Back to Basics

AUTHOR: Nina Welding

PUBLISHED: February 18, 2019

"I believe electricity is a human right." 

Annelise Gill-Wiehl, an environmental engineering major and international studies minor wanted to even the playing field when it came to electricity access in developing countries.

With the help of an Experiencing the World Fellowship from the University of Notre Dame Kellogg Institute for International Studies, she traveled to Shirati, Tanzania, in 2017. While there, Gill-Wiehl traveled to 200 households across four villages conducting energy surveys to determine what residents needed and the best solutions. Through the surveys, she found most households were already using sustainable resources like solar-powered lanterns for light.

However, Gill-Wiehl was surprised to find common cooking practices were hardly sustainable and posed serious health risks. "I found out that before we even started talking about electricity, we need to talk about cooking." Reliable electricity was the goal but Gill-Wiehl first had to return to the basics.

Most families were cooking with wood or charcoal, which produces a high volume of particulate matter. Melchor Assistant Professor Paola Crippa, who guided Gill-Wiehl in her research, said the deadly particles are a major source of air pollution. "Particulate matter comprises particles of a very small size that can be easily inhaled, deposited onto the lungs, and transmitted into the bloodstream," Crippa said.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly four million people a year die prematurely from illnesses attributed to household air pollution from inefficient cooking practices. This includes cooking with wood, charcoal, or kerosene. The number surpasses the total amount of deaths related to tuberculosis and malaria combined. "Three hours of inhaling this particulate matter is the equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes," said Gill-Wiehl. "For the women, cooking is their job. They are sitting over a stove for five hours a day."

She questioned how she could introduce cleaner cooking methods without relying on electricity. After the first summer, she designed a feasibility study for a pilot program that would provide residents with a small gas stove.

"Annelise's research seeks to quantify the health and economic impacts of cookstove emissions in Africa by integrating numerical model simulations with remote sensing data, with the final aim of helping local communities transition to cleaner energy resources," said Crippa.

The villages already had health workers who traveled around providing care, so Gill-Wiehl decided to create a similar role for technology officers. When returning to Shirati in the summer of 2018, the pilot program included 30 families across two different villages. She and two technology officers traveled door-to-door teaching the families how to use their new gas stoves. "They want the education and they want to use gas," she said. But many were apprehensive. "In the initial visits, a lot of families didn't believe they could cook ugali or chicken on a gas stove." These visits were critical in helping the families adjust to the new cooking method.

Another challenge was changing the financial habits of families. Gas canisters cost $10 a month, but many families were used to buying wood or charcoal on a daily basis. "They were spending more on charcoal in aggregate, but it is just the difference in the finance mechanism," Gill-Wiehl said. "Now they have to pay for their gas up front." The families received their first gas cylinder for free, but they would have to save their daily wages to pay for the next one.

Overall, the pilot program was well received. As it expands, there are bound to be more challenge. But Gill-Wiehl is optimistic the project will continue to be a success. "Every week I am still getting project updates and data," she said.

The soon-to-be-graduate student also has high goals for herself. She will attend graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, focusing on Energy and Resources. Gill-Wiehl is also a semi-finalist in the prestigious Fulbright Scholars Program.

While in graduate school, she will pursue more funding for the program in Tanzania, expanding the model to other cities. Ultimately, she hopes to address her original goal of implementing electric infrastructure in developing countries.

 — Allison Preston, Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences