Kenya to America – Tackling Problems at the Crux

I recently conducted research on the wicked problem of indoor open fire cooking in Kenya. Although experts have been aware of this challenge for more than 50 years, indoor air pollution still accounts for approximately 1.6-1.8 million deaths a year, and the majority of those lost to this cause are women and children. These population groups are the most adversely affected by these technologies as they spend the most time in the kitchen near the family cooking fire. In addition to their negative health impacts, the practice causes deforestation and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (Jerneck & Olsson, 2012).

Through the development and installation of cleaner burning wood stoves, researchers, development professionals, doctors, other concerned professionals and citizens are working hard to improve these statistics, but there are still many hurdles to address as more than two billion people worldwide continue to cook indoors over open fires. Today, the most difficult obstacles are not technological but social in character, as communities must first understand the issues they are confronting and the advantages of new technologies before becoming more open to adopting them. Recent research shows, however, that community-based participatory processes aimed at allowing residents to become thoroughly acquainted with new stoves can conduce to social learning and increase the rate and sustainability of stove adoption among families.

NGOs, universities, governments, public-private partnerships, and other aid organizations have introduced these new efforts to increase community engagement in the consideration and adoption of cleaner burning stoves. With the help of local social entrepreneurs, such projects are becoming more successful, as measured by their financial viability as well as family acceptance and sustained use of improved stoves. Project managers and researchers are using narrative and co-production to promote social learning and thereby enhancing community adoption of new stoves.

As Americans we are fortunate to take for granted our daily ability to cook with modern equipment. Nonetheless, we still confront major food security and justice issues. In the spirit of examining the global to local nexus, I decided to draw on the lessons I learned from my research in Kenya concerning community adoption of new woodstove technologies to explore the challenge of food justice in my own backyard.

Economic and social forces drive America’s food justice problem just as they propel such concerns in Kenya. According to the Food Empowerment Project and the United States Department of Agriculture, approximately 2.3 million Americans live at least a mile from a supermarket and do not own a car. The majority of the individuals who live in these “food deserts” also reside in low-income areas and/or communities of color. The food that is typically commercially available in these neighborhoods is high in sugar, salt, and preservatives. A number of nonprofits and small businesses are addressing this food justice issue throughout the nation.

One notable example, “Seeds NC,” a nonprofit located in Durham, North Carolina, is working to promote gardens in downtown Durham by educating youth who reside there on how to garden and grow fresh foods in an urban setting. The organization defines its mission broadly: “SEEDS teaches respect for life, for the earth and for each other through gardening and growing food.  Located in the heart of Downtown Durham, we are an urban sanctuary focused on promoting principles and practices of sustainable agriculture, organic gardening, food security and environmental stewardship.” SEEDS NC is approaching the problem of the availability of fresh vegetables in downtown Durham neighborhoods systemically by placing youth education at the core of their mission. This nonprofit is pursuing social justice by encouraging “bottom-up” social learning (

DC Kitchen (in Washington DC.) offers a market-based solution to the food availability challenge, “A local partnership bringing fresh food and economic opportunities to small businesses.” The collaborative is working to bring fruits and vegetables to corner stores throughout Wards 7, 8, and 9. By connecting local growers to neighborhood shops and allowing those businesses to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at a discounted price, the DC Central Kitchen Healthy Corner Store project is addressing the food desert challenge by changing the market structure in which neighborhood food provision is ensconced. This initiative is improving opportunities for people living in parts of Washington D.C. to access fresh foods and vegetables that would otherwise be unable to do so readily. D.C. Kitchen also seeks to educate retailers and consumers alike concerning the health benefits of including a balance of foods and fresh vegetables in their diets (

Finding ways to provide nutritious and affordable food for all will continually be a challenge in a neoliberal economic system, and social norms sometimes take generations to change. Although this is true, service providers in Kenya and here in the United States alike are realizing that simply providing a new stove or planting a garden is not enough, social learning and innovative economic structures have to be an integral part of the process of adoption of change and of diffusion of innovation.


Food Empowerment Project. (2013). Retrieved from on October 16, 2013.

Jerneck, A. & Olsson, L. (2012). A smoke-free kitchen: Initiating community based co-production for cleaner cooking and cuts in carbon emissions. Journal of Cleaner Production. 1-8.

Anna Erwin is a second year PhD student in Planning, Governance, and Globalization from Topsail Island, NC. In 2009, Anna earned her masters degree in Appropriate Technology from Appalachian State University. After graduating, she taught classes in sustainable technologies at ASU and conducted energy efficiency research for the state of North Carolina. Before returning to graduate school at Virginia Tech, Anna spent a year working and living in Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. Anna’s PhD research will look at peacebuilding, local sustainability, and environmental justice in Appalachia.

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