Turning On the Gas in Ghana

Before she started using gas for cooking, Ghana native Malia Idriss used to get up at four every morning. She would light the wood fire, heat the water and make sure her children got breakfast before heading to school. The smoke sometimes burned her eyes and constantly made her cough.

Like Malia once did, more than 90 percent of Ghanaians still rely on fuel wood or charcoal as their main source of energy. According to government estimates, every person in Ghana uses around 1,400 pounds of fuel wood annually—the bulk of it for cooking. “Unless you use plantation wood exclusively, this is unsustainable,” says Madeleine Bolliger Klah, program officer for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Along with logging, agricultural practices and mining, reliance on fuel wood contributes to the depletion of two percent of Ghana’s forest annually.

In an effort to curb this rapid decline, the UNDP, in partnership with the government and local groups, is promoting the use of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) — butane or propane—as an alternative to wood fuel. Gas is clean, safe and efficient, but is rarely used in Ghana. In Accra, the country’s capital, only 22 percent of households use gas. In rural areas, this number drops to one percent.

The overdependence on fuel wood not only poses an environmental threat, but also has serious health impacts. When used in poorly ventilated areas it causes acute respiratory infections that primarily affect women and children. “Our main aim with this LPG program is to solve what we consider both a health issue and an environmental issue,” says Bolliger Klah.

Through media campaigns, workshops and door-to-door visits, the Ghana-based group New Energy was able to improve the image of gas as a safe alternative to fuel wood. The next hurdle is that most of Ghana lacks proper gas distribution networks and supply is often erratic. To solve this, New Energy created LPG users associations. “The association lets people know when the [delivery truck] is coming, and in three to four hours the load is sold,” says Amadu Mahama of New Energy.

On a parallel track, Galten Global Alternative Energy is exploring the future of biodiesel production in Ghana. The “feedstock” would be the indigenous jatropha plant, an oil-bearing hedge frequently used in Africa as a windbreak to prevent soil erosion.