LoDo Rotary Club’s Vanuatu Smokeless Cook Stove Project

By Charlie Hunt

A project presents itself

Inspiration for a new international project can be 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 being served 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.  Around that time I took 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 a significant amount of time each day in enclosed kitchen houses with open, smoky fires.  Watch a video here at YouTube that I made when we visited Vanuatu to see for yourself what a kitchen hous is like with an open fire. My wife Nancy Cole, who had served 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.  In retrospect, most 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. 
By 2008 Envirofit 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 stoves available to more countries around the world.  They were 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 in Vanuatu.  David was working with a women’s micro-finance to 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 less developed 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, the going price at that time.
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 a cook stove project with other clubs in our Rotary 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 was supportive of the project. 

First steps

The key question before a possible larger project might be implemented, was to ascertain if the women would readily use the stoves.  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 particulate 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 worked with Peace Corps Vanuatu’s Programming Director Sara Lightner, to get Peace Corps’ support for the project.  On March 21, 2010 David 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 some of the volunteers started to trickle in.  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 were 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 their 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.

Taking the research up a notch

As our club’s international committee was considering what direction to take the project, I was contact by Dennis Mello, who had also served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu from 2008-2010.  Dennis was 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.  As the projected timeline proceed the test sites were trimmed by to two locations due to losing a key person at one of the intended sites.

Let’s make it fun – add a music video

In the process of putting project together, Matt Hardwick, who was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu, contacted me regarding my host papa when I served in Vanuatu.  It had been suggested by my wife Nancy that we might produce an educational music video, done with music that is popular in the Vanuatu; we had seen a similar idea to promote these cook stoves in India.  I knew that Matt had produced a few YouTube videos during his time in Vanuatu, so I emailed him to see if he was interested helping.  Once he confirmed that he would be staying an additional year with Peace Corps in Vanuatu, he signed on to oversee the project and had already written a song in the Bislama, which is the national language, and had lined up local musicians and studio equipment to make the video.  Watch the video here at YouTube.  At last count the video has be viewed over 10,000 times and I have also been told that the audio is being share from mobile phone to mobile phone.  The word is that everyone in the country is familiar with the song.
The hope was that between the survey and the video, we could create enough buzz about the cook stoves and their ability to improve health, so that there will be a nature demand for the stoves. 

Project implementation

Dennis was able to travel to Vanuatu during summer of 2012 through UC San Diego.  The LoDo Rotary Club picked up the cost of his travel in-country to work with Peace Corps Volunteers and villages to start the entry survey process.  We had been told that enough stoves were available in-country to start the trial phase once the survey was completed.  On processing the order for the stoves, David Stein at VANREPA sadly advised us that the stock had been depleted by the women’s microfinance and there would be a delay in his receiving more stoves.
Nancy and I had been planning a trip to mark the five year anniversary of the end of our Peace Corps experience, so the timing was perfect for us to visit Vanuatu and see if I could kick start acquisition of the needed stoves with David while we were there.  So during Christmas holiday season of 2012 we spent three weeks in Vanuatu.  I met with David and found out that there were two issues:  he needed financial backing to purchase more stoves and once he had the monies secured there would be time until the container of stoves made its way to his door in Vanuatu.  David assured me on the day we left Vanuatu that he had the financial backing and the order was place.  I was able to confirm this with the vendor in the States on our return.
During our stay on our island of service, Emae Island, our good friend James and Marie had access to a stove.  We made a short video that shows the stove in operation.  It was first time I had seen the stove in action.  I was impressed with the lack of smoke.  When it did smoke, it was a signal that the wood needed to be adjusted.  Watch the YouTube video here.

Unexpected delay

Even though Dennis and I were used to delays, having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu, we were getting nervous as 2013 marched on and the stoves hadn’t been delivered.  Ideally we wanted the same Peace Corps Volunteers who did the entry surveys to do the exit surveys.  However it was becoming obvious that that was not to be.  Fortunately the stoves made it through customs and were shipped to Epi and Ambae islands before our Peace Corps Volunteers finished their service in late 2013. On a positive note, Robert Bohn from the Port Vila Rotary Club, was able to get donated shipping to transport the stoves out to the two islands.  

Wrapping up the test phase

We found two Peace Corps Volunteers who were stationed on other parts of Epi and Ambae and they were helpful in getting the exit surveys completed by the end of 2013.  Dennis received them by early 2014 and was able to get a final end line analysis survey completed by mid-2014.  You can read it the final report by clicking here.  

Findings – not exactly what we expected

Going into the project I had two anticipated outcomes from the findings.  My thought was that the stoves would be used exclusively or not at all.  As luck would have it I was totally wrong.  With the exception of only a couple of people, the stoves were used every day, but not exclusively.  Because the stove heat one pot at a time and heats quickly with very little wood, the stove was used mainly for small cooking jobs such as warming water for tea.  For larger jobs people still used open fires.  This is most likely the reason we found no significant health benefit from test site families.  Again, with the exception of only a couple of people, everyone said they would recommend the stove to friends and family members.  It should be noted that the control village families received stoves as a thank you for their participation, which they received with great anticipation.  The issued going forward is that in the survey the amount that they would be will to pay for the stoves is $25US which is approximately half what the stoves sell for in-country.

Possible next steps

As you may know, Vanuatu was hit by a Category 5 cyclone early in 2015.  Both of the islands that were used in the project were damaged badly.  Dennis and I are working on doing a follow up survey to see if the stoves are being used more or less due to the cyclone. 
We are also waiting to see if the publicity the stoves have received due to the music video and the testing will create enough momentum for the stoves to be purchased directly by families without outside support.  This would be my hoped outcome, however with the cyclone having just created some serious financial burdens on the country and the people, I would not expect the stoves to be a priority.

Peace Corps

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 could 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. 
It is projects like this one that has led to a signed Memorandum of Understanding between Rotary International and Peace Corps.  The MOU was signed at Rotary District 5450’s district conference in May of 2015. 
If you have any questions you can direct them back through our club website.