COTTAGE GROVE, Ore. (AP) -- Ben West was scheduled to fly into Haiti's second-largest city on Jan. 15, to launch a project designed to address a critical problem in a country stripped of as much as 99 percent of its forests.
Haiti needed stoves. Haiti needed stoves because an estimated 800,000 of its residents cook either on an open fire or with an unimproved stove that resembles a baby's crib with no mattress in it "horribly inefficient," said West, general manager of the fledgling company StoveTec, a for-profit spinoff of the Cottage Grove nonprofit Aprovecho Research Center.
His trip to Haiti was intended to kick off an effort to put hundreds of thousands of cheap, durable, clean-burning, highly efficient stoves into the hands of as many people as possible for as low a cost as possible.
Then came a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, and "the whole game has changed," West said.
Now it's an urgent, emergency Band-Aid project, at least for the short-term, which is why StoveTec has shipped 1,344 cartons filled with flower pot-sized "rocket stoves" that stand a mere 12 inches high but can combust wood and biomass fuels at a scorching 850 degrees Celsius. They're portable, up to 50 percent more efficient than an open flame and they emit up to 70 percent fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
And they're an essential component of what people fleeing Port-au-Prince need right now. As many as 25,000 people are scattering out of the city each day and setting up tents in fields on the outskirts, or on the way to Cap Haitien. They have beans and rice distributed by aid workers, West said, but they need to boil water to make it safe, and they need a way to cook that food.
What they need are stoves.
The stoves are being shipped to Miami, where they'll be loaded onto a container bound for Haiti. Once in the country, representatives from the nonprofit groups Trees, Water and People and the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group will receive the stoves and distribute them to needy citizens, free of charge.
West's company produces and sells the "rocket stoves" for prices starting at $8 to some of the 3 billion people who cook over an open fire or use unimproved stoves on six continents. He already had put together a partnership between StoveTec and nonprofits based in Haiti, with the aim of 5,000 stoves sold each month.
The company's cost to manufacture the 12-inch high biomass stoves is about $20, but by funneling money it earns from carbon credit programs into the effort, and selling the stoves to consumers in the United States for about $40, StoveTec can subsidize the venture, getting stoves into the world's poorest nations for half the production cost. StoveTec can reach 80 percent of the market for these stoves by selling them for $10 apiece, West said.
Selling them, instead of giving them away, makes the effort financially sustainable, but it also fosters entrepreneurial opportunities for distributors and retailers in the target countries and ensures a "buy-in" from customers, West said. People are more likely to use and care for something they had to purchase.
The stoves quickly pay for themselves. The improved fuel efficiency means people save money on expensive charcoal and wood. And tests based on the few dozen units that StoveTec has in Haiti now show even more impressive results than average. Much of what people use for fuel there now is charcoal StoveTec's stoves can burn wood, charcoal or other biomass such as corn cobs and dung and the stoves in use there now are cutting down on the amount of charcoal needed for cooking by as much as 70 percent, West said.
The plan was to find nonprofits in Haiti that would be exempt from the 35 percent duty on imported goods that could raise the retail cost of the stoves from $10 to $18 apiece, to jump through the necessary hoops to qualify the effort for carbon credits, and to figure out how best to market the stoves to the people.
West's aim now is to get several hundred thousand stoves into Haiti "quickly," he said, at a rate of about 5,000 per month.
"People are going into the Dominican Republic, harvesting firewood from there to create charcoal and shipping it illegally across the border to Haiti because they can get over 10 times the price they can in the Dominican Republic for the same fuel," said Sebastian Africano, stoves program consultant with Trees, Water and People, a Fort Collins, Colo.-based nonprofit that is distributing StoveTec's devices in Haiti and elsewhere. "Fuel is very expensive there."