Guatemalan Changeover from Wood to LPG Cookstoves

The largest global opportunity to expand LPG markets is to reach the 3 billion people who still cook with wood and somehow convince them that replacing their woodstove with an LPG cookstove will provide untold benefits to their families in terms of improved health, convenience, and even lower cost.

In the Guatemalan countryside, and Guatemala is still 50% rural, the tangible expression of these benefits includes:

Elimination of 95% of the indoor air pollution from the toxic wood smoke that globally claims 4 million lives annually according to the World Health Organization (WHO). More immediate to the families concerned is the harm to children’s health from constant colds and respiratory diseases.

  1. Steep reduction in cooking fuel costs. The majority of wood users buy a good part of their wood, and spend an average $43.85 per month according to one study. The study shows that the same household would spend $17.54 a month on LPG, delivered in 25-lb cylinders (11.3 kg) at $9.74 per cylinder.
  2. Time saved from not having to forage for wood. In a 2013 study of Guatemala’s 3 million households (for 16 million population), only 29% of homes used no wood for cooking or heating. Of the 71% wood consumers, 43% bought at least some of their wood supply, and 28% relied exclusively on gathering. Relieving women and children of that daily burden would offer substantial opportunities for more schoolwork and other activities.
  3. Reduction in deforestation. This is the macro-environmental goal that lies in the background of all the personal benefits that would accrue to families switching from wood to LPG stoves.
  4. This roll-call of benefits was front and center in a presentation by Christina Espinosa, founder of Gente Gas in Antigua, Guatemala, which was given at last week’s GLP Forum, the annual congress of Amexgas, Mexico’s largest association of LPG distributors and dealers.

With a 2010 grant from the Clinton Global Initiative University, Espinosa started out looking for ways to improve the efficiency and emissions performance of biomass stoves. After two years beating her head against that wall, she switched her focus to LPG as the fuel of choice, and that’s when her ideas started to gel into the “social enterprise” business that has become Gente Gas.

Talking to Espinosa, one is amazed to learn just how difficult it is to create a viable program to bring the enormous benefits of LPG stoves to the subsistence population at the bottom of the world’s economic scale. A year ago, OPIS ran an article about the tremendous program of Carbon Clear to create a consumer base of 5,000 stoves in Darfur, Sudan (Nov. 3, 2014). In the background of that article was simply the point that the program began in 2008, and it had taken five years to get to 5,000 stoves.

In the process of developing Gente Gas, Espinosa has tried everything in assembling a program to put LPG stoves in Guatemalan homes. Most of the ideas don’t work, and her efforts have made Gente Gas into a kind of trial-and-error laboratory for developing a program that provides genuine benefits while being economically sustainable.

Along the way, these are some of the conclusions she has reached, which are generally confirmed by Carbon Clear’s experience in Darfur.

  • Forget about giving stoves away. Nothing good happens. The little LPG stove becomes an auxiliary device for boiling water and minor cooking tasks. The woodstove remains the locus of serious cooking.
  • In Latin America, forget about handing out cheap two-burner tabletop stoves (estufas de la mesa). In this matter, there is a radical difference between Guatemala and Darfur. After much trial and error in stove development, Carbon Clear found a supplier in China for a heavy-duty two-burner tabletop that was also really cheap. Those stoves, along with the LPG cylinder, are treated as pure gold in Darfur. They are the biggest investment the family has made, and every housewife in Al Fashir, site of Carbon Clear’s program, who doesn’t have an LPG stove wants one.
  • The lowest stratum of society in Latin America still has access to 3-4 times the resources of those in Africa. On at least occasional trips to the regional market town, these housewives see fancy cookstoves in the “Platinum” line, four burners on top, an oven, etc. Even though they’re cooking with wood at home, these fancy stoves are the ones they want, and a cheap LPG stove will just be set aside to boil water.
  • In the end, the engine of transformation is the same in Darfur and Guatemala, and that is ASPIRATION. The two-burner tabletop is a giant leap to improving life in Darfur, one requiring substantial sacrifice. OPIS found two-burners widely available in Guatemala for 175 Quetzales (7.66Q per USD), or US$23. One of Espinosa’s trials was with a little tabletop for 160Q. Pure junk, she says. Now she has found a supplier of a heavy-duty tabletop for 228Q. This is enough for some potential customers, but generally they’re not interested.
  • OPIS asked what product was finding greatest acceptance out in the field. Espinosa said it’s a terrific industrial stove developed by Super Cocinas, a Guatemala stove manufacturer, with two burners in back and one big burner with removable “plancha” in front. This is where mama is cooking tortillas or rolling tamales that are a staple of the daily diet.
  • How much does the industrial model cost? 1,690Q stove only, or 2,087Q for complete package with 25-lb cylinder, hoses and installation. In other words, $220 for the stove, $272 for the package. OPIS: How can they think of spending that much on a stove when the complete package in Darfur costs $50-60? Espinosa: It’s all about what the customer really wants. “At one very poor home, I suggested the 228Q stove to start. The housewife said No. She said, ‘We’ll cook with wood for five more months and save until we can make the down payment on the 1,690Q model’.”

In the end, Espinosa’s little enterprise is at the brink of lift-off. The last barrier standing in her way is developing a finance mechanism so her customers can get the stove and LPG hookup and pay over 12 or more months. Actual sales only began in March this year, and thus far, she has put stoves in 50 homes around Antigua.

The only thing that got her that far was a $30,000 grant from Pomona Impact. This grant was on top of the $80,000-$100,000 annual budget she’s been getting from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Grand Challenges Canada to keep the lights on and pay some staff.

There is a very great deal of money out there, waiting to flow into an enterprise that really works and that can deliver real health benefits to the families and real reductions in environmental harm like deforestation.

Espinosa has brought Gente Gas to the end of the developmental road. Now the whole thing is poised to deliver tangible results to a wide customer base. The seed money would be a micro-finance facility of much greater size than she has been able to access until now.

 – Jack Brewster