<i>By Alex Goldmark

Source: http://ht.ly/6GuP6</i>

In sub-Saharan Africa, preparing a meal is too often a slow, dirty process that fills the home with smoke equivalent to puffing two packs of cigarettes a day.

Danish biotechnology firm Novozymes is trying to combat these threats by building stoves that burn ethanol, rather than wood, in Mozambique. The company announced an ambitious goal at the Clinton Global Initiative this week: to provide alternative cooking fuel to 20 percent of Maputo, Mozambique's capital, by 2014. The company, known for making enzymes for biofuels, is partnering with the "food, energy and forest prevention company" CleanStar Ventures to offer an alternative ethanol-fueled stove and a locally-based system for producing the fuel.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 80 percent of homes burn charcoal or other biomass for cooking fuel, closer to cooking over a campfire than a kitchen range. To provide the charcoal for all those smokey ad hoc stoves, farmers have to chop down astonishing numbers of trees, which makes eating a danger to the planet, too. Already almost a third of Africa's forests have been lost, mostly to charcoal harvesters.

Numerous companies are designing and producing cleaner stoves—the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves lists several. Many tackle the pollution problem by burning biomass more efficiently than open flame, thus consuming less wood and spewing less smoke. A few, like the BioLite stove, offer extras like electric power, enough to charge a cell phone and a fan that further helps reduce the poisonous plumes. But moving people away from wood-burning stoves altogether could solve several issues at once.

The biggest challenge to the Novozymes project is that it requires production of mass quantities of ethanol. "The development of a robust ethanol production, supply and distribution chain would be a necessary precursor to the widespread adoption of ethanol as a cooking fuel in Sub-Saharan Africa," says Radha Muthiah, executive director of the Alliance.

So Novozymes is working to develop a fuel production system and train people to harvest sugary plants that produce ethanol. "Instead of the rural families slashing trees and making charcoal, they are going to become farmers," says Thomas Nagy, Novozymes' executive vice president.

Rural farming families will get access to an agri-forest system where they can grow cassava, beans, peas and other crops without cutting down trees. The beans and peas capture nitrogen from the soil, so they are used as rotation crops with the cassava, and can also be sold.

CleanStar will buy any excess beans, peas and various fruits from the farming families. "We will then dry the fruits and package it ... and transport it to Maputo where it is sold," Nagy says. The cassava will be combined with Novozymes' specialty, enzymes, to become a clean-burning ethanol for the stoves. Five hundred families who own small plots of land are already trading with CleanStar as part of the project.

Cooking over an ethanol stove is a different experience, and many families resist the switch. Plus, the stove costs $30, a pretty steep price for families earning a few dollars a day.

By 2014, the partnership hopes to have 3,000 farmers, providing fuel for 80,000 households. The total market for alternative cooking fuel in sub-Saharan African, he says, is around $10 billion.