If you live in the U.S., you probably start cooking by turning on your gas or electric stove. For the majority of Nicaraguans, it’s not so simple. First, you have to collect firewood. If you don’t have enough on your land, you have to look elsewhere, and that can get you in big trouble (if not for trespassing, then for deforestation, which is a punishable offense in Nicaragua). Once you have the firewood, then you have to start the fire. Then you have to cook over the open flame, breathing in smoke and exposing you and the rest of the family to extreme temperatures.
It should come as no surprise that upper respiratory illness is one of the major killers of women in Nicaragua. (Women are traditionally in charge of food preparation.) According to APROQUEN, a Nicaraguan non-profit dedicated to the treatment and prevention of burns in children, 95% of burns to children occur in the home, and 75% of children burned are under the age of 5.
For many years, members of the Board and staff here at SCSRN have wanted to do an improved stoves project to improve health outcomes and to reduce deforestation. But if you know anything about improved wood stoves, you know there are LOTS of models out there! There have been plenty of improved stoves projects in San Ramón, and it’s not uncommon to visit a community and see parts of stoves strewn about in someone’s back yard. If you ask them about it, you’ll get a non-committal answer from the beneficiary about how it “broke” or “stopped working” and how they had to go back to the old way. We wanted to learn from other projects in order not to make the same mistakes.
We finally decided to go with an improved stove model developed by Elmer Zelaya. Don Elmer is an engineer from León who has spent over 20 years perfecting his stove model. In all that time, he has discovered all the tiny details that are often overlooked by stove designers, but are the difference between a family accepting (or not accepting) a new way of cooking.
For example, Don Elmer explained to me that the first step was to have the family agree to destroy their old stove before the new one is installed. When asked why, he said, “People are like hens – you can build a hen the most beautiful coop possible, and she’ll still go lay her egg in the same nasty nest as before, just out of habit. You have to get rid of the old nest if you want her to lay in the new coop.”
Don Elmer’s stove is completely insulated on all sides with sand and glass bottles encased in cement blocks and covered with ceramic tiles, so that even with a fire going inside, one can lean up against it and not feel any heat. Also, the inner chamber is designed to suck smoke out through an iron chimney, so that no smoke enters the kitchen. This design also allows for a more efficient fire, so families use half the firewood they used before. Though more expensive that most improved stove models, it is built to last for over 20 years. In our opinion, it is far superior to the other models out there.
Once we decided on the stove model, we knew we wanted to partner with a local organization to help us carry out the project. We chose to work with Fundación Denis Gonzalez López (FUDEGL), a San Ramón non-profit that works with rural families to promote sustainable agricultural practices and food security. Together we designed a project to benefit 40 families, where each family would not only receive an improved stove, but would also re-forest their own property with trees for firewood and participate in workshops to learn about gender roles in the home.
Last week, we installed the last of the 40 stoves. Families are already enjoying cooking in their smoke-free kitchens. When visiting the homes of the beneficiaries, one lady told me, “Before, when you walked into my kitchen, you could feel the heat from the fire hit your face the moment you walked in. Now I can lean against the stove while I cook and not feel any heat. My eyes would water all day from the smoke. Now my vision has cleared up!” Families are also reporting that they’re using half the amount of firewood they used before.
We plan to follow the progress of these 40 families carefully so that we can learn from this experience and hopefully do another improved stoves project with FUDEGL, this time with even more families. If you’d like to learn about how you can be involved in helping us improve health outcomes and preserve the environment in San Ramón, please contact us here!