By Koffi Barry (Science Africa Correspondent)

Forest cover in Kisumu County stands at less than one percent -0.44%- according to a recent forest mapping making it one of the counties with the lowest forest cover in the country.

The loss of natural forest cover in the region is mainly blamed on cooking practices that rely on firewood as sources of fuel. The other sources of fuel for cooking in the County include charcoal, paraffin and liquefied petroleum gases (LPGs).

The main drivers contributing to a reduction of forest cover in Kisumu County are population pressure, cutting down trees for firewood, charcoal and illegal logging of trees to be used in building houses and making furniture. The prices of LPGs which have shot up by 250-350 shillings putting it out of the reach of residents.

Currently the County has a population of about 1.2 million people according to the Kenya Population and Housing Census in 2019. Population growth in the County is aggravating the rates of forest depletion as a source of fuel and to allow for settlements.

However, in parts of the County, food vendors have found a means of cooking food using sawdust as fuel. Previously, sawdust used to be discarded or just burnt as waste but they have found use for it in cooking.

This method of cooking is employed for different reasons including lower prices or even more it contributes to the improvement in forest cover It uses less firewood to cook meals. In parts of the demolished Kibuye market, fast food vendors have turned to cooking using sawdust.

Currently, it is valued as an alternative source of fuel thus supporting Kisumu County’s efforts to reduce cutting down of trees for firewood. Felling trees for firewood is still rampant and leads to the destruction of forest lands.

A heap of sawdust packed into gunny bags

Judith Aoko a food vendor uses an improvised jiko to prepare food in her kiosk behind the old Kibuye market. “I learnt about the use of sawdust in cooking from fellow women in the market,” she said.

This was the period before the market was demolished to pave way for new construction. After Aoko chanced upon this idea and she has been using it to prepare food as it saves on costs of buying firewood.

In her kiosk she is preparing potato chips or french fries for her clients who include bodaboda and tuktuk drivers. As opposed to the past when she relied completely on firewood to cook, the use of sawdust has reduced her reliance on wood by about 50% thus helping her to increase her income levels.

She has used the technique for about a year and she is not ready to abandon it anytime soon.

The use of sawdust as a source of fuel is already widespread in most parts of Kisumu County especially the informal settlements. In Manyatta’s Koyango and peace markets, food kiosks are using the method to prepare food.

The technique is being employed in Manyatta’s peace market and by roadside vendors in Nyalenda and Obunga estates. Apart from the informal settlements the system is in use in other Sub-Counties markets such as Nyakach in Nyakwere and Kolweny.

Cooking using sawdust is likely to contribute to the improvement of forest cover in the country thus contributing to the national projections of 10% cover by 2022. Kisumu county adopted a plan that is targeted at planting 40 million trees by 2022. The increasing use of sawdust is likely to contribute to its realization..

The trend is not only used in cooking in kiosks but has been adopted even in households where people use it for cooking meals for the family. “Using sawdust saves on the use of firewood and is a faster method of preparing food,” Aoko adds.

Besides saving on costs of firewood, the jiko is also easy to light. The special jikos are bought at prices ranging between 700-1200 shillings depending on sizes.

The special jikos used to put sawdust

Before she embarked on sawdust as a source of fuel, Aoko spent 100 shillings daily on firewood totaling to 3000 shillings a month. In Kisumu, a piece of firewood sells for about 10 shillings. With the sawdust jiko she now requires five pieces of firewood only costing 50 shillings daily to cook in her kiosk.

She now spends 50 shillings to get a bag of sawdust (muraa) which she uses to cook for 3 days. Muraa has enabled her save money which contributes to her profit margins. “Muraa” is the local name given to sawdust that is used in cooking.

Not far from where she is cooking, is Jane Akinyi a middle aged woman who also uses sawdust to cook in her roadside food stall. Akinyi also learnt the idea from her friends and she adopted it for cooking.

“As opposed to using 150 shillings daily in firewood I now spend 30 shillings on firewood to cook meals for my customers,” she said. In the market, they have special jikos that have large hollow insides and a small air hole on the side through which a piece of firewood is inserted to cook.

