Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

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I’m often inspired by the idealism of the young. Well, Nancy Hughes, the founder of StoveTeam International, is 73, and, at an age when most people take it easy, the work she’s doing is inspirational.

Hughes is the founder and unpaid leader of StoveTeam, a role she fell into after her husband died in 2001. She’d never worked outside the home, but enjoyed travel and decided to volunteer with a medical team in Guatemala, working in the kitchen of a temporary health clinic. There, she met an 18-year-old woman named Irma whose hands had been burned shut at the age of two when she fell into an open fire, where her mother had been cooking dinner. As Hughes tells it, Irma tearfully thanked the volunteers at the clinic for the surgery that gave her the use of her hands after being disabled for most of her life.

“I thought it was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard–that people were cooking over a campfire in a room the size of a US bathroom,” Hughes told me. Working with the local Rotary Club, she organized a group of volunteers from Eugene, Oregon, where she lives, to install cookstoves in rural Guatemala. “We installed 129 stoves, my friends and me,” she said. “I thought we were pretty cool. Then I found out that the need in Guatemala was for six million stoves.”

She thought about giving up. Instead, she started StoveTeam–with the help of a $10,000 check that arrived in the mail from the guitarist Carlos Santana, who she’d never met, or even asked for money. This was 2007. Since then, her small nonprofit, which this year has a budget of just about $200,000, has sponsored the construction of seven cookstove factories that together have sold more than 56,000 stoves, improving the lives of more than 422,000 people in Mexico and Central America.

How, I wondered, had Hughes done it? She told me her story when we met recently at Opportunity Collaboration, a conference in Cancun, Mexico, that addresses issues of global poverty.*

Faithful readers of this blog know about my interest in cookstoves. Cookstoves are a response to an array of health, environmental and social problems. As StoveTeam explains:

More than three billion people in the world cook over dangerous open fires or inefficient stoves. Many women spend most of their day indoors near smoldering fires or walking to collect heavy loads of firewood. Inhalation of harmful particles emitted from these open fires is the cause of an estimated four million deaths per year and is the leading cause of death in children under five.

Cookstoves can also help to curb deforestation and climate change (because people burn less wood or charcoal than when cooking over an open fire), they can relieve women of the burden of gathering firewood, and they can create manufacturing jobs.

Have cookstoves been oversold?

The trouble is, the promoters of cookstoves have promised more than they have delivered. Indeed, the idea of a “clean cookstove”— a phrase tossed about carelessly in the sector, notably by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves — is very close to being an oxymoron: The vast majority of stoves that burn wood, charcoal or dung fail to meet strict World Health Organization standards, which are designed to protect people from exposure from the tiny particles of soot that cause respiratory disease. Decades of well-meaning efforts have shown that designing and manufacturing a consumer-friendly cookstove that delivers meaningful health benefits at a price the world’s poor people can afford is a daunting challenge. My 2015 story for The Washington Post story describes some of the problems that have plagued the sector.

To her credit, Hughes is straightforward about all this. Of course, she says, poor people in Mexico and Central America should be able to could cook on electric or gas stoves if they wish, as those of us in rich countries do. But millions can’t afford them. While the stoves that are coming out of factories sponsored by StoveTeam are less than ideal, Hughes says: “We are doing what we can.” Importantly, customers are buying them: That’s the best evidence that they are improving the lives of people who are extremely poor.

According to Hughes, when she realized that an all-volunteer effort couldn’t have the impact she sought, she persuaded the local medical society in Eugene to publish a brief article about her work; her husband, Duffy Hughes, had been a family physician in Eugene. That article found its way to Carlos Santana, whose Milagro Foundation, which helps poor children around the world; the foundation sent her a check, no questions asked. Quite a contrast to most foundations, no?

Meantime, a story about Hughes’ work  prompted a veteran stove designer named Larry Winiarski to approach her. Winiarski, who worked at Aprovecho, a nonprofit in Cottage Grove, Oregon, that is the nerve center of stove design, shared with her his design for a low-cost, portable stove, called the Ecocina, that could be made in places where stoves were needed. StoveTeam says the Ecocina produces almost no smoke, uses less than half the wood of an open fire, reduces carbon emissions by 68% and reduces particular matter by 86%. Unfortunately, the remaining particulates still cause respiratory illness.

