Tanzania’s clean cooking push demonstrates complex role of gas

Can gas play a temporary role in reducing the health and deforestation impacts of cooking over wood and charcoal?
<p>Using biogas to cook on a farm near Arusha, Tanzania (Image: <a href="">Russel Watkins</a> / <a href="">UK Department for International Development</a>, <a href="">CC BY</a>)</p>

Using biogas to cook on a farm near Arusha, Tanzania (Image: Russel Watkins / UK Department for International Development, CC BY)

By 2032, the Tanzanian government wants at least 80% of cooking in the country to be powered by clean energy sources. For the government, that mostly means bottled gas.

Currently, 90% of the primary energy supply to Tanzanian homes is firewood and charcoal, with serious impacts on health and forests.

About 97% of households are exposed to high levels of smoke from indoor cooking, and each year more than 33,000 people die prematurely from air pollution in the home.

Cooking with biomass is a major driver of deforestation, as it is in many African countries. Between 2015 and 2020, Tanzania lost 470,000 hectares of forest each year, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Association. And between 2000 and 2020, it lost 11% of its tree cover, Global Forest Watch estimates.

One part of efforts to promote gas for cooking involves a recent deal with Shell and Equinor to tap Tanzania’s vast reserves of offshore gas, much of which will be exported to Asia. Will this strategy actually lower the price of gas for rural Tanzanians? And will it really reduce deforestation in the country?

Gas stoves are a temporary solution

Stoves that burn liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) have been touted as the best solution for reducing pollution from cooking in Africa for the next decade or so, before being replaced with renewably powered electric stoves in the longer term.

Felchesmi Jossen Mramba, permanent secretary of Tanzania’s energy ministry, told China Dialogue that an as-yet-unpublished 10-year government plan to achieve the 80% clean cooking goal will include restricting communities from using wood and charcoal, while promoting bottled gas and solar power.

The government is finalising ways to enable people to buy gas at a price they can afford, said former energy minister January Makamba.

This includes programmes to provide it free of charge to the poorest communities, and much wider access to smaller, more affordable bottles, says Makamba.

“The technology that allows a person to buy gas for US$0.2 or $0.4 exists. We will bring this energy revolution to the market… In reality, the price of gas is cheaper than that of charcoal and firewood.”

At the moment, a 6kg bottle sells for about $10, which most Tanzanians cannot afford.

Several organisations are trying to support the clean-cooking efforts.

The Tanzania Clean Cooking Project, run by development non-profit the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund, aims to get the private sector more involved. The $3.75-million project, funded by the Swedish government, will over three years provide grants and technical assistance to “small and growing” clean-cooking businesses.

In March this year, African oil and gas company Oryx Energy, in collaboration with the Marie Foundation Organisation, gave 700 cylinders of LPG to women entrepreneurs in the Mwanza region of northern Tanzania. They run small businesses like restaurants and have long relied on charcoal and wood for cooking.

Woman cooking over a wood stove in lamp light
Preparing cornmeal porridge by a solar-powered lamp. ‘Clean cookstoves’, like the one pictured, produce less harmful smoke and require less firewood than traditional open pit stoves. This example was provided by African NGO Solar Sister. (Image: Alamy)

Benoite Araman, managing director of Oryx Gas Tanzania, told China Dialogue that Mwanza once had extensive forest cover, until felling for fuel put an end to that.

“Provision of LPG to groups of women is a right step to ensure that we begin mitigation of environmental hazards,” Araman tells China Dialogue. “The cooking gas we have supplied will reduce the tendency of cutting down trees for charcoal and firewood.”

Mary Masanja, former deputy minister of natural resources and tourism, says there is an urgent need for Tanzania’s private and public sectors to join hands to deal with environmental destruction. Doing so would be “a positive move now and tomorrow,” she says.

Masanja says LPG is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than charcoal. A sack of charcoal is currently sold at $34.03 and does not last long, while a gas stove and its tank are $23.39, she says. Once the tank runs out, refilling it costs $10.21, she adds.

Gas in abundance

The LPG that Tanzanians need for cooking may be extracted from crude oil or natural gas streams as they come out of the ground. The country is a major producer of natural gas and has been exporting it to some degree for half a century.

