Humanitarian projects take many forms around the world. Some of the serious issues facing families – like having clean drinking water and safe way to gather and cook food – touch people in a visceral way. Programs like Charity Water dig clean-water wells in Africa. The Solar Cooker Project helps refugees from Darfur harness the power of the sun to safely cook for their families. These kinds of initiatives inspire individuals to help combat problems facing our big world and help transform our global community for the better.
The Paradigm Project‘s latest initiative – The Stove Project -is another project that’s both touching and incredibly beneficial to those in need. It’s mission is simple: Make fuel efficient stoves available to people in developing nations. Recently, the creators launched an original web series called Stoveman with the goal to bring attention to the safety and medical concerns associated with gathering wood and cooking daily meals over open wood fires.
The four-week series follows Greg and Austin on their a mission to distribute five million fuel-efficient cook stoves to people in need. Watch women cook over open fires, walk miles to find wood, and live on less than $2 per day and you’ll see and hear the story of why the project was founded and the goals were set.
In the first episode, Austin and Greg walk all day collecting wood with a group of Gabbra women from Northern Kenya. Their newest friend Gumato takes them on a woodwalk to experience a regular day in and around his home.
We caught up with Spencer to ask him about his experience and what it was like being the stoveman.
Tubefilter: When did you first learn about the issues people face cooking over an open wood fire?
Greg Spencer: There were two points for me personally when I “learned” about this issue
TF: How did you come up with the stove project?
GS: Well, I can’t take credit for the business model for the stove project. That credit goes to the men and women that make up the Board of The Paradigm Project. Even though I’m on the board, I didn’t have much to offer in terms of structuring a sustainable business model that leveraged the carbon markets seeing that I had just graduated from business school a couple years before we started the company in 2009. But the essence of the model that makes up the stove project is this: leverage a useful tool and product (the Rocket Stoves) to drastically benefit families now, while tapping into a commercial market (the carbon markets) that can create profit and revenues to sustain the project and the stove distribution over the long term. So the business model really came out of the need to create economic, environmental and social change in a sustainable way.
TF: Where do the stoves come from?
GS: The Rocket Stoves in Kenya come from 2 different places. The first is China from a company called Envirofit. Their stove is one of the best on the market in terms of performance and durability, but it’s expensive both to purchase and to ship to Kenya. The second stove, the one that we are really excited about, is made in Nairobi, Kenya from our local manufacturing partners. This stove is called the “JikoPoa” which means the “cool, right stove” in Swahili. The great thing about the JikoPoa is that we are able to create economy and jobs in the country and communities that we are trying to benefit with the stoves so another level of value is created in the project this way. And ultimately, this is where sustainability is: having local manufacturers, distributors and retailers of these stoves. We just want to be the catalyst for starting that and creating the funding mechanisms to sustain it.
TF: When did you begin working towards your goal of giving out 5 million stoves?
GS: We first came up with our goal of 5 million stoves by 2020 in a December strategy meeting in San Diego. From our partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative’s “Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves”, which seeks to deploy 100 million stoves by 2020, we wanted to take off an aggressive but doable chunk of that so we made a commitment to ourselves and our supporters to work tirelessly until we met that goal by 2020. That’s only 5% of the Global Alliance’s goal, but the impacts from 5 million stoves can drastically change 25 million lives.
TF: Where have you been and how many have you given away so far?
GS: Just one clarifying point on the question above: we don’t give stoves away because we believe you don’t value something that is free as much as something you have to pay for and there are a laundry list of stove projects that have failed from giving away stoves so we decided to make end users pay for stoves, but at an affordable price of either ~$14USD or ~$30USD, which are subsidized retail prices. Aside from that, we are really just getting started, but we’ve made some incredible progress thus far from the incredible work our local Business Director, Mathew Kimolo, and his staff have done in Kenya. As of July 6, 2011 we have deployed 25,341 clean burning rocket stoves in Kenya. The social impacts from this are:
- 126,705 lives impacted
- 39,980 trees saved
- 11,137 tons of carbon emissions saved from entering the atmosphere
- 1,445,974 hours saved from collecting wood (yes that many hours!)
- $34,320 USD saved in local family income from purchasing fuel (which is a lot when people are living off of a few dollars a day)
TF: You are now launching the web series Stoveman to document The Stove Project. How did the video series come about?
GS: The idea for this came from my boss Neil Bellefeuille, CEO of Paradigm. He felt strongly that we needed to shoot some videos in the communities where we were working to show our work and the project to our supporters back in the States and elsewhere around the world. In light of this, he basically said, “Greg, lets create a show like Dirty Jobs or Man vs. Wild and I want you to be our Mike Rowe or Bear Grylls.” I was pretty surprised (and excited at the same time) so I started looking for a photographer and I couldn’t have gotten a better partner to build this show with than Austin Mann. We met for the first time in Kenya a day before we shot Episode 1: Woodwalk and now we’re on this fun path together, we’ve become great friends and I relish the times that we get to spend together telling stories about the communities and people we are blessed to interact with.
TF: How many episodes will you film for the series?
GS: This is a great question. We currently have four episodes that are all shot in Kenya and tell a different part of the story. Initially, I think Austin and I went to Kenya to see what we could get and then see how people responded to it. Based on the feedback we’ve gotten so far I think we’ll shoot for at least another year, which is really exciting. I’m so blessed to be able to do what I do and to meet the people I meet.
TF: Can you tell us what camera you are using and how many people are on the crew? What is the editing process? Where does the footage get cut together to finish an episode?
GS: Hahaha. This question makes me laugh because of the “film crew” part of the question. Austin is pretty much it. The guy can do everything. It’s like watching Rembrandt or Monet paint. He just puts together incredible visuals and angles and shots that no one else would see. But the crew is essentially Austin Mann, Jordan Bellamy and myself. Austin shoots and creates all the visuals and directs in the field while we’re shooting. Jordan does all the post production and editing and he can make a great story out of hours and hours of footage. I write and record the background voice over that hopefully gives some useful context for viewers. The camera that Austin uses is a Mark D II I believe, but he might kill me if I got that wrong!
TF: Will you also make a long form documentary with the footage?
GS: We would love, love, love to shoot a full length feature sometime next year. It just depends on all our schedules, whether we can put together an actual film and production crew and where the story is. I think we all love story telling as it’s a passion for all of us, but we’ll see what’s in the cards for the Stoveman team.
TF: Where will you be giving out stoves next?
GS: Again we don’t sell stoves, but we are close to launching a project in Guatemala and in November we will be taking a group of investors and donors out to Kenya to see the success there and then take them to Rwanda to get a project funded for that country. We are currently developing a $15 million fund to develop projects like this all over East Africa. It’s hard to choose where to go next because the need for clean burning cookstoves is literally global, but because of our success in Kenya we feel like we could apply a lot of the learning from that project and apply it to greater East Africa.
Tubefilter: What is next for The Stove Project and Stoveman?
GS: I’m really excited about this: we will be taking a small group of people from various organizations and groups (including Invisible Children’s Jedidiah Jenkins) on a woodwalk from San Diego to the Santa Monica pier in Los Angeles. It will be a 2 week journey through the neighborhoods and In-N-Outs of Southern California as a fundraiser and awareness builder for our East Africa projects. As we were in Episode 1, we will be carrying 40-60 pound bundles of wood on our backs and hoofing it all the way. It will be pretty grueling and tiring because we will be walking 6-8 hours a day, but I’m really excited about it and hope that it brings the story of the women and families we are advocating for in Kenya and East Africa. It’s about them and their stories. That’s really why we are going to subject ourselves to the pain and literal burned of carrying a bundle of wood 130 miles.