The Difference a Stove Makes
Since starting with the United Nations Foundation in February, 2013, I have been in a mode of continuous learning, and I love that. One of the most eye-opening areas of our work for me is what I have learned about cookstoves – the damaging effects of open fires and unsafe cookstoves, and the need for clean, efficient, and safe cookstoves and fuels.
I remember being astounded when our Senior Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, Leslie Cordes, relayed that exposure to smoke from cooking is the fourth worst risk factor for disease in developing countries, causing more premature deaths each year than malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis combined. Smoke from the use of inefficient cookstoves and solid fuels is linked to child pneumonia, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease and many other negative health consequences. With over 3 billion people worldwide using open fires and rudimentary cookstoves, there are also environmental damages (C02 emissions and other greenhouse gases, dependence on and depletion of natural resources, etc.), and women and girls are disproportionately affected since they are typically the ones responsible for cooking and collecting fuel. I didn’t know, and I find that it is news to most people with whom I share this information.
When our holiday plans this year found us headed to Guatemala, I reached out to Leslie to see if I could meet with one of our partners there and possibly visit a place where cookstoves are being used. She introduced me to Richard Grinnell, Executive Vice President of Helps International, a non-profit that provides healthcare, education, and economic development support to communities in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. Helps is a supplier of clean cookstoves and water filters for safe drinking water; these two quality-of-life-improving resources go hand in hand. Richard graciously responded to my outreach. He and his colleagues took us to a village where clean cookstoves are catching on, and we visited three homes, one where the woman is awaiting delivery of her new stove, and two where the cookstoves had been installed in recent months. This experience impressed and humbled me.
Each woman who warmly welcomed us into her home represents a different life story and context for each of the cookstoves. Hearing their stories has enriched my appreciation for the positive impact that can be realized when a new (clean, efficient, safe) cookstove is introduced to a home. While there is a pride in how the stove looks, and there is a recognition for how much money and time is saved by the greatly reduced amount of wood being used, the most dramatic and highly appreciated gain is, “no hay humo” (there is no smoke). When we stood inside the room where beans were being cooked on an open fire at the first home we visited, where she’s waiting for a new stove, we hadn’t been there more than five or ten minutes when we had to back out of the dark, enclosed space to get into open air. Our eyes stung, my throat burned, and our noses took in the fumes. This woman and her children are in these conditions several hours every day, as are billions of others. The contrast of this space to the second home where a new cookstove had been installed a few months earlier – and we could breathe easily – is something I will never forget.
In the third and last home we visited, that of another family who had invested in a clean cookstove, we examined the wall where the old, open-fire cooker used to sit. It was only natural to consider, if the walls were coated with that much black soot, what had been settling in to the lungs of the home’s occupants. The water on the new stove comes to a boil quickly, the base of the oven is cool to the touch of adults or little ones in touching distance, and the training and maintenance is minimal. All good. But, that before-and-after smoke comparison is the hands down winner, by my and the home owners’ judgment, as the benefit of a lifetime from the introduction of a clean cookstove.
I find myself taking deep breaths of appreciation, and I am inspired. Let’s get clean cookstoves to these families!
Lyrae Myxter is Director of Partner Relations at the UN Foundation.