Go into many kitchens throughout rural Nicaragua, and you’ll find a “three stones” traditional stove as the centerpiece. The three-stone fire is the cheapest means of assembling a usable stove, requiring only three large stones of the same height to be arranged around a fire to support a balancing cooking pot. While simple and convenient, it’s also the most problematic means of household meal preparation: cooking with open flames in relatively cramped indoor conditions leads to frequent burns and scalding, with hot embers frequently causing eye injury. Fuel is wasted as the heat escapes into the air, requiring the need for additional resources like wood, which contributes to deforestation. But the most ruinous and immediate issue with conventional stoves is the amount of smoke that is vented into the home, leading to all manner of respiratory issues and frequently causing premature death by preventable diseases due to household air pollution.
To resolve these concerns, community members worked together to find a solution. Rosa Ramos (pictured left), a 23-year-old law student from the Outreach-affiliated village of La Prusia, Nicaragua, tells the story: “Community members and field staff went to all the houses to identify the smoke as a problem. We [then] had a meeting in our community to see how the smoke was affecting health and economics. It was also an environmental matter, because people used to go all around, looking for wood. Most of the time, they had to cut down trees for wood, and that would affect the whole environment. Or they had to buy a bunch of branches from the market. They were spending about $32 a month, just on wood— it was really expensive for each family. And they were doing all this extra labor while suffering from asthma and other breathing issues.”
Despite few benefits of continuing to use conventional stoves, few in La Prusia were interested in upgrading their kitchens, for a variety of practical (and admittedly, some impractical) reasons. “We’ve used this kind of kitchen our whole lives— even our ancestors used to use them,” says Rosa. “In general, people say that if they cook using a different kind of kitchen, the food is not going to taste the same.”
Still, community leaders were determined to make a change for the better, and explored their options. “We came up with three ideas,” says Rosa, counting them out on her fingers. “1) Gas stoves— we couldn’t do that one, because the gas tanks aren’t sold anywhere around here, and it’s also very expensive. 2) Electrical stoves— electricity here isn’t stable. We don’t have electricity all the time, and when we do, it’s very expensive. 3) Eco-stoves— It was the best option, because people were used to using wood in their kitchens, so it wasn’t difficult to make the change, because it also uses wood.”
Convincing a population to adopt a new method for a ritual that stretches into the very roots of their family trees isn’t easy. When looking for a healthier alternative, Outreach community partners from La Prusia came across a design for a ventilated “eco-stove” promoted by local Peace Corps workers.
The Non-Smoking Section
The eco-stove design is essentially a knee-height, oblong platform that supports the enclosed oven portion on top, all constructed from cinderblocks. Wood or other suitable combustable fuel is fed into an opening in the oven portion, with the lower supporting platform’s extra space serving as a preparation area for meals. On top of the smaller enclosed oven portion is a flat sheet of iron to be used as a stovetop, and next to it is the enclosed chimney portion, venting smoke and heat up and out of the home’s roof. The footprint can be modified to accommodate the space available in a given home, which is important in places where homes are constructed from available materials on whatever land is available.
The La Prusia community group traveled to another Outreach-affiliated community in El Tunel, Nicaragua, to learn how to construct eco-stoves for their own use, then made a proposal to Outreach for the funding to construct a ‘pilot stove’ and put it through its paces to see how well it worked. “We selected a big family so they could test the stove [and determine if it could handle the task of preparing so much food at once],” says Rosa.
The family liked the stove (as well as the drastic reduction of smoke vented indoors), but had some recommendations for improvements: “As a result of the pilot project, we got some recommendations from the family to improve the design. People wanted the base platform’s height lowered, and wanted the oven’s opening to be more narrow.” The initial eco-stove design was done by a non-native resident, it had some practical and efficiency issues that needed to be addressed before the project moved forward. “During the first phase, they [the Peace Corps] were just using a design with one hole [to vent smoke]. We suggested improvements to the stoves’ design, so we could have more ventilation,” Rosa says.
Rosa specifies, “They [the Peace Corps] were just using a design with one hole [to vent smoke]. We suggested improvements to the stoves’ design, so we could have more ventilation.” It was necessary to implement the changes at a design level, since expecting residents to modify the stoves themselves was unrealistic: “Usually, people don’t have the time to make sure everything’s working correctly— they just want to finish their cooking, you know?” says Rosa. “So they’d end up using the old [“three stones”] version or the [inefficient eco-stove design that lacks] proper ventilation.”
The Peace Corps volunteers were hesitant to implement the suggested improvements. “They said it was ‘impossible,’ because they were already ‘scientifically designed,’” Rosa says. So the community took it upon themselves to determine the most effective, efficient changes they could make to the design, discussing revisions during group meetings. “There were a lot of people trying to figure out how the design should be changed and improved,” Rosa says, holding her hands apart to indicate the grand scale of teamwork involved.
Fanning the Flames
Once the stoves’ design was tailored to the realistic needs and usage patterns of locals, the La Prusia community members agreed to implement the stoves in three waves. A proposal was prepared for and approved by Outreach. “We divided the work among the community and made a proposal to Outreach [for funding to cover the cost of materials],” says Rosa. The funding covered the cost of 15 eco-stoves, but the group had pooled their own money, as well. “With the funds the group had gathered, we were able to build 20.”
Phase two had funding for 12 additional stoves, but the residents’ extra funding provided for 14 to be constructed. More feedback from families using their new eco-stoves led to further design revision before the third phase began, which outfitted the remaining residents of La Prusia still using conventional stoves. From start to finish, the eco-stove project spanned nearly five years. “All this in order to get 28 eco-stoves in the community,” Rosa says, smiling. “They’re excellent, actually.”
Throughout our discussion, Rosa’s eyes shine with intelligence and determination. Unprompted, she gives us a perfect quote about what she’s learned from her experience to end our chat: “The truth is, I have learned that you don’t have to stand and wait for anything— you have to look for solutions to your problems. There’s always positive and negative answers, but we don’t have to get stuck— we always have to move forward.”
To support Rosa and her community’s efforts in Nicaragua, please visit the Outreach Shop to purchase an eco-stove today!