Women entrepreneurs in Nigeria risk their health, pollute environment to eke out a living

By Jennifer UGWA

MOVING frantically in a deliberate effort to outsmart the thick black clouds gathering overhead that evening, Maureen Ezeh, 34, made haste with the most important routine of the day as thick black smoke snaked through the soot-covered perforated holes on the 10-year-old corrugated zinc- made kitchen.

The widowed mother of three runs a mobile food restaurant popularly known as (Mama Put) at ninth miles corner, Ngwo in Udi Local Government Area of Enugu State, one of the major cities in the southeastern regions.

With a population of 50,000 people, a major commercial activity engaged by womenfolk in Ngwo is mobile restaurant- This is not limited to the preparation and sale of Okpa, a local cuisine widely associated with the town of Udi.

Cleaning her reddened eyes with the edge of a wrapper hanging above the miniature kitchen window, Maureen called to her 13- year-old daughter to move the wheeled -truck that housed the unwashed food coolers from her day’s sales toward the shade behind their one-room apartment as the first showers of rain pelted down.

Striving to survive

With 69 percent of households in the country using solid fuels as their primary source of domestic energy for cooking, women and children are at a particularly high risk of disease from exposure to household air pollution says the World Health Organisation.

 As an estimated 95,300 Nigerians reportedly die annually from indoor air pollution. 

“When I remember that my children are still in class because of the little profit that I make from this business, I am grateful. But, my health is not as it used to be. The smoke from the woods is hurting my eyes and chest,” Maureen narrated.

Making daily sales of  N20,000- N25,000 ($51.69) from her ‘Mama Put’ endeavours, the High Blood Pressure patient reveals that she makes over N5,000 ($12.92) daily as profits after the purchase of foodstuffs needed in the preparation of the next day’s business.

“At least I spend not less than N1500 to buy firewood every day. And sometimes, it still won’t be enough- depending on the type of wood. If it burns faster, I buy more. Spending N8, 000 to N13, 000 ($18.90-33.60) to buy gas cylinders is not easy for me,” she said.

Maureen explained that with the advent of the rainy season, the cost of firewood would be the least of her problems. She would have to cook in the rain.

“The smoke from a wet wood is nothing compared to what you are seeing right now,” she said.

Miscarriages and pots

She dished out hot plates of rice and beans simultaneous in a rapid and obviously accustomed manner for the throng of early morning risers already occupying the benches that surround the wooden table where the cooler of food was placed.

Edith Onah prepares for the next days business. Photo credit- Jennifer Ugwa

Unfortunately, Edith Onah, 36, had lost her babies in two miscarriages since she started the mobile restaurant business 16 years ago. Just like Maureen, Edith also uses solid fuel for her cooking.

“Although I was advised by doctors at the University Teaching Hospital, Enugu (UNTH) to go on bed rest until the baby was due and avoid the heat and smoke from the cooking. But, that was an almost impossible task. If I did that, I probably would have lost the two that I have to hunger,” she explained.

According to a 2013 research, approximately 0.8 per cent of neonatal deaths, 42.9 per cent of post-neonatal deaths, and 36.3 per cent of child deaths could be attributed to the use of solid fuels.

“Cooking was not an option,” she said, “it was mandatory for our survival.”

Nigeria has rated the world poverty capital with nearly half the population living on less than $1.90 a day and just like Maureen, Edith spends over N1, 000 ($2.58) on drugs and supplements almost on a weekly basis.

“I won’t lie, I have achieved certain important things thanks to this business. But my health and sight and that of my little girl assisting me have been affected terribly,” Edith said as she stirred the boiling pot of food.

Juliet Achibir, an ophthalmologist at Marafem Eye Clinic noted that constant exposure of the eyes to smoke from the use of solid fuels causes itchiness and redness of the eyes and “without proper medical eye care, might lead to permanent sight damage,” she said. 

Although the women would prefer safer and cleaner energy, it might still be sometime before there is a deliberate and permanent move towards that reality.

Clean cooking visualisation

N9.2 billion clean cooking initiative: Abandoned project, squashed hopes

After the approval of a memo presented by the Minister of Environment, Laurentia Mallam, in 2014, under President Goodluck Jonathan regime, the Nigerian government approved NGN9, 287,250,000.00 for the distribution of 750, 000 Clean Cook Stoves and 18,000 Wonder bags to rural women, as a countermeasure to stopping depletion of forest resources caused by indiscriminate felling of trees.

With the Federal Economic Council’s unanimous approval, the sum NGN9, 287,250,000.00 ($24,002,897.62) was ratified by the president for the delivery of the project which was awarded to Messrs Integra Renewable Energy Services Limited.

However, in a report made available to this reporter by Connected Development (CODE), a Non-Government Organisation that tracks government fund releases revealed that 15 per cent (N1.6 billion) was approved to be released to the contractor in 2015 but Messrs Integral claimed to have received N1.2 billion.

By May 18 2015, an on-site check at the Velodrome of the National Stadium in Abuja by CODE confirmed the delivery of clean cookstoves but the actual number was not ascertained.

Clean cookstoves in storage at Veldrome Abuja. Photo credit_ CODE

Five years later, the stoves are still in storage at the Velodrome, yet to reach the intended beneficiaries.

At the time of publication, the ministry is yet to respond to an inquiry email on the current state of the project.

Death by installation

The Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that 90 percent of rural households in Southern Nigeria and up to 98 percent in Northern Nigeria depend on fuelwood as their source of domestic energy.

In 2005, Nigeria had the highest rate of deforestation globally at 400,000 hectares annually.

With the fast-paced depletion of forests, Omobola Eko founder Urban Tree Revival Initiative and climate activist said a gradual demise of ecological systems would be inevitable.



    “Planting new trees may not be as effective as protecting the existing forests. Providing renewable means of cooking for rural and urban women will help reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere and improve health.

    “This will greatly reduce pressure on forest trees for firewood and charcoal,” she said.

    Despite being responsible for the deaths of 4.3 million people annually in the world, billions of people globally still depend on these dirty sources of energy for cooking and heating their homes.

    “It could be gradually killing us but firewood is what we have now,” Maureen said.

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