Hitting the Trifecta Part 4 – What is a safe cookstove, and why is it so important to personal health?

Trifecta – a type of bet, especially on horse races, in which the bettor must select the first three finishers in exact order.

In Part 1 of this series, we introduced Hunger Relief International’s concept of providing a water filter, latrine, and safe cookstove to a single household as a means of significantly improving outcomes in that household. We call this idea the “Trifecta”.  The payoff, in terms of health outcomes, is far greater than a winning trifecta ticket could ever be at the horse track! Part 1 was all about setting the scene for WHY there is such a great need in the rural communities of southern Guatemala.


Parts 2-4 of the series explain each component of the Trifecta in detail. In Part 2, we looked at how water filters can significantly reduce the pervasive effects of unclean drinking water on personal health, particularly the health of children. Part 3 addressed another personal health challenge, sanitation, and looked at the impact a latrine can have on sanitation and personal health. This installment, Part 4, addresses a different health concern: pulmonary problems and physical safety.


Trifecta Component #3 – Safe Cookstoves. I love campfires. However, about 30 seconds in the smoke seems to gravitate toward me as if I am some sort of smoke magnet. At that point, no matter where I stand, the smoke finds me. It burns my eyes and it fills my lungs. I always need to walk away and get some fresh air before returning to the fire.


Open fires are the most common method of cooking in the rural villages we serve. Usually, the cook fire is on a table inside an enclosed kitchen. Sometimes there is a window or some sort of ventilation. Often, there is not. Even in kitchens with some sort of ventilation, the presence of smoke is nearly overwhelming. Imagine cooking for hours at a time, and the damage it must be doing to your lungs.


Now, imagine the damage it must be doing to the still-developing lungs of any small children in the house. Young children, in particular, have the tendency to stay close to mom, no matter where she is or what she’s doing. So, when she is cooking over an open fire in a smoke-filled kitchen – a place where she typically spends hours each day – the most vulnerable people in the house are usually right there with her, breathing it all in.  Plus the risk of the children falling into the open fires.


Household air pollution affects upwards of 3 BILLION people each year, killing nearly 4 million every year (World Health Organization). “Household air pollution” is a fancy way of saying “smoke inside your house.” Pneumonia, often caused by the particulates in soot, is the single largest infectious cause of death in children each year (World Health Organization). Other long-term effects of smoke inhalation include heart disease, stroke, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and lung cancer.


In Guatemala, we have partnered with a company called Estufas Chispa. They manufacture a cookstove that channels the majority of the smoke through a chimney. The stove has a “firebox” for the wood. The firebox heats up the planchas, which are like burners on a gas or electric stove. The smoke from the firebox is channeled to the back end of the stove, and then up the chimney. A hole is cut in the roof of the kitchen, with some heat-resistant silicone closing any gaps, and the smoke is channeled outside.


I helped on an HRI stove project last May, and we installed 30 of these safe cookstoves in several of the villages in southern Guatemala. Part of the installation process included cutting a hole in the roof of the kitchen in order to install the chimney. Cutting a hole in a corrugated tin roof involved a hammer and a butcher knife: We would use the knife as a chisel, pounding it with the hammer and “carving” a hole in the roof. Copious amounts of soot and black junk fell from the ceiling and covered us, and it was a sobering reminder of the conditions that are perpetuated by indoor fires.

Months later, we made a follow-up visit to every house that received a stove, and without exception, people reported that the change was immediate: The presence of smoke in their kitchens was reduced to nearly nothing!


Conclusion: The Trifecta is a game-changer. The Trifecta addresses major challenges that affect the digestive and respiratory health of the people in these communities. We believe that over time, access to clean drinking water, sanitation, and smoke-free air will significantly improve outcomes for these families.

Imagine what can happen if vomiting and diarrhea aren’t robbing children of the nutrients they are ingesting, almost as quickly as they are ingesting them? Or if intestinal parasites are not stealing another 40% of their daily nutritional intake? What might happen if little lungs are breathing clean air instead of smoke for hours each day? All of a sudden a nutritious meal can actually be a building block toward a child’s physical development. Days previously lost to illness start to be restored. School attendance and academic performance begin to climb. And little by little, over the long-term, improved outcomes lead to increased opportunity.


It’s a long, slow process. But we believe that the Trifecta is a foundational building block for lasting change. In the last installment of this series, we are going to take a closer look at the current Trifecta project that Hunger Relief International just launched.


Want to participate in the life change that a Trifecta can bring about in a single-family? You can be a part of this by partnering with Hunger Relief International. A Trifecta costs about $500. You can give a Trifecta by clicking here. Make sure you put “Trifecta” in the comments box.


Written by Trey Williams, HRI Community Liaison


NEXT: Hitting the Trifecta Part 5 – Inside HRI’s Trifecta project for 2020 in Guatemala.

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