MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Back now with Day to Day. For a long time, one of the holy grails of rural development has been the search for a simple stove. It's needed to replace the dangerous and inefficient open fires used in villages around the world. A stove designed by an engineer in Texas may be the solution. It began in Guatemala, and it's becoming popular elsewhere. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT: Our story begins in north Texas in the handsome ranch house of a 75-year-old retired mechanical engineer named Don O'Neal. After an illustrious career helping to design computers in the 1960s and then developing the first smoke detectors, fish finders, and calculators, O'Neal retired in 1983 and found that he had too much time on his hands.
So he and his wife, Lois, started organizing medical missions to destitute villages in Guatemala. It was on those trips that he began to see families coming in with terrible burns.
Mr. DON O'NEAL (Inventor, Onil Stove): I'm not talking about burns that blister. I'm talking about burns that burn fingers off and ruin legs. A kid starting to walk in one of those huts with an open campfire in the middle of the floor plops down on all fours, sticks a hand in a bed of coals, and immediately the hand is burned off. It's a horrible sight. And we had kids doing face plants in a bed of coals, ruining their lives.
BURNETT: There's nothing quaint about traditional cook fires. In addition to the risk of burns, the houses are usually not ventilated, creating endless respiratory problems and carbon monoxide buildup. What's more, the open fire is inefficient, dispersing heat in all directions, and requiring lots of firewood to keep it stoked.
So Don O'Neal invented a stove that solves all those problems. It's made out of local materials, fired clay for the combustion chamber, poured concrete blocks for the structure, and a tin chimney to get the smoke out of the house. Then O'Neal gave the design away and never earned a nickel.
(Soundbite of hammering)
BURNETT: Our story now moves south about 1,400 miles to the Mayan village of Alotenango in the central Guatemalan highlands, where two volcanoes loom over a countryside checkered with corn and coffee plots and fenced with blooming hibiscus. Inside tin-roof kitchens, women are busy tortillando, making tortillas. Maria Rosario Chavac has had an Onil stove for about two months.
Ms. MARIA ROSARIO CHAVAC: (Through Translator) Now, it's saving me a lot of wood. Now, I only have to go out every four days to cut wood. The old fire used up wood faster. This stove is working well.
BURNETT: This is what women tend to notice more than the health and safety improvements. The stove requires 70 percent less wood, which saves labor and reduces deforestation. Fernando Gomez works with Pro-Rural, a Guatemalan government anti-poverty agency that's a big supporter of the Onil stove.
Mr. FERNANDO GOMEZ (Pro-Rural): What will happen is that the mother, as she only has to use 30 percent of the wood, will go into the second part of the program, which is teaching them how to sew, how to do handcrafts. You will be able to have more productive time.
BURNETT: The popularity of the Onil stove is spreading. An Iowa State University study comparing 22 of the world's cook stoves ranked the Onil number one. Fifty thousand of them have been installed in Guatemalan homes, according to Pro-Rural, with plans for another 50,000.
Helps International, the Dallas-based charity that promotes the stove, moved into Mexico in the past year, setting up a stove factory in Toluca. Former President Vicente Fox is said to be an admirer. The environmental ministry in El Salvador, where deforestation is severe, has begun distributing the stove. And there's interest in Honduras.
The challenge, of course, is how to get more of them to families that need them. Richard Grinnell, Helps International's point man in Latin America, says in truth, they need a million and a half Onil stoves in Guatemala and six million in Mexico. He says the obstacle is not unwillingness to change traditional ways.
Mr. RICHARD GRINNELL (Latin America Representative, Helps International): Once they've seen how they work and all, I haven't gone to a community yet that hasn't said they want them.
BURNETT: Grinnell says their challenge is one of priorities. The Onil stove costs about a hundred dollars. Though some nonprofits give the stove away, Helps International much prefer selling it through community micro-credit corporations so the family will value it more. A hundred dollars is a lot of money for a Guatemalan family that may earn $5 a day.
Mr. GRINNELL: The biggest obstacle are cell phones and Coca-Cola because that's what they spend their money on.
BURNETT: Grinnell says what they need is more credit and a bigger awareness campaign. Meanwhile, what's Don O'Neal up to these days? After the booming success of his stove, he can't stay out of his workshop. Now, he's got a water filtration system, a bean cooker, and an improved stove, all to ease rural poverty. This from a guy who designed computers that went into the first NASA rockets. John Burnett, NPR News.
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