Rocket man

The Aprovecho “rocket stove” I tested last evening in my yard exceeded all expectations. I wrote about this stove before, in my May 25 post, but now I’ve finally tried cooking with it. Two of the volunteers for our our upcoming trip to Tanzania—we leave on August 1, only fifteen days away—joined Marianne and me at our home yesterday, at around seven-thirty, for some outdoor cooking. The heat of the day had left our poorly insulated house still pretty uncomfortable by that time, but the outside temperature felt ideal.

Faren Clum, a former high school student of Marianne’s and soon a medical school student, arrived first and then Dr. Susan Hughmanick showed up with the stove she had bought from Stovetec of Cottage Grove, Oregon. My own Stovetec stove, a recent birthday and Father’s Day gift from my older daughter, continues to sit in its box on my dresser. I guess I haven’t unpacked it because I had worried it would disappoint me, so Susan’s superior bravery proved useful.

As did Faren’s habitual dependence on her iPhone once we unpacked Susan’s stove and saw that it came without instructions. The Aprovecho Research Center engineers designed the rocket stove partly to lower emissions and thus combat respiratory disease in poor countries and partly to reduce firewood burning, thereby combating deforestation in those places. So it makes sense that they chose to save even more trees by not printing a sheet with operating instructions, which Faren easily found online, anyway. (This morning, looking at the carton Susan left behind, I see visual instructions on the outside of it, but I don’t know that we could have decoded them.)

I hate camping, although I try hard in other ways to be a good American. My first reason to hate camping: typically I need to get up to pee maybe four times per night, and who knows when I might encounter a bear or a mountain lion or a Sasquatch outside my tent? My second reason: traumatic memories, from the early years of my marriage, of spending half of our camping vacations extracting fallen small children from the dirt in order to minimize their accumulated filth. Stovetec’s rocket stove can’t refute these objections, yet it has forced me to abandon my third reason to hate camping: getting a cooking fire going takes too long for someone exhausted, hence famished, by the hard work of cleaning and of worrying about bear attacks. However, Faren’s iPhone claimed—correctly—that a single match, a few scraps of paper, and a handful of sticks would have the rocket stove boiling water within minutes. I don’t quite understand how the rocket stove does this; if I did, I would be smart enough to be an engineer and to make a lot more money than I do. I only understand that from now on I shall always believe everything I read on an iPhone.

We cooked the quinoa and crookneck squash Susan had brought, unseasoned and unspiced like the food eaten by the villagers of Bacho and Dareda, and not so different from the maize or rice and beans they would cook. Okay, we cheated: we don’t expect to see brie and a baguette, pork sausage, pomegranate Italian soda, strawberries, and blood-orange sorbet consumed anytime soon in the villages. (Or even in Ohio, come to think of it; maybe only in California.) But the quinoa and squash cooked fast and also smokelessly, as long as I kept nudging the sticks of firewood along their conveyor into the combustion chamber so that it captured their flames. The stability of the rocket stove, which Faren and I tested, underlined the care that Aprovecho’s engineers have taken to develop a safe cooker.

The stove is eleven to twelve inches tall, ten to eleven inches in diameter, and weighs just over fifteen pounds, so we can probably carry Susan’s and mine onto the airplanes to avoid the possibility of rough baggage-handling. My July 13 post announced Karimu’s success in finding enough money to supply all of Bacho with mosquito nets. Next, if the villagers like cooking with the rocket stove as much as Susan, Faren, Marianne, and I did, Karimu can start looking for the funds to buy a couple of hundred stoves and prevent still more death.—Don Stoll

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About Don Stoll

Co-founder and Treasurer of the Karimu International Help Foundation, which is devoted to education, healthcare, and other development needs
This entry was posted in Africa, development, poverty, Tanzania, volunteering and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Rocket man

  1. Faren says:

    Great post, Don! Cooking with the rocket stove was a blast! : )

  2. Greta says:

    Good News! Glad it works!

  3. Kelly Kent-Stoll says:

    Great post, Dad. You may not be smart enough to be an engineer, but you’re funny enough to make me laugh out loud with your writing. (Thanks!)
    P.S. Jazz says you’re “the man.”

  4. Jennifer says:

    I am extremely wary of any products manufactured in the developed world that are touted and marketed to “make life easier” for poor people in the developing world. One of Firelight’s grantees in Uganda, The Center for Environment Technology and Rural Development, has a program around what they term “appropriate technology” in which they help women build safer and more environmentally sound stoves. The difference is, these stoves are made from all local materials and are not dependent on any outside supply or expertise. You can see photos of this at: http://www.cetrud.org/wb/pages/programs/appropriate-technology.php

    • dstoll49 says:

      Clearly, Jennifer, Karimu should prefer the Uganda-made stoves to Stovetec’s as long as the former rival the lung- and forest-saving advantages of the latter. But your suspicion of rich-world technology as such mystifies me. Unless the engineer’s intentions must be different in kind from the intentions of other rich-world inhabitants who engage poor countries, doesn’t your suspicion imply that the rich-world funders and employees of Firelight ought to have nothing to do with poor countries? Or that the rich-world funders and volunteers of Karimu should turn their backs on Tanzania? In each case, out of the question. Both Firelight and Karimu have every right–or obligation, rather–to look for what best promotes healthy lungs, thriving forests, and job growth in poor countries. These are all worthwhile goals but they are also distinct from one another, thus we cannot assume that the best means of achieving one or two of them will also be, at any given time, the best means of achieving all of them. And we might well deprive ourselves of the best means of achieving all of them if we make up our minds that the wholly rational desire to promote manufacturing and hence job growth in poor countries entails a priori xenophobic dismissal of the intentions and products of rich-world technological intelligence.

  5. My concerns are far from “a priori xenophobic” but are rather based on wanting to ensure that any efforts to improve people’s lives in the developing world are first based on the locally-available resources, rather than creating additional dependency on outside “expertise” or technology or undermining the local economy. The blog, Good Intentions Are Not Enough (http://goodintentionsarenotenough.com), writes a lot on this topic and has some great guidelines on in-kind donations of this sort. http://informationincontext.typepad.com/good_intentions_are_not_e/2009/04/it-always-sounds-like-such-a-great-idea-to-take-up-a-collection-of-goods-to-send-off-to-people-in-need-such-as-those-facing.html

    • dstoll49 says:

      I reiterate my willingness, stated in my reply to your previous comment, to examine the Uganda-made stoves. My ideal, as suggested by that reply, would be to find Tanzania-made stoves matching or surpassing the lung- and forest-saving advantages of the Stovetec stoves. It goes without saying that foreigners with good intentions toward Africa ought to strive to avoid undermining local African economies. Yet we should strive also to avoid damage to African lungs and forests. Perhaps some stoves already made somewhere in Africa can avoid such damage as effectively as the Stovetec stoves would. Maybe your Uganda-made stoves can do so—discovering which would thrill me. But I don’t know yet because I’ve had no chance to test the Uganda-made stoves. It’s worth pointing out, however, to interested parties who have not read the article in “The New Yorker” from last December 21 and 28 that first brought Stovetec stoves to my attention, that the faint of heart should not bother to try designing a lung- and forest-saving stove which is not “too flimsy or inefficient or expensive or unstable or unclean or hard to use.” It turns out, as the article makes clear, that the expertise—however much one wishes to discredit it by use of damning quotation marks—of engineers can come in pretty handy for stove design. I wonder if an instructive parallel obtains with the expertise of non-African medical researchers? I am skeptical that the concern to avoid undermining local African economies—which, I repeat, I take very seriously—could possibly suffice to motivate rejection by Africans of medical treatments developed outside the continent.

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