By Maria Famakinwa
The plight of Mrs Ajike Omobolaji, a middle aged woman who sells bean cake (akara) along Hospital Road Akure, Ondo State, truly depicts the traumatic experience some Nigerians are going through to survive the skyrocketing prices of kerosene and Liquefied Petroleum Gas, known as cooking gas in the country. The woman was sighted bringing out broken plastics from a sack and adding them to already set firewood.
She sprinkled kerosene in it after which she immediately lit the matches but the fire went off. Even though the smoke emanating from the fire was so offensive and toxic that some people around reached for their nose masks, the woman was not bothered, as she continued adding more plastics to the fire. After several unsuccessful attempts to ignite a flame, she bent, puffed and blew air into the smoking plastics. Her painstaking efforts to kindle the fire finally paid off, as tiny, yellowish flames sprouted and gradually engulfed the tips of the firewood. With red eyes glistening with tears, the mother of four took steps back, wiped sooth-stained hands on her flowing gown and began to fry.
The Hope moved closer to her and told her to try as much as possible to avoid using plastics to cook after buying some akara from her. The woman in response said: “I understand what you are saying, but as long as prices of kerosene and cooking gas remain high, I will continue using plastics, since I don’t have any other source of income than this to feed my family. Kerosene is unaffordable, while a litre of cooking gas is between N1000 and N1,200. I am not the only one using plastics to cook, many food sellers engage in the act, including those roasting corns, yams and plantains. Even in my compound, that is what majority of the households are using to cook. When our children go out and see any plastic, they know they must bring it home.”
Like Omobolaji, findings revealed that many Nigerians now embrace using plastics to cook as alternative to gas and kerosene, undermining its health implications. The increase in the prices of gas and kerosene has become a great source of concern to many Nigerians, particularly when considered against an earlier warning by the president of Nigerian Association of Liquefied Petroleum Gas Marketers, Olatunbosun Oladapo, that the price of 12.5kg cooking gas could hit as high as N18,000 by December.
The World Health Organisation in 2013 reported that 98,000 Nigerian women die each year from the use of firewood, with thousands more at risk of serious health problems. WHO added that after malaria and HIV/AIDS, smoke is the biggest killer of mostly women and children, which has cost poor families and institutions money that could be put to better use on education, health and nutrition.
The WHO noted that indoor smoke from solid fuel remain one of the leading causes of avoidable deaths and ill-health worldwide, with women mostly affected because they often cook for their families and spend a lot of time in smoky kitchens. WHO further reveals that household air pollution causes non-communicable diseases that include stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer, adding that close to half of deaths due to pneumonia among children under five years of age are caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution.
Omobolaji and her neighbours are not the only Nigerians who daily expose themselves to avoidable risks in an effort to survive. A civil servant who simply gave her name as Mrs. Ilesanmi also revealed that the hike in prices of cooking gas and kerosene has forced many citizens, including she to consider dangerous alternatives. According to her, she switched to firewoods when she could not afford to buy gas but the continuous rain has not made the use of firewood easy, because they are still wet. Hence, her resolve to settle for plastics.
Her words: “I decided to use plastics as alternative to kerosene and gas because of the astronomical rise in the prices of kerosene and gas. What can I do? My husband and I are salary earners, with three children still schooling. We have hike in foodstuffs prices to contend with, aside other essential needs. Our monthly take home have been reduced to nothing, due to the galloping inflation. I don’t understand what is happening and I don’t know what to do again. I cannot afford to buy 1kg of gas for N1000 and firewoods are wet, yet I must eat. That is why I use plastics to cook.”
Also bemoaning the continuous spiralling cost of cooking gas, an artisan, Mr Waheed Alade, said that he initially used sawdust as alternative to gas but because of the distance of his house to sawmill, he now searches the neighborhood for plastics which he described as faster at igniting fire.
When told that using plastics to cook could pose serious health hazards, he cut-in and said: “Forget about health hazards. Hunger is more hazardous to the health than anything. What is important now is how to feed my family. The truth is that I can’t afford gas or kerosene and I have mouths to feed. If you check around, you will observe that most Nigerians now use plastics to cook because it is highly inflammable and makes your cooking faster. Finding plastics in my environment is like mining gold, since that is what people use now as alternative to gas. All you need to do is sprinkle little kerosene in it, then you are good to go. Almost everybody uses plastics to cook, including food sellers. If kerosene and cooking gas are out of the reach of common man, plastics are not. Hard time requires hard measure,” he said.
Reacting to the high cost of gas, a gas seller, Mr Kolawole, who lamented that his daily sales had dropped added that they sell to consumers according to what they buy. He explained further that cooking gas which ordinarily should have eased the burden on the cost of fuel or energy generally, following the removal of subsidy on petrol, is gradually getting beyond the reach of an average Nigerian. He warned that if an urgent step is not taken by the government to address the high cost of cooking gas, it would force the people to use firewood and charcoal, which will also, in the long run, affect their health.
He said: “Cooking gas should have been sold at a very low price. In fact, if there is to be a subsidy, it should be on cooking gas, so that it will solve the problem of deforestation. Instead of maintaining and stabilising the price of cooking gas, which Nigerians have seen as a solace to the fuel subsidy removal, the government has allowed its price to skyrocket to the point where ordinary Nigerians cannot afford it; it is unfortunate. Just move around and look at the volume of firewood and charcoal that are being sold. It is unnecessary. We are killing and destroying our forest because the cost of cooking gas is too high. Federal Government should urgently address the issue. Let the price be as low as possible so that people will stop hacking our trees, creating deforestation, generating desertification, and killing a lot of things. It is not just the plant but even the animals are also endangered when the forests are attacked,” he said.