smoke.
One person who did not accept it is National University of Lesotho (NUL) senior lecturer in the Chemistry Department Dr Mosotho George.
Seventeen-years ago, Dr George took his newly-born daughter to his parents at their rural village at the feet of Thaba Telle where they were ushered into a home where the burning of cow dung in a poorly ventilated environment was not seen as an issue of concern.
“The sight of some black particles oozing with mucus from my daughter’s tiny nostrils in the morning sparked a thought in me,” Dr George recalled.
“What impact does this soot have on the babies’ health? However, by then, my appreciation of the PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) was not as much as it has been recently.”
This led him to conduct scientific research from which he discovered that burning cow dung, coal and wood generated smoke containing potentially harmful PAH.
PAHs a group of over 100 different chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas, garbage or other organic substances like tobacco or charbroiled meat.
Dr George’s discoveries revealed a need to use better aerated stoves.
“These strange materials are assumed to have a potential to cause cancer and can interfere with hormone system in human bodies,” he noted
“The importance of these results is far-reaching for public health in a country already plagued by health challenges. We need to engage both the ministries of Health and Energy about advocating for and improving ‘lipaola’ or rather design better stoves that can burn these materials efficiently and direct the smoke out of the house through the chimneys.”
Ms Ratoko is fortunate that those days of watery and itchy eyes are now firmly behind her and she now has access to clean energy, electricity, thanks to the Ministry of Energy and Meteorology’s countrywide village electrification programme.
And this could well be the happy scenario for all Basotho who remain vulnerable to the danger of PAHs, should government fully implement its ambitious project to provide homes with clean and renewable energy sources in the coming years.
Energy and Meteorology Minister Selibe Mochoboroane recently told this paper there was an urgent need to ensure that women had access to clean and renewable energy.
He said Lesotho was on a campaign to light itself up.
“If things go according to plan, by the end of January, we will be launching a clean and renewable energy plant that will generate 20 megawatts of solar energy,” he said.
“This means that Lesotho will no longer spend M240 million to outsource electricity and in that way we will also provide clean, safe, renewable, accessible and affordable energy to ordinary Basotho women.
The health effects from household air pollution are not just Lesotho’s problem alone as noted by the recent Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York.
African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina told the meeting not only were women most affected but the lack of sustainable energy was one of the major impediments to economic growth.
“It is estimated that around 600 000 Africans, mostly women, die each year as a result of household air pollution,” Mr Adesina said.
“It does not make sense for a woman to die just to cook a decent meal.”
Mr Adesina therefore called for bold actions to light up African within the next 10 years, saying there was an urgent need to bring energy to the millions of people who did not have access to it
Of the 1.3 billion people who do not have access to electricity in the world, more than 600 million live on the African continent.
The ADB has launched a New Deal on Energy for Africa, which entails among other things an investment of US$12 billion (about M168 trillion) in different energy projects for the next five years as well as leveraging US$50 billion (about M70 trillion) from the private sector.
He urged governments, development partners and non-governmental organisations to work together in creating the right mix for energy production.
The ADB initiative was welcomed by Minister Selibe Mochoboroane who told this publication that it came at a time when government was on a campaign to provide sustainable energy solutions to its people.
“For us, the call means we are on the right track as it comes at a time our ministry is already implementing its own plan to ensure that every single household has access to clean energy, in this case electricity,” Mr Mochoboroane said.
“It means more trees would not be cut for firewood whereas at the same time more women would not be exposed to household air pollution which has dire effects on their health,” he said.
He said it was also important to ensure the electricity was affordable to ordinary Basotho women.
Technologies for Economic Development (TED) Managing Director ‘Mantopi Lebofa echoed the sentiment, saying it was sad that women and children continued to suffer in silence from the effects of household air pollution.
“Energy is women’s business. We have thousands of tuberculous cases caused by inhaling the smoke from candles, paraffin lamps and open fires,” she said.
Ms Lebofa said it was important for everyone to put their heads together and ensure Lesotho meets the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) target 7 which seeks to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
Ms Lebofa said there was no reason for failing to achieve the SDGs on clean and safe energy when the country experienced at least “300 days of free sunlight annually”.
“Seventy percent of Basotho reside in rural areas and rural communities rely mostly on unclean and unsafe energy. We seriously need to do something,” Ms Lebofa said.
She said if given access to clean and safe energy, women would use it wisely some were already doing at the Kopanang ka Lerato Basali ba Patlong cooperative in Qacha’s Nek.
The cooperative makes a living selling organic fruits for sale dried on a solar machine.
The women have made it their business to each plant five organic fruit trees per month.