At the heart of nearly every home in the world there is a certain household appliance, one quite often taken for granted, which provides for several of the most basic needs of daily life. The importance of that domestic device, the stove, is largely underestimated by most of the developed world, as most of its inhabitants have never truly lacked one.
If given a few moments thought, however, the blessings of a stove, a means to provide sustenance, a source of heating, and a center of comfort in the home, become easily apparent. Keeping those blessings in mind, it’s a fair question to ask: Where would we be without our stoves?
In Guatemala, the answer to that question can be glimpsed through the modest doorways of not just one, but hundreds of homes. Families who do not possess a stove often improvise and create a stove consisting of three cinderblocks laid in a triangle on their dirt floor with a shallow round skillet balanced on top – the blocks serving as the base and the skillet functioning as the cooking surface.
Essentially an open fire, this foot-high, make-shift stove not only consumes considerable time, energy, and money, but also creates health hazards.
Researchers have long suspected, but have not proven, that a major contributor to acute respiratory infections - the leading cause of death worldwide for children under age 5 - is the indoor air pollution generated by open cooking stoves that burn biomass fuel sources (such as brush, wood chips or dung) — the kind of stoves used by most people in Guatemala and in many other developing countries.
Since 1994, the San Lucas Mission Stove Project has been working to provide fuel-efficient stoves to the families of San Lucas and surrounding communities. The closed-fire technology that is employed improves the quality of life for the families in three major ways. First, it involves a significant reduction of smoke and fumes which get spewed into the living quarters.
Second, stove-top cooking is significantly safer than an open fire. It is not an uncommon occurrence for kids to get scalded when they accidentally tip over a pot of boiling water that is resting precariously upon three stones. Finally, the stove requires much less wood than the more traditional open fire approach and thus represents a cost savings to the families.
The stoves are distributed communally with the intention of creating a new form of living in the communities, aiming to create a safer and cleaner environment both within the homes and at the community level.
The current design for the stoves was originally developed by Thomas Benavento, a volunteer living in a nearby community in the early 1990s, and continues to be modified according to efficiency, attractiveness, and durability.
Referred to as a “poyo mejorado,” “poyo” refers to the elevated stove base that cradles the fire and “mejorado” describes the stove as an improved design. This stove model halves the amount of firewood necessary for cooking, thereby lessening the time spent looking for firewood or money spent purchasing it.
The stove or “poyo,” as it is called, not only cuts costs on firewood, easing a typically strained financial situation, but also is provided to the recipient at no cost.
The poyo itself is made of cinderblock, firebrick, tile, and cement chimney tubes held together by concrete made with varying levels of sand, lime, cement, and water. The plancha, which is a rectangular metal plate with removable and adjustable holes for pots, is the most expensive part and serves as the cooking surface of the poyo.
All of the materials necessary for construction of the stoves are bought within San Lucas, supporting the local economy. The project also provides jobs to locals, as the laborers employed to build poyos and those involved in transportation of materials live in the area.
Beside the economic benefits, there are numerous other advantages to the poyo. First, it considerably reduces the time necessary for the stove surface to heat as the design effectively retains hot air and gases under the cooking surface, and it is much more comfortable to use as the cooking surface is elevated off the floor and quite easy to access.
Secondly, the poyo has a chimney which both channels the smoke out of the home and regulates airflow for proper combustion. The removal of smoke from the home reduces respiratory and vision problems that arise from months and years spent cooking over or living with unventilated smoke and makes the kitchen much cleaner and healthier.
Thirdly, it drastically improves the visual appeal of the home; walls that would be otherwise covered in soot are unsoiled and the poyo itself, nicely finished with a (stucco) and tile covering, is an attractive addition in itself. Lastly, the risks of burn injuries or fires are significantly lowered, allowing constantly occupied mothers relief as their children run and play about the house.
The total cost of a poyo, including materials, labor, and transportation, is about 1,534 quetzales, or $200.00, and the stoves are provided at no cost to families.