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A Rotary Project: from Idea to Reality

A club president tells the story of a project from inspiration to completion.

Vanuatu Smokeless Cook Stove Project

by Charlie Hunt

President, LoDo Rotary Club of Denver, Colorado (District 5450)

Inspiration for a new international project can be a very exciting for a Rotary Club.  Finding a need and developing a solution can seem like a straight forward process, but allowing some extra time to fully research the functionality of the project in the community can make a difference between a successful conclusion and just a lot of good intentioned effort. 

In 2008 I had just become the International Service Chair for the Denver LoDo Club, and was taking a tour of the Colorado State University Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, along with a group from Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Colorado.  At that point in time I had been back in the States less than a year from serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu.  Also on the tour was Casey Burnett, who also had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu.  On seeing the compact smokeless cook stoves that had been developed at the lab, Casey commented that the mamas in Vanuatu could certainly benefit from the stoves.  In Vanuatu women and children spend significant amount of time each day in enclosed kitchen houses with open, smoky fires.  My wife Nancy Cole, who had serviced as a Community Health Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu, had typically seen women and children at the our island dispensary on Emae, wanting penicillin for what they thought was the flu; but most, in retrospect, suffered from symptoms due to smoke inhalation.  Not even the dispensary nurse was considering that there might be an environmental cause for his patients' respiratory complaints.  Currently the WHO estimates that two million people die every year from being around smoky fires in enclosed kitchens on a continuing basis. 

In 2008 CSU had spun off a company that was making the stove, but there was limited worldwide distribution.

Fast forward to 2010, I met with Ben West of StoveTec in Oregon on a visit to Portland.  StoveTec had started making the stoves available to more countries around the world and was supplying them to VANREPA, an NGO focusing on sustainable energy issues in Vanuatu.  As luck would have it, I knew David Stein, the director of VANREPA, from my time as a Volunteer in Vanuatu.  David is working with a women's micro-finance to help sell the stoves to women on the four largest islands in the Vanuatu.  Vanuatu is made up of eighty islands, and I knew that on the other islands there was a need, but there would be a money issue for most rural families to purchase the stoves at a cost of approximately $30.00US.

But it occurred to me that Peace Corps Volunteers, who were serving as Community Health Workers, might be a resource to demonstrate the stoves in the rural communities.  At this point I started to develop support for what might be a fairly large project with other clubs in the District.  I had also contacted the Assistant District Governor Robert Bohn from District 9910.  Robert is a member of the Port Vila Rotary Club in Vanuatu and is supportive of the project.


The key question before a large grant based project might be implemented was to ascertain if the women would readily use the stove.  The stoves are very simply in design.  It has a highly insulated fire chamber, with a small opening where the wood is fed.  The wood burns so efficiently that a very high percentage of the carbon is fully burnt, greatly minimizing smoke, and at the same time needs less wood to achieve the same cooking need.   Although it seemed like it would be a no brainer that the stoves would be enthusiastically incorporated into daily cooking, I knew from my time living in Vanuatu that traditional practices for daily routine can outweigh a solution that seems a no brainer. 

Working with my club's International Committee, financial support to purchase twenty stoves to be distributed and demonstrated by Peace Corps Community Health Volunteers was approved by the club.  We also worked with Peace Corps Vanuatu's Programming Director Sara Lightner, to get Peace Corps' support for the project.  On March 21stDavid Stein of VANREPA delivered the stoves to Peace Corps to be distributed to the Volunteers.  It was time to wait, as there is limited communication with the Volunteers when they are at site.  Most rural Volunteers have limited access to electricity and communication can be difficult.

In early June results from five of the volunteers made it back.  Although there was initial interest from some of the volunteers' villages, in some locations the stoves ended up in the corner of the kitchen house, not being used.  Some possible reasons are that smoke discourages mosquitoes, which transmits malaria, an issue in Vanuatu.  Another possibility is that rural people do not like to stand out in their community, as they will be ridiculed by their neighbors behind their backs; so if everyone doesn't have a stove in the village, the test stove might not be used by the individual who has it in her possession.  And then there was the possibility that the greater efficiency of needing to gather less wood may be interfering with a social time for women who typically collect the wood.

As our committee was considering what direction to take the project, I was contact by Dennis Mello, also a Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu from 2008-2010.  Dennis is currently working on a Masters in International Development at UC San Diego and was interested in studying the use of cook stoves in the South Pacific.  Dennis proposed targeting three villages, providing a cook stove to each family, and to have surveys at the beginning and at the end of the year long testing phase that determined if there were obstacle to using the stoves, and if there was an obvious health benefit for those who used the stove regularly.  There would also be three control villages doing surveys at the same time, with those villagers receiving a stove at the end of the test phase as a thank you for their help.

Also in the process of putting project together during the last year, Matthew Hardwick, who is currently a Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu contacted me regarding my host papa when I served in Vanuatu.  It had been suggested by my wife that we might produce an educational music video, done with music that is popular in the Vanuatu, as she had seen a similar idea to promote cook stoves in India.  It occurred to me that Matthew had produced a few You Tube videos during his time in Vanuatu, so I emailed him to see if he was interested.  Once he confirmed that he would be staying an additional year with Peace Corps in Vanuatu, he has signed on to oversee the project and has already written a song in the Bislama, which is the national language, and has lined up local musicians and studio equipment to make the video.

The idea is that between the survey and video, we will create enough buzz about the cook stoves and their ability to improve health, so that there will be an increased demand for the stoves.  In the event this does occur I will look toward a larger RI grant that fits the Future Vision model in approximately two years.

If an RI Matching Grant can be secured then we will have approximately $14,500 which will make it possible to run the surveys by providing stoves to the three test villages at the beginning, also to the three control villages at the end of the survey and still have money left over to sell the stoves at a reduced price to other islanders who are interested.

Having Peace Corps involved in this project has been integral in executing the project.  It would have been easy to conclude that these stoves would be readily integrated into the community due to the positive impact to the health of women and children, and lessening the work load by not needing to collect as much wood.  Based on the obvious need, from a Western point of view, a large grant would have been written to provide stoves that most likely would have ended up unused in the corners of kitchen houses.  However, Peace Corps Volunteers have the advantage of developing an understanding of how successful the project can be due to their integration into their communities. 

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