Undergraduate Research: Cook Stoves in Rural Guatemala

Naima von Ritter Figueres PPS’11 used her honors thesis as a way to unite many of the issues she holds dear with a place that she loves.

Naima von Ritter Figueres in Guatemala

“I was born in Guatemala and I spent a year there prior to coming to Duke,” Figueres said. “My thesis really offered me an opportunity to combine all of my interests: women’s rights, poverty, environmental issues and sustainable development.”

HELPS International, a Dallas-based NGO with an office in Guatemala City, tasked Figueres with traveling to Guatemala to find out why some women had stopped using HELPS International’s ONIL cook stoves, which the organization had been distributing throughout Guatemala for 11 years. The ONIL stoves were specifically designed to reduce indoor smoke exposure and to lower wood consumption.

Many indigenous women in Guatemala cook with open fires, which create large amounts of smoke that can lead to respiratory problems and children’s injuries as well as larger-scale environmental problems.

Last summer Figueres traveled to rural villages in six different regions of Guatemala. She gathered information on stove usage through structured oral surveys, focus group discussions, interviews and participant observations.

She found that, while a large majority of survey respondents used their ONIL stove on a daily basis, usage varied considerably across regions. Four regions experienced “high usage” with rates of 89 percent and above, while two regions experienced “low usage” with rates of 67 percent and below.

Figueres also observed that, even though many women use their ONIL stoves regularly, many also continue to use open-fire stoves. Open-fire cook stoves not only offer warmth, but also create social opportunities for village members, as many simply enjoy the act of gathering around an open fire.

Her research led Figueres to recommend that HELPS International encourage “intact adoption,” which goes beyond simple usage of ONIL stoves. Intact adoption would encourage the daily use of ONIL stoves while simultaneously discouraging the use of open-fire stoves and alterations being made to ONIL stoves.

Figueres was confronted with unexpected challenges almost upon arrival in Guatemala.

“A week after I got there, there was a volcanic eruption.” Figueres said. “Three days later, there were floods. ”

In addition to conducting research for her thesis, Figueres ended up spearheading fundraising of more than $4,000 to equip villages with direly needed water filters in the wake of Tropical Storm Agatha.

Figueres traveled to Lima, Peru, Feb. 20-26 to present her findings to the 5th Biennial Partnership for Clean Indoor Air Forum. After graduating, Figueres will move to Germany for an internship at the newly formed German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) where she will focus on global development.

​This article originally appeared in ​Sanford Insights, ​April 2011.