28/11/2014 05:55 GMT | Updated 27/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Can Changing How You Cook Save Your Life?

Jollof rice is a West African institution. In fact, it is so important to West Africans that even a well-intentioned spin on the dish by Jamie Oliver almost resulted in an international incident! The simple dish is a staple of our cuisine, and its taste invokes memories of home and childhood for Nigerians. Therefore, it is not a surprise that maintaining its authenticity is a priority for families across West Africa. However, is our attachment to the traditional way of cooking jollof rice contributing to household air pollution in West Africa - the world's fourth greatest health risk?

Critics of Jamie Oliver's recipe said that because the dish was not cooked with firewood, the smoky taste that is so central to jollof rice would surely be missing. Jamie Oliver is not alone in facing this claim. I have heard similar criticism levied against the use of clean cookstoves in West Africa. A number of families have been wary about making the transition to clean cookstoves, arguing that jollof rice does not taste the same if it is not made with firewood. Yet, burning solid fuels, like wood, in open fires or traditional cookstoves, results in household air pollution that kills 17 000 Nigerians each year.

Household air pollution is a serious global health problem, resulting in 4 million deaths each year, and causing cancer, heart and lung disease, pneumonia, cataracts, and burns for many more. And, as the traditional homemakers, household air pollution caused by inefficient and dangerous cooking methods disproportionately affects women.

Cooking family meals over an open flame on a daily basis places women in the direct line of fire from inefficient and dirty cookstoves. Consequently, women have the highest incidence of health-related issues resulting from this smoke. Further to this, women and girls shoulder the greatest economic burden from traditional cookstoves. Forced to spend hours each day searching for fuel, young girls are shut out from education. Having missed out on schooling, these young girls are then shut out from the economic opportunities that an education affords them, and struggle to leave the poverty cycle. For their mothers, the time-consuming search for fuel prevents them from being able to take on formal work, resulting in economic dependence on their partners. For women and girls in rural areas, a lack of safe access to firewood can place them in serious danger. Women and children who are forced to go far from their homes to search for fuel in remote areas can face the threat of rape. The health, economic wellbeing, and safety of these women could be achieved by the provision of clean cookstoves. The clean cooking solutions that can protect these women and children already exist, but we must now encourage their adoption.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is a public-private partnership that was launched in 2010 to create a thriving global market for the clean cookstoves and fuels that could save lives, improve livelihoods, and empower women. Taking a market-based approach, the Alliance aims to encourage 100 million households to adopt clean and efficient cookstoves by 2020. As one of the Alliance's eight focus countries, Nigeria currently has 127 million people affected by household air pollution, and 75% of our population currently relies on solid fuels. Nigeria is aiming to reach 17.5 million households by 2020 with clean cookstoves and fuels - a target that could completely transform the day-to-day life for Nigerian women and girls.

My husband, Senator Dr Bukola Saraki is a member of the Leadership Council for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Through his work for the Alliance and his role as Chairman of the Nigerian Senate Committee for Environment and Ecology, I have witnessed the incredible impact that clean cookstoves can have on the lives of Nigerian women. The Rural Women Energy Security (RUWES) initiative in Nigeria was created to empower rural women who are off the energy grid and are energy poor. The initiative has reached 300 000 Nigerian women so far, and by February 2015, 1 million clean cookstoves will have been delivered across Nigeria. During the Alliance's Cookstoves Future Summit in New York last week, $413 million was raised for the global clean cooking sector. This global financial commitment - combined with outstanding political leadership on the issue - will encourage the adoption of clean cookstoves across the nation, and change the way we cook in Nigeria for the better.

Clean cookstoves will drastically reduce household air pollution levels, resulting in the improved health of Nigerian families for generations. Clean cookstoves will remove a major obstacle to girl education, resulting in a better-educated population that can succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. Clean cookstoves will allow more of our women to participate in the formal economy, resulting in improved economic output, independence, and productivity. Clean cookstoves will allow families to come together at mealtimes and enjoy jollof rice, without the devastating health risks caused by firewood smoke.

I agree that we must protect our national dishes. Food is an intrinsic part of Nigerian culture and family life. Nonetheless, we must protect our mothers, our children, and our environment, from the harmful effects of household air pollution and inefficient fuels. This may mean a move away from the traditional firewood stoves that impart the traditional flavours that we all enjoy. However, if it means saving 17 000 lives each year, and improving the health of 127 million Nigerians, it is a move that we must surely take.