Megan Maiolo-Heath was in the very small village of La Bendicion, Guatemala, the first time she gathered firewood to cook food.
Maiolo-Heath, the marketing manager for nonprofit Trees, Water & People, was 27 at the time, and remembers walking with Christina Juarez Bernube and her 8-year-old son for 30 minutes, using machetes to hack away at branches and dry logs, to find wood for their cooking fire.
When they were done, Bernube wrapped up the wood pile — about 50 pounds' worth — and balanced it on her head. They took it back home where a simple three-stone fire with a metal griddle served as her stove and blackened her walls with soot. In two days, Bernube explained, she would go looking for firewood again.
Nearly 3 billion people — mostly women and girls — still feed their families this way: over fires inside their homes. Not only is it time-consuming, but the air pollution that it creates can be surprisingly deadly. Air pollution kills 7 million people a year, making it the world's largest environmental health risk, according to a new report from the World Health Organization last week.
"Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cookstoves," Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General for family, women and children's health, said in a statement last week.
Yet, a simple technology — small indoor ovens known as clean cookstoves — is poised to reverse this trend. For only about $75 apiece, these stoves, usually made of inexpensive metal or brick and mortar, reduce indoor pollution by up to 70 percent. Now the clean cookstove has its own celebrity ambassador, Julia Roberts, and its own United Nations Foundation. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves plans to help 100 million homes adopt clean cook stoves by 2020.
The humble appliance — which generally looks no more fancy than a small pizza oven — may be the best bet for saving millions of mothers and children in the developing world.
If clean cookstoves are poised to be one of the world's next great lifesavers, how come most people have never heard of them?
"They're not very sexy," says Maiolo-Heath, whose organization Trees, Water & People has provided more than 63,000 cookstoves to households, mostly in Central America in places like Guatemala and Nicaragua. It's easy for clean cookstoves to be overshadowed by slicker technologies for development like solar panels, she says, or feel-good projects like planting trees.
The cookstoves that her organization provides come in several models, from small, pot-bellied portable ones to popular built-in brick-and-mortar stoves that women like to decorate with tile and paint. All of them have a small chimney that spirits the smoke outside. They don't look exciting, she says, "and they have kind of a marketing problem" when it comes to exciting donors and the public.
Still, the impact they have can be critical. “Having an open fire in your kitchen is like burning 400 cigarettes an hour,” says Dr. Kirk Smith, a Professor of Global Environmental Health from the University of California at Berkeley, in the WHO report.
"You have to remember that people are exposed to this smoke every meal, every day," says Radha Muthiah, executive director for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which is housed by the United Nations Foundation. "What takes us an hour to cook takes three or four hours on a fire, times two or three meals a day. That means that half the day smoke is being emitted, and that's how it adds up," she says.
Save a tree, save a buck
Health is the major concern behind the cookstove movement, but trees stand to benefit from efficient cooking, too. Trees, Water & People was initially focused on reforestation and tree planting, but it didn't take long to realize that was "two steps forward, one step back," says Maiolo-Heath. "It seemed like we planted the trees, only for them to be cut down. We realized that in every country where we are planting, we also need to have cookstoves."
Open-fire cooking is a major contributor to deforestation. Haiti, for example, was once covered in trees, but due to tree felling for cooking fuel, Haiti now has only 2 percent forest cover, according to the United Nations.
Even though families that would need cookstoves generally make less than $2.50 a day, most organizations, including the Global Alliance, do require families to pay — or help pay — for the stoves. This increases buy-in from the users, but it also creates a market that the Alliance hopes will create competition and make cookstoves, which cost between $50 and $70, cheaper and easier to get. Most are made by small, local suppliers, but Phillips also has a model, Maiolo-Heath says, and GE is looking at making one, too.
Critics of cookstoves note that the stoves don't always reduce fuel use. A five-year study in India published in Social Science Research Network in 2012 found that "while households overwhelmingly claimed that the stoves used less wood, fuel use remained unchanged, and if anything, somewhat increased," according to the authors.
They found significant reduction in smoke inhalation the first year, but breakdowns and "poor maintenance" led to minimal health improvements over time.
Maiolo-Heath's organization addresses this by relying on local materials and suppliers, and the $75-$100 for their stoves includes installation and ongoing maintenance.
If implemented successfully, users do stand to gain a lot in time, as well as money, says Muthiah. In urban areas of Africa, she says, 40 percent of household incomes can be spent on charcoal and kerosene for cooking fuel.
Women, cooking, family
In her travels around the world, one of the thing that always strikes Muthiah is that people everywhere — from India to Ghana — want to welcome visitors into thier homes for a cup of coffee or tea. "Always the first instinct for a woman is that she apologizes for her small living quarters, and about the smoke in her house," she says.
When women have a clean stove, it's transforming. "They're proud to have you come in," she says.
Maiolo-Heath shares the same sentiment: It's not just about the hard benefits, there are important soft benefits for families, too. "Women tell me, 'My hair doesn't smell like smoke!', 'My clothes don't get burned!,' " she says. People don't have to whitewash their houses for soot all the time and their eyes aren't irritated. "For some women it's almost like a status thing to say, 'I don't smell like smoke anymore.' "
At the same time, Maiolo-Heath notes that one of the challenges is that traditional food preparations don't always taste the same when prepared with a cookstove, and husbands and children might not like the taste. "Food is so personal," she says.
But there are soft benefits for the whole family, says Muthiah. One day she was enjoying tea in the home of a local woman in Africa, discussing the clean cookstove, when the husband asked to come in. "Is there a chance for men to speak?" he said. Before it took forever to boil water, but "Now I can make myself tea whenever I want," he said.
As for the women, they also enjoy the time savings, says Muthiah. Some women told her that they use the extra hours they save from cooking and collecting fuel to work in the fields with their husbands. One smiled and admitted, "Sometimes it's just nice to have a minute to rest."