By Fred Colgan,
Director, Institutional Stove Project
Aprovecho Research Center
After a week here, there are a few stories. Since what we’re doing here all revolves around stoves, most of the stories are about stoves. A few are not. Anybody who knows a stover knows we do tend to talk a lot about stoves.First, a little background. Timor-Leste is a former Portuguese colony abutting Indonesia near the north coast of Australia. Recovering from a violent civil war, the country suffers from widespread poverty, destruction of 70% of its infrastructure, a high birth rate, and a struggling economy. There is some oil extraction wealth, but, as elsewhere, little trickles down to the people. Part of the initiative we are taking part in is about creating jobs and viable local businesses producing fuel efficient stoves for a country where 99% of the people cook on open fires.
The issues here are the same as in most of the developing world: health impacts of smoke inhalation on women and kids, deforestation, global warming gasses from cooking fires, and economic development for poor people. Aprovecho is taking part in an initiative of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to use Timor-Leste as a case study in stoves development. We are working directly with Mercy Corps. This is one of four countries around the world picked as models for creating clean cooking solutions. There is only one existing producer of improved stoves in the country.Which brings us to Story #1:
A single extended family in the outskirts of Dili – the capital city and population center of Timor-Leste – makes by hand and sells a clay cookstove of an unusual design that Aprovecho had not seen before. The patriarch of the family told us this story: In 1941 occupying Japanese soldiers came to his grandfather, provided him with a design for a cookstove, and, at gunpoint, told him he would start producing stoves. Seventy years later the family is building the same identical stove. It takes about a day per person to make the stove which is housed in a crude can they make themselves, and hand-formed out of clay they dig from pits around their houses. As it’s now the dry season, they have to walk a couple of kilometers to get the 20 liters of water or so it takes to make a stove, so right now production is low. It’s just too much work.
When they have a pushcart of stoves dry (sundried, then fired once by building a fire in each stove), they head off to town and sell them. There is constant demand, and they sell as many as they can make for about ten dollars each. Many middle-class people in Dili use these stoves, and told us they save about 50% of firewood over the open fire.
Skeptical of such claims, we took three stoves to a village up the mountainside about ten kilometers out of town for testing, and ran a series of nine cooking tests with the clay stove against nine tests with open fires. Early results show an average of about 35% fuel savings; however, we believe with practice the gains could rise. The cooks had never seen improved stoves before and were happy with the reduction in smoke. This is actually a pretty good little stove!
Unfortunately, the stove is very fragile and cannot be transported long distances over the poor roads to the countryside – so helping this family ramp up production would be a difficult option for a national stove project.
Story #2: Asked about his motivation, the family patriarch said, “I heard someone said once: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country’”. Our astonished interpreter asked if he knew where that saying came from, and if his stove-building was patriotism. He said, “No, it just means you can’t count on the government for anything, and if you want to get something done you’ve got to do it yourself. I have no idea who said it.”
Story #3: Up in the village in the highlands there was a small rain squall, and the sun broke through while it was still raining. One of the cooks told our interpreter “When the sun shines through the rain, it means some monkeys are getting married”. We’re all still scratching our heads over that one.
The village people live timelessly simple agricultural lives. There’s a state-supported school in the village, and most kids are learning to read and write, but after school they just carry on with their lives. There’s nothing to read. Most of the women never leave the village and never go to town. Because of the high birthrate and the toll that the decades-long civil war has taken among mature Timorese, this is a very young population. Elders are highly respected and rather rare. I am probably one of the oldest men in Dili! The other day I was out for my daily stroll when I crossed paths with an older gentleman. We stopped, stared at each other for several seconds, and then just smiled – two members of an endangered species, honoring each other’s “elder-ness.”
Without sounding hopelessly romantic, and recognizing that these folks are terribly poor, I heard more laughter and felt more joy in life in this little farming village than I generally see back home in our consumer society.
…Stay tuned. More to come.