LPG gas bottles for clean cooking in Kenya: an ephemeral promise?

Serena Saligari, University of Liverpool, Department of Public Health, Policy, and Systems

Email: s.saligari@liverpool.ac.uk | https://www.linkedin.com/in/serena-saligari/

“I teach my daughters how to set up the fire, how to light the jiko[1]. We need to preserve our traditions, or they will be wiped out by these technologies from the West” – Mildred, housewife. Langas, May 2021.

Mildred lighting a charcoal jiko in her house in Langas.

My research explores the cooking experiences of Langas residents (Kenya) to place the political expectation that LPG gas bottles can ensure clean energy access in the Global South in conversation with their contextual uses and meanings.

The LPG potential in relation to polluting domestic energy

LPG gas bottles have an intuitive design, require minimal equipment to function, and are easy to transport because sturdy and compact. They run on Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), which burns fast, cleanly, and efficiently. They have become common worldwide and, in the last decades, have been identified as major assets to encourage a scalable transition to clean cooking in the Global South. Clean cooking solutions are needed because of the health concerns associated with the reliance on solid fuels (firewood, charcoal, sawdust) and kerosene burnt in rudimentary stoves to meet the domestic energy needs (cooking, lighting, and heating) of over 2.4 billion people, mostly in the Global South (IEA 2022). These fuels are polluting, as they expose individuals to household air pollution (HAP) by releasing substances that are detrimental to health. HAP is a leading cause of several infectious, non-communicable respiratory and cardiovascular diseases (Smith et al., 2014; Balmes, 2019) and the second most significant environmental risk factor in the global burden of disease (Murray et al., 2020). The WHO (2022) estimates that 3.2 million people die yearly because of HAP.

The use of polluting fuels also has consequences for social and gender equality. Women, in fact, are the household members predominantly tending to domestic energy needs. The procurement and consumption of traditional energy sources are time-intensive activities (Köhlin et al., 2011; Jagoe et al., 2020), that disproportionally impact women’s health (Okello et al., 2018) and limit their educational and professional opportunities, with consequences for their financial independence (Khamati-Njenga and Clancy, 2003; Butler et al., 2016). The 2015 Sustainable Development Agenda recognises universal access to “clean and affordable energy” as a priority to tackle these issues. LPG is an inevitable by-product of oil refining that, when not captured, is ignited into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gases. Fully exploiting its potential as a clean, efficient, and highly scalable cooking fuel can offer a solution to the concerns polluting fuels are associated with (Puzzolo et al., 2020).

The political agenda for LPG in Kenya

During the last decade, a strong political agenda supported the adoption of LPG gas bottles in Kenya, where over 70% of the population still relies on polluting cooking fuels (KNBS, 2020), and twenty-two thousand deaths are associated with HAP yearly (WHO, 2022). The government tried to make LPG more accessible and affordable through a set of infrastructural and economic interventions, including a VAT-zero rating on LPG refills, the liberalisation of LPG retail licenses, and the strengthening of the LPG value chain through dedicated port terminals for importing LPG. The market was better regulated to limit illegal refillers, who long stole cylinders from legitimate companies and refilled them with scarce compliance with safety standards and increased risks of explosions. LPG use went from 13% in 2016 to 24% in 2020, although with significant differences between urban (53%) and rural (5.6%) areas (KNBS, 2019). Newly elected president Ruto promised that every Kenyan household will have access to a state-subsidised LPG gas cylinder by 2026.

Lived experiences of cooking with LPG in Langas

In 2021, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Langas, a peri-urban informal settlement on the outskirts of Eldoret town, Rift Valley of Kenya. I followed residents in their daily energy tasks, focusing on the social practice of cooking. LPG gas cylinders were widespread within households, but people combined their use with polluting cookstoves and fuels, a practice known as “stacking”. Gas bottles were used to rewarm food or boil water, while charcoal and kerosene stoves to cook main meals that required long boiling times[2]. LPG was of help when raining as it could be safely used indoors, as opposed to smokier charcoal, wood, or kerosene. It also proved compatible with busy working schedules, as it ignites faster than charcoal or firewood.

The main reason preventing people from switching to LPG exclusively was cost. Even though a household’s cumulativeexpenditure for charcoal, kerosene or firewood was higher, people struggled to pay the upfront cost for an LPG refill and preferred to buy traditional fuels in small portions. There were, however, other reasons why residents stacked. Most were tenants subjected to landlords’ pressure regarding which stoves could be used in the property, with firewood and charcoal seen as a fire risk or damaging the buildings, and gas feared because of explosions. People also found LPG flames inappropriate to cook certain foods, confer meals the desired flavour, and hold the pots stable. A form of cultural resistance concerned with the loss of local traditions, material culture, and knowledge, threatened by non-indigenous technologies, also played a role, especially amongst older generations like Mildred’s, who were wary of unfamiliar devices.

Stacking is viewed negatively by clean energy stakeholders as it jeopardises the positive health and social benefits that can be achieved by transitioning fully to LPG. Yet to my interlocutors, stacking offers important economic, practical, social, and cultural benefits: it extends people’s possibilities, providing them with multiple options to juggle the complexity their everyday cooking experiences are bounded up with. Rather than narrowly focusing on health and social concerns, they signify LPG in ways that extended beyond its practical function. For example, gas bottles’ ownership symbolises their ability to access modern living standards and these objects are often displayed as a precious piece of furniture.

A pile of 6kg gas cylinders at a retailing shop in Langas (photo by author)

Discussion. Long-life gas cylinders! – with no fossil fuels

LPG cost and availability depend on the dynamics of the fossil fuel industry and the global political economy. The Kenyan context epitomises how such external dynamics come to bear upon people’s energy choices and practices. Oil prices, destabilised globally by Covid19 and the Russia-Ukraine war, are controlled by an oligopolistic structure run by a few companies. While the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA) sets a monthly cap on them, the cost of a 6kg gas refill skyrocketed from about 800 KES (£5) in March 2021 to 1300 KES (£7.5) in November 2021 (Ngugi, 2021). Meanwhile, a 16% VAT was reintroduced and then halved by the 2022 Finance Act. LPG availability is closely linked to the destiny of the fossil fuel industry, which recent COPs have urged to phase out. Aligning with this imperative, Ruto promised a full and just transition to electricity produced by solar, wind and geothermal by 2030 but, in the meanwhile, plans for a new LPG terminal were announced.

Whether successful or not, the transition to LPG will likely be short-lived. The adoption of gas cylinders is often imagined as straightforward, a matter of behavioural change: eliminating polluting practices to embrace more sustainable and healthier technological solutions (Morozov, 2014; Johnson et al., 2019). We have learnt, however, that switching to LPG is complex: it requires acquiring additional skills, familiarising with new technologies, and adapting practices, residential arrangements, diets, households’ schedules, and financial and tenancy arrangements. It also limits people’s control over their energy choices, which become dependent on external energy providers (Boyer, 2014). The set of relationships that long made energy available to communities and the livelihood of those involved in polluting energy sectors is furthermore obscured. The policies implemented in Kenya to discourage the use of polluting fuels – a moratorium on logging, a ban on charcoal production, an extra tax on kerosene – had extended socio-economic consequences, which hindered just transitions, but were never assessed. Notably, a more comprehensive strategy able to account for local communities’ needs and the complexity of transitioning to clean energy is needed to ensure that the efforts placed are shared, just, and justified by less ephemeral solutions.


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[1] Traditional charcoal stoves made out of recycled scraps of metal.

[2] The Kenyan diet is based on beans, corn, and meat and results in a set of dishes that need to be cooked for hours, locally known as “hard foods”.

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