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Eugene Weekly : News : 7.3.08




Less Smoke Fires Up Health

Stove Team wants to change lives in Central America

by Suzi Steffen

At the factory in Sonsonate, El Salvador

Imagine that every time you wanted a hot meal for your kids, you risked injury or death from open flames. Imagine that you had to burn a massive amount of fuel. Imagine that you and your kids coughed constantly, that any illness could kill you thanks to smoke-damaged lungs.

That’s what Eugenean Nancy Hughes saw when she went to Guatemala with part of a Cascade Medical Team in 2004. Inefficient stoves or open fires left poverty-stricken rural and urban women and children with horrific injuries that the medical group could barely begin to fix.

According to the World Health Organ-ization, respiratory problems are the leading cause of death for Central American kids under the age of five. And because of fuel inefficiency — how much wood it takes to heat a pot of water, for instance — countries like El Salvador suffer from deforestation. 

Hughes was shocked. But she’s a woman of energy and determination. Instead of simply sending more money or volunteering on her own again, she decided to go to the root of the problem: stoves.

Back home in Eugene, she got in touch with Aprovecho, the Cottage Grove nonprofit that focuses on sustainability and education. Aprovecho, which has what Hughes says is the best stove testing facility in the world, helped create and test the stoves. In partnership with a board of other Eugene-area people, Hughes founded Stove Team International and immediately started thinking about how to get the stoves to the women of Guatemala. With support from various Rotary Clubs and a long list of donors and grantors that soon included Carlos Santana’s Milagro Foundation, Stove Team International headed to small Guatemalan communities on a mission to get those stoves into kitchens everywhere.

Nancy Hughes with an Ecocina prototype

Creating the stovetop

The little, portable, fuel-efficient stoves, called Ecocinas by Stove Team, usually catch on quickly. Hughes and board member Gerry Reicher can talk about innumerable demonstrations and “cook-offs” where local women gather to watch Stove Team pit an Ecocina against a traditional stove. One time, for instance, the competition was to make tortillas, which requires boiling water, mixing it with a ground corn mix called masa and then frying the little rounds, which are present at most meals. “We had the tortillas finished and coffee going before the other stove even got the water boiling,” Hughes remembers. After that, who would stick with the inefficient stoves?

The Ecocinas use 50 to 70 percent less fuel than traditional stoves or open fires, and they emit 70 percent less smoke, Hughes says. But the Stove Team people wanted to do more than simply provide some preventative health care solutions; they wanted to “create a sense of ownership,” Hughes says. The stoves, which cost around $40 to make, cost the families $20 with the rest covered by Rotary International. “They pay in four monthly installments,” Hughes explains, “but wood costs about $45 a month [with inefficient stoves],” so each family saves money on wood.

After setting up factories in Guatemala, Stove Team International moved on to El Salvador, where the response has been huge. Various governmental agencies have gotten involved and placed orders at the factory in the city of Sonsonate, orders in numbers beyond the Stove Team’s wildest dreams. “We thought the factory would make, at most, 200 stoves a month,” Hughes says. By late May, a mere year or so after the factory was established, that was already up to 900 a month. “The sky’s the limit,” Hughes says, and in a recent email, a Rotary member notes that the country will need more than 2 million stoves, and that other factories are being planned and built.

“It’s a difficult thing to grow so fast,” board member Reicher says. He worries about keeping control of this immense and fast-growing plan — “We don’t want to hurt the quality or the reputation of the stoves,” he says — but the Stove Team’s Salvadorean manager, Gustavo Peña, helps calm Reicher’s worries. “He’s a genius at dealing with the government, and he can do anything. He’s got enormous energy!”

One of the things Peña has had to deal with is unbridled enthusiasm. After a demonstration for one group of women near Sonsonate, Hughes says, the leader of the group took a few women and walked to the factory, where they asked for — and received — jobs. Documentary crews regularly come calling at the factory now, and everyone from Warren Buffett to the government of Honduras to student groups at the UO wants to get involved.

Are the stoves all they’re cracked up to be? Hughes says it’s hard to study the results; she’s hoping for other groups to get involved with empirical studies even as she and the team travel back and forth. But it’s not only the board and Hughes who see the results and help spread the word. Volunteers, often from Eugene, go on trips with the team, paying about $1,600 for a week-long working visit (forms are available at the Stove Team’s website, www.stoveteam.org). When the roof got ripped off the stove storage facility in a recent hurricane, the workers and Stove Team members repaired it and kept on churning out stoves.

Women carrying stoves

One way to know that the stoves are working is unsolicited praise. Janet Cody, a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador sent Hughes an email, saying, “The women have been cooking over fire (usually ignited with a burning plastic bag) with poor ventilation … and spend all summer collecting wood for fuel in a severely deforested country.”

Cody knows the health hazards. “I cook with my neighbors quite a bit, but I honestly can’t spend more than about fifteen minutes in the kitchen, due to my watering eyes and coughing,” she wrote to Hughes. But now Rotary and other organizations are helping to bring Ecocinas, and, Cody wrote, “The women in my community are completely in awe of this project.” Other Peace Corps volunteers echo Cody’s sentiments because the stoves don’t only mean better health and a healthier forest; they also provide business opportunities for women who can transport them to the side of the road and sell tortillas or pupusas. 

“When you have so much,” Hughes says, “you have the ability to help. You can choose to do it or choose not to do it.”

Reicher adds, “There’s so much need and so much ability to do stuff from here. For what you spend on a latte, it makes a change.” 

 

With the speed of expansion, Hughes does say she worries about cash flow. One of the Stove Team board members is a CPA who keeps careful track of the group’s finances, and major donors require precise accounting as well. To contribute to Stove Team or sign up for a volunteer trip, go to www.stoveteam.org  More photos at blogs.eugeneweekly.com