However, 1.3 trillion of its 1.6 trillion cubic metres of its reserves are far offshore in the Indian Ocean. The only way to make extraction here economical is by exporting most of what is produced.

As such, in May this year, the Tanzanian government signed an agreement with Shell and Equinor to develop a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal on land relatively near these offshore reserves. Being much denser than natural gas, LNG takes up less space and can affordably be shipped large distances. Tanzania’s offshore gas could therefore be exported in liquid form, primarily to the Asian market.

Other partner companies in the project are Tanzania’s national oil company (TPDC), Exxon Mobil, Pavilion Energy and Medco Energi.

Tanzania is set to keep some of the extracted gas, though what share is not yet clear. The hope is that the increased supply of natural gas will translate into a cheaper LPG price for Tanzanians. In Dar es Salaam in March 2023, then minister of energy, January Makamba, said the Shell–Equinor project would benefit rural Tanzanians.

Charles Sangweni, director general of Tanzania’s oil and gas regulator, says the project will boost the economy and create thousands of “green jobs”, including 10,000 in construction, and between 400 and 600 permanent jobs.

Cloudy sky above gas extraction industrial area
A gas extraction plant in Mtwara, which taps the Mnazi Bay gas field in southern Tanzania. A gas pipeline from the facility was built in 2015 with a US$1.3-million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China. (Image: Alamy)

The extracted gas may not just reach the Asian market and Tanzania, but other countries too. The Tanzanian and Zambian governments are in talks about building a gas pipeline to Zambia.

Makamba says the pipeline would be constructed at the same time as the existing Tazama pipeline, which transports crude oil from Tanzania to Zambia, is strengthened.

Controversy over gas extraction

There is controversy surrounding gas extraction. In 2021, the International Energy Agency said that no new oil and gas fields should be exploited or developed if the world is to stay within safe limits of global warming. At the same time, African governments have a valid case about having a right to use their gas resources for domestic development goals such as energy access. In Tanzania, for example, electricity access stood at just 32% in 2017.

Amos Wemanya, senior advisor, renewable energy and just transitions at Power Shift Africa, says the continent is in an energy crisis with millions lacking access to clean cooking, but the situation should not be exploited by the fossil fuel industry.

Unlocking Tanzania’s remaining gas reserves, he says, would mean building significant amounts of infrastructure. For Wenyama, this would use up money that could otherwise go towards developing renewable energy systems that are cheaper, easier to deploy and more accessible.

It is a stopgap solution on the energy transition journey
Peter Ndomba, Oryx Gas Tanzania

He adds that studies, including by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), indicate that renewables-based energy systems promise to deliver vast socio-economic benefits to countries across Africa, improving energy access, creating jobs and boosting energy security.

Moreover, climate policies such as carbon border taxes and other measures designed to accelerate the renewable energy transition are likely to be imposed, notes Wemanya, placing new African suppliers of oil and gas at risk. “At a time when the world is moving away from fossil fuel-based energy systems, it would be unwise for Tanzania to invest its limited resources in an energy system that would be rendered obsolete in a short while,” he observes.

Peter Ndomba, customer manager at Oryx Tanzania, emphasises that gas has significant health, safety and environmental benefits compared to traditional solid fuels, such as wood, biomass and coal, or other refined fuels like kerosene or paraffin.

“Unsustainable use of forest resources, among other purposes in household energy, represents significant pressure on forest resources and contributes to deforestation,” Ndomba tells China Dialogue. “Close to 3 billion people worldwide still lack access to clean fuels and technology for cooking, suffering from a range of negative effects.”

“Increased uptake of gas could contribute to poverty reduction and in particular an improved health situation for women and girls, who are mainly involved in cooking and fuel collection,” he says.

“Gas can contribute to reducing net greenhouse gas emissions through more efficient combustion and cooking than biomass, leading to lower emissions of CO2 and black carbon per unit of heated food,” Ndomba tells China Dialogue.

“It is a stopgap solution on the energy transition journey that will aid in building sustainable society,” he adds.