Khadija's 45-day old baby was sleeping on a worn-out wooden bed while she hastily prepared lunch. The tin-shed room where Khadija lives with her family has no kitchen; instead, there is an earthen stove on a small corner of the room, right beside the door.
She was frequently stirring the bubbling rice in a pot. Thick, black smoke was pouring out of a crude chimney cut out of the tin wall, just above the stove.
When we visited the Kalyanpur Natunbazar Bostee a few days ago, it was lunchtime and like Khadija, many residents were cooking with firewood, filling the narrow alleys of the 10-unit 'bostee' (slum) with smoke.
However, it was a different, cleaner picture in Khadija's neighbour Alamtaj Shathi's room. She was heating up some cereal for her son on a gas stove. "Gas stove made my life easier, firewood was so much of a hassle I cannot even describe," she shared with us.
Usually, a gas stove costs around Tk2,500 to Tk3,000 but Alamtaj bought hers with only Tk1,000. She could do so with the help of Fuel for Change (F4C) – an international charity organisation working on providing access to clean cooking fuels in Dhaka slums.
The business model of the organisation is something like this: A new stove with regulator and gas cylinder costs $50 (approximately Tk3,000). Each user contributes $15 (approximately Tk1,000) and F4C pays the rest of the amount.
Registered in Queensland, Australia F4C runs on funds from individual donations. "We also take help from rotary clubs, we post on office notice boards, etc., we try to reach out to as many people as possible," the founder, Dr Mark Jones, informed us.
By providing them with gas stoves, Mark and his team at F4C want to improve the overall wellbeing of families living in Dhaka's slums.
To date, F4C has provided 850 residents of the Kalyanpur Natunbazar Bostee with gas stoves. There are shops selling gas cylinders inside the slum, making things easier for users.
In Bangladesh, indoor air pollution from cooking stoves causes thousands of deaths every year. Residential fuel use is also the largest source for the air pollutant, PM2.5. Needless to say, women's health is most compromised as they tend to spend the most time near stoves.
Apart from posing serious health hazards, as Nurtaj, Saleha, Runa and several other women told us, cooking with firewood or solid fuel causes dense smoke which stains utensils. "The stains come off only after thorough scrubbing with soap," one of them said. The smoke also brings extra heat and smell to the rooms.
How F4C began
"These people have nothing to learn from me, it is I who has so much to learn from them. I am so fortunate to have met them," said Mark, in awe of the Kalyanpur Bostee residents.
Mark is an architect and an associate professor at the University of Queensland. He met the residents in 2019 while visiting the slum for his PhD study on energy practises and energy justice.
He saw up close how difficult and inconvenient it was for the women to cook with firewood. "These women work so hard to ensure their children are well-fed and their households run smoothly," he said, adding, "I wanted nothing but to help them."
After six months were spent implementing the plan and getting the Bangladeshi government's approval, Fuel for Change began its journey from July 2021.
Mark's friend and colleague of many years Wendy Truer is the organisation's secretary. While Mark was researching about the slum, she offered to help him out. "For weeks, we went into the 'bostee' for our survey and we talked to the people and really felt what they were going through," she said.
"They try to educate their children, put food on the table and at the same time, fight off personal insecurities," she said, amazed by the women's resilience.
Initially, Mark and Wendy thought they would open a small medicine shop but later they saw that the idea of providing gas stoves would be easier to administer.
"Every time a new user buys a stove, we see her/his picture and it is so satisfying to see the progress," Wendy added.
How users are convinced
According to the residents, firewood is more popular because it is cheaper; one-kilo costs around Tk12 and a small family usually needs around three kilos every day for cooking. This amounts to firewood worth Tk1,000 approximately every month.
A gas cylinder costs Tk1,250 and lasts for a month. So the cost of using firewood and gas is almost the same. Then why did many users feel discouraged to use gas stoves?
It may have to do with syndicates, which often raise the price of gas and sellers who sell gas cylinders at Tk1,400 or Tk1,500 instead of the government-set price of Tk1,200.
Despite these barriers, Sheikh Mohammad Younus Iqbal, F4C's country representative, tries to convince the slum residents to save up and buy gas stoves. His task also includes connecting interested users to the sellers and monitoring progress.
We met Ruma in front of her room who was cooking on a large 'kadhai' while holding a toddler on her lap, directly exposing him to the smoke.
She was adamant about not using a gas stove. "It is expensive and we are poor, as you can see," she said, irritated by our questions.
"If you save a small amount of money every day, it will add up to a sufficient amount at the end of the month. With this, you can easily buy the gas stove and we are here to help you out," Younus patiently told Ruma.
She also seemed unaware of pollution from firewood and its impact on children as Younus tried to explain it to her. "It is easier to convince them if I point out the long-run consequences of using firewood," he said.
Our rapidly depleting gas reserves raise the question of the sustainability of F4C's initiative. Using a solar-powered stove is a solution to curb indoor air pollution, but is it included in the organisation's future plans? According to Mark, they are definitely working on finding alternatives.
It is a mammoth task to ensure that, in a slum with a population of over 20,000, everyone gets the opportunity to use cleaner fuel for cooking. But Dr Mark Jones and his team seem undeterred by the barriers.
"It will take time but we will keep going. We will keep working on one slum after the other," he added, positively.