By Jessica Alderman, M.P.H – Envirofit Director of Communications & PR
After two hours of driving down bumpy, dusty roads we arrive at Genoveva’s house for dinner. Matches are lit, wood is chopped, beans are soaked and boiling, and the chocolate spicy aroma of molé fills the air. Perfectly round tortillas shaped by hand bubble as they hit the hot, oiled griddle. Neighbors, family and friends start trickling into Genoveva’s kitchen to join me – a stranger from another land – for a meal together. The only thing missing from this traditional kitchen is the smoke.
Genoveva’s kitchen has been in her family over 140 years, through 5 generations. Until recently it featured a traditional, smoky fire on which every meal was cooked by her mother, and grandmother, and her great grandmother. Without knowing it, every time Genoveva lit the fire to boil her beans and cook the secret family recipe for molé that her family loves, she exposed herself to the smoke and toxic emissions equivalent to 400 secondhand cigarettes. Rubbing her eyes from the smoke was as much a part of cooking as flipping tortillas. The culprit, Household Air Pollution, kills 4.3 million people every year- more than HIV, malaria, and TB combined.
Cooking as culture
As a behavior change communications specialist for Envirofit, I find the challenge of clean cooking fascinating and complicated, but at the same time it’s not. Every culture around the world has different customs and traditions around food that are important in defining who they are. I once visited a home high in the mountains of Nepal where the family I stayed with had dismantled their mud-built clean stove so they could smoke their meats. Their home was once again filled with acrid smoke that the stove should have been venting outside, but wasn’t because it didn’t meet their cooking needs.
If people are going to change the way they cook, the first step is ensuring that the cookstove replacing their open fire or mud oven matches their needs. All over the world we cook differently, and the technology must be the right fit for the customer.
Secondly, there is a misconception in the clean cookstove community that raising awareness for clean cookstoves is the biggest challenge to adoption. Though there have been hundreds of awareness raising campaigns across the world over the past 40 years, none of them have led to the behavior change needed for mass adoption of cookstoves. Though no one wants to spend their day bent over a fire, with watery eyes and an aching head, convincing women to give this up still requires that the other option be visibly better than what they’re used to.
Changing technology, not traditions
To address this reluctance towards change, Envirofit innovates clean cooking stoves and services for all families as they climb the energy ladder, from wood, to charcoal, to LPG. This way everyone – from the rural farming family cooking with wood, to the urban working class that cooks with both charcoal and LPG – can cook with a clean stove.
Everyone has aspirations to cook better, but seeing is believing. We need to shift the strategy from messaging around improving health and saving money, to the cooking experience that awaits them. And we need to make sure the right person is communicating it.
Despite the challenge of changing people’s behavior, one place I have seen attitudes evolve is in Genoveva’s kitchen. The tortillas, beans and molé she made were prepared on an Envirofit Ecogofon El Ahorrador cookstove. The stove has a plancha griddle, and was specifically designed for Latin America. Genoveva made the choice to change to her new stove because it allowed her to cook the same meals that she always has, while providing her with clear benefits – in this case using less fuel, saving time and reducing exposure to smoke.
The right message from the right messenger
Genoveva is active within her community, and as an advocate of family health and safety, has made herself an ambassador for clean cookstoves. With a tradition so ingrained as cooking, her endorsement brings a credibility to the issue of Household Air Pollution that goes beyond awareness raising. Along with explaining the need for reducing HAP to friends and family in a way that’s relatable, she has also helped organize women to work together to help each other buy clean cookstoves for their own kitchens. With her help, over a hundred households that wouldn’t have understood the problem of HAP are now cooking traditional meals for loved ones in a way that is better for them and their environment.
While food can be something that culturally separates – defining why we are different rather than similar to someone else – it can also be the gateway to breaking barriers, overcoming cultural challenges, and learning about the similarities between us. Sharing a meal together with others can turn strangers into friends, and provides a forum for people to learn about each other and listen to each other in a moment of enjoyment or exploration of the new encounter.
To learn more about Envirofit cookstoves contact firstname.lastname@example.org