How Fuel-Efficient Stoves Save Lives

Published on
September 30, 2022 at 9:59:00 AM PDT September 30, 2022 at 9:59:00 AM PDTth, September 30, 2022 at 9:59:00 AM PDT

Women in Feyine Terano, Ethiopia bear a heavy burden of work, not the least of which is traveling long distances in search of firewood and carrying it home on their backs. School-age girls often miss class to help their mothers and grandmothers forage for logs, branches, and sticks.

And what is all this firewood for? Dinner, of course! Women like Ababaye need generous bundles of wood to keep their fires lit so they can brew coffee and bake injera for their husbands and children. And while they are excellent at balancing a pot or pan on three stones over the flames, cooking over an open fire is dangerous and, sometimes, even deadly.

"It's exhausting to cook and bake over an open fire, and it wastes both time and resources,Ababaye explains.

“Furthermore, cooking over a three-stone open fire takes a long time, so the children must wait a long time to have breakfast before going to school.”

And there’s no way for mothers to avoid the noxious fumes that billow up from their cook fires, burning their eyes and coating their lungs. While “natural”, wood smoke is not meant to be inhaled. It irritates the eyes and nostrils, causing headaches, dizziness, and even fainting. Many women and the small children still clinging to their skirts develop serious upper and lower respiratory problems, congestion, and inflammation. Untreated, these conditions can become debilitating, or even life-threatening.

“I could get a lot of smoke in my eyes and nostrils on the days when I was using the three-stone open fire. I'd feel like the fumes were attacking me, and I'd have a severe headache,” Ababaye says. “It was a difficult situation that never gave you hope for the future life.”

And no wonder Ababaye felt hopeless. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Household air pollution was responsible for an estimated 3.2 million deaths per year in 2020, including over 237,000 deaths of children under the age of 5.” Heart disease, lung cancer, pneumonia, and stroke are some of the top killers. How? Small soot particles from the smoke and ash penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, poisoning mothers and children. Indoor smoke in cookhouses like Ababaye’s, says the WHO, can have fine particle levels 100 times higher than what is acceptable or safe.

Ababaye with her 7-year-old son and husband in their home in Feyine Terano.

To reduce the serious health risks that come with cooking over an open fire, and to save time and labour and cut down on deforestation, FH Ethiopia introduced an improved, fuel-efficient stove to replace the “pot on three stones” model that women in Ababaye’s community were using. The new stove is designed entirely with locally available materials so it’s cheap and easily reproduced. This is key to the sustainability of the new, safer cooking method.

FH trained Ababaye and the other women in her community on how to make their own stoves using a metal mold and a simple mixture of mud and teff straw. When the mixture hardens and the mold is removed, a circular stove emerges with a round opening at the top for the pot and a squarish opening on one side for the firewood to slide into. 

The fuel-efficient stove functions with similar principles as a pizza oven, trapping heat within its mud walls to enable a slower, hotter burn that requires a lot less wood and emits less smoke. It’s also cleaner and safer as it contains the fire and embers where children can’t fall into them.

Ababaye covers her injera bread as it bakes on over her fuel-efficient stove.

After constructing her own fuel-efficient stove, Ababaye noticed a radical difference in her health. “I've started using an enhanced fuel-efficient stove for baking and cooking whatever I want in my house, and I've stopped breathing the toxic smoke. I've saved time, effort, and firewood.

My eyes have returned to normal and my recurring upper and lower respiratory problems have completely disappeared!”

Fuel-efficient stoves are cleaner, faster, and use less firewood. This helps slow deforestation, one of the primary culprits of soil erosion that has led to depleted farmland, meager harvests, and food insecurity in Feyine Terano.

In addition to learning how to construct and cook on a fuel-efficient stove, Ababaye also participated in FH health and nutrition training and vegetable growing workshops. She received farm tools and improved seeds including avocado. Her daughter, Meti, joined the child sponsorship program and received school supplies and a school uniform.

But when asked which of all these activities has been the most life-changing for her, personally, Ababaye gives a thoughtful answer, “The life before FH intervention and the current one is completely opposite. After working with FH, I've noticed various changes in my life, including a significant increase in my income, the beginning of sufficient crop production from the land, and my children as well as all family members beginning to eat a variety of nutritious foods including fresh vegetables. I am now food secure! The health status of my family has improved and our love and affection are also radically different than they were previously.

“The most significant improvement for me, however, is a fuel-efficient stove because it is linked to a health issue."

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