EUGENE, Oregon — The stove, a foundational tool many take for granted, can pose a direct threat to human health. This threat stems from a type of fuel utilized by impoverished families throughout the world — wood. Without access to electricity, wood becomes the primary source of fuel in cookstoves. More than three billion people rely on wood fires for cooking. However, wood fires can be inefficient, contributing to deforestation and creating smoke that pollutes indoor spaces. Efficient stove solutions from Aprovecho aim to address this issue.
The pollution created by these fires can be life-threatening, especially for the women and children who spend hours indoors inhaling the smoke. The World Health Organization estimates that seven million people die each year from indoor air pollution. The effect of wood smoke is not limited to indoor contamination. Smoke added to the atmosphere from cooking fires contributes directly to extreme weather conditions and the increasing occurrence of natural disasters, rising sea levels and biodiversity loss.
Nearly a quarter of the black carbon put into the air comes from wood stoves. Black carbon emissions are a severe threat as black carbon is 460 to 1,500 times more powerful than CO2 at warming the atmosphere. Solutions to reduce the number of black carbon emissions are necessary as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the world has only 20 years to substantially decrease the amount of pollution in the air before the consequences of climate change will be “baked into the systems of our planet,” marking a point of no return.
Efficient Wood Fire Stove Development
To confront the global crisis of carbon-emitting fires, scientists throughout the world have stepped up to support the move toward sustainable, efficient wood fire stoves. One organization pioneering research into such stoves is Aprovecho, an institute that works directly with small communities to develop efficient stove designs. Founded in 1976, Aprovecho now sells around four million stove designs a year to developing areas. The Borgen Project spoke with Dean Still, an eccentric self-described hippy whose passion and spirit are infectious. Still is the executive director of Aprovecho and he sheds light on the inner workings of the organization he holds so dear to his heart.
At a basic level, Aprovecho is a research institute working to understand the science of combustion to create the most efficient wood fire stoves to fuel the developing world. The basic design used by Aprovecho is the Rocket Stove, an L-shaped stove that forces all the heat and smoke to stay underneath the stovetop. Even though the basic Rocket Stove is effective at reducing pollution, it still poses a health risk by not completely eliminating smoke. To improve the Rocket Stove, Aprovecho tests various potential modifications.
A recent creation is the Jet Flame, a stove that heats the air before it enters the fire. This design is still in the testing phase, however, recent USAID field tests have shown promising results with a 40% reduction in particulate matter. The testing process for these stoves is rigorous as Aprovecho runs three tests each day, utilizing a test kitchen. The kitchen has sensors that monitor the particulate matter, heat and the concentration of CO2 and CO in the air. Along with the physical test kitchen, Aprovecho interns and staff are in the process of creating a computer simulator test that will allow them to test the efficacy of different stove designs without burning any fuel in the real world. “I like running the tests because I learn something new every day,” Still states.
The Role of Local Communities
While the stoves are uniquely built and well-crafted by talented scientists, the community-based methods the organization utilizes make Aprovecho special. Aprovecho researchers understand that each community and area has a distinct way of cooking. Because of this, the types of stoves they build differ by region. For example, Still explains that much of the cooking done in Central America requires long-term cooking in lots of pots and pans, therefore, the stovetops there need to be wide. Still explains the vital role communication plays in stove development, saying, “Talking to and working with the women who will use the stoves is the most important part of the design process.”
The Doña Justa Stove
Still highlights this point with the example of the Doña Justa stove, created in Honduras using Aprovecho designs. While developing the stoves, the researchers did not know what materials would work best. A village leader, Doña Justa came up with a solution. She introduced researchers to a long-lasting wood called Baldosa wood. By using this wood for the outer tiles, they were able to create more efficient fires. Doña Justa stoves are now used throughout Central America, reducing deforestation and pollution.
Since the creation of the Doña Justa stove, the way that Aprovecho supports stove development has changed. Ten years ago, Aprovecho became an advisory organization. Aprovecho now provides technical expertise and prototypes to partner organizations in the areas they work in, rather than selling the stoves themselves.
Still mentions a recent example of this in Malawi where Aprovecho worked with Energy Africa, a local stove factory. Researchers at Aprovecho develop prototypes to send to Energy Africa, meeting with them throughout the process to understand what they need for an effective stove. Once they finish the prototype, the prototype goes to Malawi where local women test the stove and provide feedback. This information then goes back to Aprovecho where it designs a new prototype and starts the process all over again until it develops the ideal stove. This process creates safe, effective stove designs for Energy Africa to manufacture and sell to a large set of people in Malawi, reducing emissions and empowering a local factory.
Aprovecho is a unique nonprofit, given its ability to remain self-sufficient. Still explains that Aprovecho strives to protect its free will by no longer accepting big donations from people with plans to control the organization’s efforts. Instead, Aprovecho chooses to participate in projects from other stove organizations and the U.S. government. Aprovecho also sells stoves and stove parts to people wanting fuel-efficient stoves in the U.S. and gets carbon offsets. Carbon offsets are given to companies that create technologies to reduce carbon emissions. These offsets can be sold to other companies that want to offset their pollution, allowing Aprovecho to fund its own work.
Securing this stable source of funding helps Aprovecho meet its goals of empowering local communities to develop and produce sustainable, efficient stoves. The organization’s work reduces indoor and outdoor pollution, decreasing the prevalence of pollution-related health conditions, among other benefits. Aprovecho’s research into efficient combustion plays a key role in the preservation of wood resources, protecting biodiversity and reducing the effects of extreme weather patterns.
– Haylee Ann Ramsey-Code