Winiarski also introduced StoveTeam to Gustavo Peña, an entrepreneur in El Salvador, who built its first factory in a town called Nahulingo. Peña has proven to be a valuable ally; his factory has produced more than 21,000 stoves and, more importantly, he has helped StoveTeam work with local entrepreneurs to open factories in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico.

A local approach

In each case, StoveTeam works with a local owner. It helps raise seed capital from grants to start the factories and provides guidance. Factories use local labor and materials — the stoves are made of cement, tile and pumice–and they are supposed to be able to sustain themselves after the initial investment.

El Salvador has been the biggest success. Early on, Hughes visited the country’s environment minister who unexpectedly said he wanted to spent $5.5 million to get stoves into poor, rural communities before a change of government. “I feel like somebody is dropping angels in front of me,” Hughes said. But not every startup has succeeded. A Mexico factory faltered after its owner died and the one in Nicaragua failed because of issues with the local Rotary sponsor.

StoveTeam has raised most of its money from Rotary Clubs in the US and Central America. It has also been supported by Milagro, Dining for Women, The Sanford Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation, and Global Way Makers Foundation.  In 2011, Nancy Hughes was awarded a $100,000 Purpose Prize by Encore.org, a nonprofit that promotes “second acts for the greater good.”

Here’s a video about Hughes. In a society that valorizes youth and equates aging with decline, her story deserves to be told. She’s accomplished more in her last decade than most people do in a lifetime.

*Disclosure: I attended Opportunity Collaboration as a Boehm Media Fellow, thanks to the generosity of the Boehm Gladen Foundation led by Ron and Marlys Boehm.

6 thoughts on “A woman of a certain age: Nancy Hughes is improving thousands of lives

  1. mythea says:

    I like your series of articles about cookstoves that really shed light into the problems faced by industry, and it really served as a great starting place for a student to learn and think about clean cookstoves. I first ran into your article on the Washington Post, and prior to this I was also naive in believing that clean cookstoves will magically solve many things. I agree with some readers that we should not let perfection be the enemy of good and see the whole effort as failures, because while the particulate matter is not something that can be totally eliminated at this stage, the stoves still seem to bring social and economical benefits to many local communities, from what I gathered from organisations such as Inyenyeri, Solar Sisters and ADES. But I like how you highlighted the largest difficulties in this field and directly/indirectly urged more organisations to be more thoughtful in gauging their impact/outcome instead of distributing the stoves without really assessing the impact. I also like how you do praise efforts of clean cookstoves that worked out locally. I do think that it is best to run the stoves like a business model instead of “just distribute them and see how things go” mindset because viable economics is what makes the industry go on in the long run and create a sustainable demand. Keep up with your good work!

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    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m working a long story about a cleaner cookstove company with great potential–coming soon, I hope.

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  2. I featured Nancy’s and the Ecocinos in my book, http://www.100under100.org – it is a great story. There are several factors that work against introducing new stoves. (Agree they are not the cleanest solution, but they do decrease particulate exposure and burn risk). One is that men are most often the expenditure controlers in the household and they see no reason to buy a new stove. Secondly, rural women have very little exposure to new cooking techniques and culturally, it is very difficult to get cooks to change their time-honored cooking traditions. There needs to be a lot of smart marketing, especially women-to-women to build demand and comfort with new stoves and cooking approaches.

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    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks, Betsy, I had forgotten that you wrote about Nancy in your book. (People: If you haven’t read Betsy’s book, check it out) Cookstoves are definitely a tough sell, for the reasons you cite. I’ve got a story in the works about several for-profit cookstove companies, including Biolite, whose stove produces a small amount of electricity that can be used to charge a phone, in part to appeal to men.

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  3. mlytton1 says:

    Marc,

    Your last sentence is a very important observation about “seniors”, and a much-needed part of changing the narrative about ageing.

    Nancy’s story is also consistent with the central theme of Ralph Nader’s new book Breaking Through Power (Open Media Series, City Lights Books, 2016), namely, that individuals and small groups can improve the lives of millions of people in real, tangible ways. Nader writes, “Take a sweeping look at history and you’ll discover that almost all movements that mattered started with just one or two people….” He celebrates the achievements of twelve such individuals in his book.

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