Monday, January 14, 2008

Save Trees, Save Money, and Lose the Waist-line: Maria’s Sawdust Stove

It is the third day of Assomada’s famous “festa da Santa Catarina,” and there is a large goat strung up in Maria’s courtyard. American rap music blasts from her empty restaurant. A duck, its young, and a small pig amble by Maria’s girls, who are hacking up the meat. “Goat’s meat and ground corn….Its going to be a good party,” she says, watching as Nin, her daughter-in-law breaks its right leg with a small axe.
But more customers for the holiday doesn’t mean a steady source of income. “Business is slow, and I don’t have any money,” says the 46-year-old mother of two. High cooking fuel costs and few alternatives make her situation even more difficult.
Wood, the first option, is a scarce commodity in Cape Verde’s arid, over-harvests savannahs. Inhaling wood fumes from the inefficient traditional three stone stoves can cause serious health problems, in addition to environmental damage. Wood cooks slowly. However, it is cheap or free and is supposed to produce yummy food.
Gas, the more usual choice in urban areas like Assomada, burns clean and cooks quickly. But prices are prohibitively high for some families: around 1,700 escudos per 12 kg tank, or a roughly 20 dollar purchase more than once a month. Food cooked on gas stoves is not supposed to be as yummy, either.
Maria has an innovative solution. “I have a stove that my friend taught me how to use…that saves me a lot of gas” Her stove, which requires three large sticks, one six dollar metal canister, and sawdust from the carpenter next door, allows her to cook virtually for free. She fills the metal canister with sawdust, packing it down compactly with one stick and a little water. The other two sticks are positions in a L shape through the center to create a temporary chimney. She lights it with a match and some paper, and can cook a large elaborate goat dish and heat bathwaterfor the family for a net fuel cost of zero.
The price isn’t the only benefit. “It cooks quicker than a gas stove…It doesn’t produce smoke…and the food is tastier than with gas.” Nin, after doing most of the butchering, cooking, and serving customers, is certainly ready to sample it. She places a large pot of water on the still-steady flames. “This is to heat water so I can take a bath…now lets go clear their plates so we can eat.”



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