To light the jiko, a piece of wood is inserted at the centre and then muraa is placed on the sides and pounded while adding water. “We use a basin of water in preparing the setup to ensure the muraa is compact,” she said.

This helps to reduce air spaces to allow the contents to burn slowly and support the cooking for longer periods. Akinyi now employs the use of sawdust at home apart from her fast-food kiosk. A jiko that uses muraa can cook for a period of up-to seven hours without needing to add more into it.

The only thing one needs to do is to keep fanning the jiko while adding firewood depending on the cooking needs. The air hole is designed to allow one to add just a piece of wood at a time. This helps to save on firewood. The jiko is also designed to reduce heat loss by being enclosed fully on the sides to the top.

Seth Otieno is a carpenter who works in an open air makeshift yard in Kibuye market. He produces large quantities of muraa from his yard where he makes furniture of all types.  “At the moment the demand for muraa is high, we sell a 90 kg bag at 50 shillings but with the demand we are likely to revise it upwards,” he said.

Seth Otieno

His clientele includes chicken basket, chicken farmers and women who cook using sawdust in the market. “Muraa” is a by-product of timber and he is the main supplier of the product for the women who cook using it around Kibuye market.

However, he gets orders and supplies sawdust in bags to other markets within the county. In Kibuye market alone there are about 3 large carpentry shops that produce and sell muraa to locals and food kiosks.

In his carpentry shop, muraa makes part of the floor however even this is a source of income. Some of his clients have found work for this and they dig up the floor for use in making sawdust briquettes. According to Seth, the demand for muraa has risen as compared to that of timber despite being a derivative of timber.

Apart from people who cook using the sawdust, there is a company that collects muraa to make briquettes that are sold for use in cooking. “Before the residents started using sawdust in cooking, we used to take them to a dump site where we would burn them ,” he adds.

This however has changed as residents and food kiosks started to request for the by-product for use in cooking. At the beginning they did not charge for the commodity but with increased demand they have found a way to make more money. “From morning I have made 500 shillings from the sale of 10 bags of muraa alone,” he said.

In Manyatta’s Peace market, Willice Otieno has adopted the method in frying mandazis for his customers. “I started using sawdust in cooking after challenges getting firewood,” he said. He has a large customer base which he could not afford to disappoint even with the challenges getting firewood for cooking.

Willice Otieno

Otieno who learnt the technique from other food vendors in the market is happy it serves him well in cooking. “A well compressed jiko of sawdust is able to prepare meals up to 4 times a day, in the mornings and evenings,” he added.

His profit margins have improved as part of his expenses on firewood have now turned into hid income. In his stall he used to spend between 200-300 shillings on firewood, a cost that has greatly reduced to just 100 shillings as sawdust supplements the wood that is used in smaller quantities. The main benefit of the technique to him is that he doesn’t have to sit near the fireplace after fanning the fire reducing contact with fire which is harmful to health.

The use of muraa in cooking has some downsides. Some people who sell food are skeptical that the method does not prepare food well. The system also requires some skill to make it work optimally. “This sawdust jiko needs to be made compact, if one has not learnt how to make the system compact it ends up not cooking foods properly,” Aoko said.

The weather is another factor that affects cooking using the sawdust jikos. “When the sacks are rained on one cannot cook using the method,” she added. Even though the method does not entirely reduce the use of firewood in cooking it ensures firewood is used in small quantities contributing to a reduction in the depletion of forests for firewood as a source of fuel.

Food vendors have reduced their wood consumption by up to 50% thereby assisting to achieve an increase in the forest cover especially in Kisumu county. The system also requires some energy to make it proper cooking needs. Some women consider this laborious and therefore have not fully adopted its use.

The method has been employed in other African countries in cooking. In urban Zambia one initiative for sustainable energy provision has been the introduction of micro gasifying cook stoves and sawdust pellets to replace cooking on charcoal. In Ghana, a briquette manufacturing plant at the Sokoban Wood Village is making use of sawdust in making briquettes.