In rural Nigeria, cooking can kill you. According to the World Health Organisation, preparing three meals a day on a traditional wood-burning stove is the equivalent of smoking 20 packs of cigarettes. Little wonder then that each year, some 98,000 women die from the resulting respiratory and cardiac problems.
And the damage does not stop there. Women and children typically spend four hours a day collecting firewood for these energy-inefficient stoves, sacrificing time and money that could be spent on education and other needs. Then there’s the environmental cost: According to Olanike Olubunmi Olugboji, founder and director of Women Initiative for Sustainable Environment (WISE), the resulting deforestation leads to erosion and a host of related problems—not to mention conflicts between farmers and herdsmen fighting over the remaining arable land.
Water—a basic necessity—presents its own hazards. “Rural Nigerian women typically spend a third of their time fetching water from distant sources,” said Olugboji. “Along the way, they may be assaulted or even abducted, and the water they bring home is often polluted, sickening family members whom the woman must care for. All of this diverts time and resources from more productive economic and social activities.”
Olugboji has spent much of her 43 years understanding this complex puzzle of poverty, environmental issues and gender inequality—and figuring out ways to improve the picture. As a child she was troubled by the vast inequities she saw between urban and rural populations, and vowed that she would one day help. She eventually obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees in urban and regional planning, and in 2004 launched the Environmental Management and Protection Network (EMPRONET), based in the city of Kaduna, to promote constructive environmental practices.
Through that work, she became increasingly aware of the dysfunctional relationship between women and the environment. “Women may do all the work on a farm, for example, yet are denied the right to own land. They may be responsible for providing water, yet are given no say in issues regarding water supplies and safety. They are almost always sidelined when it comes to decisions that affect their daily lives.”
She added that the effects of climate change—droughts and flooding, water and food shortages—are making women’s tasks even harder. “Girls often have to drop out of school to help their mothers. What makes this already sad reality worse is that women still don’t have equal access to information and capital, so aren’t equipped to address these problems.”
Observing all of this, Olugboji became convinced women could improve their social, economic and political status if they could become involved in the development and management of natural resources. This realisation led her to re-centre EMPRONET’s activities around environmental issues that have a direct bearing on the lives of women, and in 2008, EMPRONET became WISE.
WISE now has two full-time and two part-time employees, and focuses mainly on water, waste and reforestation issues, often partnering with other NGOs. “Our goal is to get women involved on an ongoing basis,” said Olugboji. “We want them to continue to contribute to solutions and to shape their futures, not return to the default position of victims or recipients of hand outs.”
To accomplish this, WISE takes an integrated approach, educating women and offering them training in areas ranging from leadership and personal empowerment to financial literacy and entrepreneurship to citizen journalism and digital empowerment. The nonprofit also makes small loans and gives financial assistance to fledgling businesses.
A recent example of the WISE approach is the Women’s Clean Cookstove Training and Entrepreneurship Programme. Thirty women (15 teams of two) participated in a week of workshops in April and another in May. The idea was for the women to become capable of teaching others about the dangers of wood-burning stoves and about the advantages—health, financial, environmental—of clean alternatives. They would also be taught how to go into business selling clean cookstoves.
One participant was an especially quick study. After the first week, Binta Yahaya invested profits from her small petty business and started selling a clean cookstove brand that she had learned about during her training. By the time Yahaya returned for the second week of training, she had not only sold 70 stoves but had also designed a stove prototype and had it made by a local artisan.
At the end of the programme, each team received two clean cookstoves and a $500 grant for community outreach. Yahaya took to empowerment and entrepreneurship like a duck to water: She and her teammate have already sold 152 stoves, largely surpassing the target of 120, and she has launched another business processing biomass from farm waste into charcoal briquettes.
To date, some 7,500 women and young people have participated in WISE programmes, earning the organisation and founder numerous awards. Now, Olugboji’s dreams to set up a Women’s Eco Learning and Resource Centre that could serve 3,000 women each year.
“It’s great that we have unleashed so much potential, that the women we have worked with are embracing new opportunities to rewrite their stories,” said Olugboji. “With this Centre, we could do so much more.”