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A safer, healthier home and hearth -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

A safer, healthier home and hearth

Simple smokeless stove helps family break the cycle of poverty
By Vivian Pastor


Ajú cooks meals for her family on a smokeless stove. Before, she had to cook over a fire on the dirt floor. In addition to the dangers of having an open fire in the living space, the whole family suffered from respiratory problems. ©Habitat for Humanity Guatemala


Margarito and Susana Ajú live in a remote region of Guatemala, earning meager incomes as a seasonal farmer and a weaver, respectively. Their new smokeless stove is the first step in improving their overall living conditions. ©Habitat for Humanity Guatemala


For as long as Susana Ajú and her husband, Margarito, can remember, they had cooked all their meals over an open fire on the dirt floor inside their small, makeshift home in southern Guatemala.

“The smoke hurt my eyes, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve burned my arms and hands,” said Susana, 27.

Many of the families living in Guatemala’s remote regions survive on such a meager income that they cannot qualify for a home loan of any kind. The Ajús, who live in San Lucas Tolimán, Sololá, are one of those families.

Margarito, 46, is a seasonal farmer who makes about 25 quetzals a day, or just over US$3, when he is able to find employment. Once the planting or harvesting is finished on one farm, he must look for work elsewhere.

Susana works at home as a weaver — a skill she learned from her mother — and takes care of their three children: Lester, 10; Mario, 6; and Alex, 3. She takes her woven pieces into town to sell.

Cooking by fire on their home’s dirt floor, the family used to spend more than US$25 a month on wood. Everybody in the family suffered health problems from the smoke. The couple’s youngest son, Alex, had lung problems that became so severe he had to be taken to the local hospital at least once every three months. In December 2010, he lost consciousness and had to be hospitalized for four days.

Two years ago, Habitat for Humanity Guatemala reached out to the Ajú family to become part of its Smokeless Stoves Project, which has a goal of providing 17,000 smokeless stoves to families in need at a subsidized cost by 2015.

For generations, open wood fires have been responsible for an overwhelming number of respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases in Guatemala. The open flames are a hazard not only to the adults who cook, but also to the wandering little hands of children.

One-day project yields life-changing benefits

Habitat’s smokeless stoves drastically reduce smoke levels, pulmonary disease and burning accidents in homes. Families also experience financial savings in reduced usage of firewood. Everyone in the program is trained in nutritional cooking, preventive health measures, financial literacy, and stove use and maintenance.

After Habitat Guatemala reached out to the Ajú family in April 2011 about the opportunity to build a smokeless stove, the family prepared for the arrival of a volunteer team that would help with the construction. Habitat provided most of the building materials, and the family supplied a few basic tools — and their own sweat. With the help of volunteers, the stove was built in one day.

The process is fairly simple. The family prepared mud blocks to use as a base for the metal stove, which was assembled and placed into the foundation. A pipe was added so that smoke would be vented through the roof.

After just three months with their new, functioning stove, the family’s health improved, along with its financial situation. Their firewood costs have been cut in half.

The new stoves in Guatemala provide a smoke- and soot-free environment, which also means fewer illnesses. Since the project launched in 2011, 6,260 families have been served with smokeless stoves in Guatemala, and the number continues to rise.

There have been further innovations to the stove model in the past two years, creating an even more efficient model. The project also has provided a unique opportunity for Habitat Guatemala to form a local volunteer workforce and get people involved with Habitat’s mission across the country.

After getting her new stove, Susana Ajú sent a message of thanks to the volunteers who helped her family.

“Alex no longer has any lung problems,” she said, “thanks to the new stove that we have.”

With improved health and more savings, the Ajú family has a far greater chance of breaking the cycle of poverty that traps so many hard-working families.

See a video of the Smokeless Stoves Project
, produced by Blue Coast Creative of Denver, N.C.

Series homepage: Why We Build