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In the Upper East Region of Ghana, cooking is a dangerous and time-consuming daily activity. Results from a self-reported survey indicate that women spend two hours a day gathering fuel and water, followed by up to four hours standing over open fires 1. Exposed to cooking smoke for hours each day, women and small children can be at higher risk for deadly diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, heart disease and lung cancer.2
This problem is not unique to Ghana. Nearly half the world’s population relies on open fires and crude stoves for daily cooking.2 With wood as their primary source of cooking fuel, the region is undergoing a crisis of deforestation. In addition, some four million people die every year from cooking smoke-related illnesses.2 Children under five are especially harmed: about 50 percent of deaths from childhood pneumonia are due to breathing toxins from open fires.2
Recognizing this global public health issue, Wonderbag, a South-African based startup founded by social entrepreneur Sarah Collins, has developed a simple yet pioneering cooking tool that continues to cook food which has been brought to boil by conventional methods. As a non-electric portable slow-cooker, the Wonderbag requires less fuel and reduces exposure to active fires 3.
Since launching in 2008, more than one million Wonderbags have been distributed around the world. While initially envisioned as a simple cooking tool, Collins has been pleasantly surprised to see that the Wonderbag can have a broader impact. “Women selling food at markets, having more time for micro- agriculture and more girls in schools - these are just some of the incredible shifts we have seen with the introduction of the tool when women are able to spend less time gathering water and fuel and standing over open fires.”
In early 2012, the Western Cape Government of South Africa rolled-out 1,700 Wonderbags to select low-income households to assess sustainable human settlements and address energy poverty. A survey of 211 households found that the Wonderbag showed a significant benefit in time, money, and electricity usage as well as health benefits such as reducing smoke and fumes and creating a safer environment for children 4.
To build on the findings from South Africa, Wonderbag and Pfizer Vaccines partnered in Fall 2015 to assess sustainable communities, energy, poverty, and health & nutrition in more rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. 10 “WonderFeasts” were held in the rural Upper East Region of Ghana, to survey the potential health impacts of using the Wonderbag. Representatives from local health clinics were on hand to educate about the dangers of indoor air pollution, respiratory illnesses and services available at their clinics. “It was an effective way to address a core need of the community, which is cooking, and then through cooking, have an impact on health and raise awareness of ways to prevent serious illnesses,” said Daijin Kim, Senior Director, Pfizer Vaccines Strategy Lead.
Some 4,500 local residents in Ghana’s Upper East Region attended the WonderFeast events last fall, lining up to purchase the cooking tool at a subsidized cost. Participants sampled the traditional West African rice dish jollof, prepared in the Wonderbag, as local health workers gave talks emphasizing the importance of routine check-ups. “There’s a tendency in most of these communities to visit a health facility as a last resort. Because of these events, hopefully people will take preventive health actions earlier” said Sue-Ann Chen, Pfizer Vaccines Project Manager.
In a survey of 209 households six months after the WonderFeast events, respondents indicated that they were more aware of ways to prevent pneumonia (65% vs 55%), and 77 respondents indicated that their child was vaccinated within the previous six months5.
While attending the WonderFeasts last fall, Kim recalled the look of astonishment from locals after they saw the rice, beans and stews cook in a powerless bag. “We’ve used the Wonderbag as a way to convene these ‘last mile’ communities, and once they’re here, local health providers are able to talk about the danger of indoor air pollutants, nutrition and health and wellness in general.” he said. “We’re trying to advance collaborations that support the health and wellness needs of a community in a holistic manner.”
“It was meaningful to see how something seemingly small can make a big impact when it comes to raising awareness about health and nutrition” added Chen.
With insights about WonderFeasts in rural communities, Wonderbag will continue to explore other corporate partnerships that can offer products or services, and Pfizer Vaccines will continue to explore collaborations with local companies that can help make a positive impact on health and wellness.