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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Cookstoves in the Coffee Industry

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As a coffee roaster, I work day in, day out in an environment that, if I weren't using a sophisticated machine, would be very smoky. Happily for me, I use the roaster's equivalent of a sexy green Tesla Roadster 2.5. Equator's Loring Smart roaster is a sleek, efficient, top-of-the-line machine that is one of the world's most advanced. It roasts at 450 degrees Fahrenheit with almost zero emissions, while using 80 percent less fuel than the industry standard. If I didn't have it, roasting coffee could be a dangerous and unhealthy way for me to spend 40 hours a week. Luckily, advanced equipment and high health and safety standards for US workers mean that I am usually spared direct contact with the harmful by-products of roasting.

This wasn't always the case. I can remember just a few years ago learning to roast coffee at home on my stove, filling my kitchen and lungs with smoke, making my wife rush to open the windows, and setting off our smoke alarm. It was definitely not something I wanted to do every day.

Unfortunately for most of the people in the world, smoke inhalation from cooking is a health hazard. In coffee producing countries where I spend time with grower communities, I see small landholders who struggle to put food on their tables and who can't afford the basic equipment with which to cook it.

The human health and environmental implications of cooking received a flurry of interest this fall when Hillary Clinton announced that the US would contribute $50 million to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a new consortium of governments, NGOs and private enterprises dedicated to changing the way half the world cooks - on open fire pits.

From where I sit, both as a roaster for Equator Coffees, and a co-manager of our coffee farm in Panama, the cookstove initiative is long overdue.

What do cookstoves have to do with coffee? 1.9 million people die prematurely each year from primitive cooking methods, making it the fourth biggest health concern in the third world. The solution is, on the surface, surprisingly simple, costing as little as a few dollars per stove. In reality, permanently changing the traditional cooking habits of half the world's population -- 3 billion people -- is not at all easy. Three rocks in a pit with a few chunks of wood may not be healthy or efficient, but it puts a warm meal on the table after a hard day in the coffee fields.

Here at Equator, we believe in technology. For Finca Sofia, our farm in Panama, we recently bought five "clean-burn" stoves for our farm workers' homes. We found the stoves through an innovative nonprofit called Onil. The Onil stoves use 60-70% less wood and reduce indoor emissions by 99%. But they are expensive.

Despite the cost, we decided that the stoves are a good business investment, not merely a humanitarian or environmental gesture. The reason is simple. The best specialty coffees do not happen by accident. They require constant focus and attention. Every single day there is pruning, composting, pest control, and shade cover to attend to, all of which affect the final quality of the coffee. The more attention in the field, the better the coffee. But we can't expect our farm workers, or any worker for that matter, to do their best if they are suffering from chronic respiratory problems. So we're investing in our workers in Panama by investing in technologies that are good for the planet and our people.

Our new Onil stoves will be installed in the worker housing in the next month. See the site on the farm in this YouTube video. I believe these cookstoves are a key to the long-term success of Finca Sofia, making workers' lives better so that they are healthier, happier and more productive. As I see it, cleaner stoves mean better coffee!

How do we take clean burning stoves to the next level of adoption in Panama and around the world? I'm convinced that landowners in Panama would make the shift if they saw that cleaner stoves would make them more profitable. The $50 million offered by the US may help to create awareness, but somewhere along the line, people with limited resources must value the technology enough to invest in it, or momentum will be lost and folks will go back to what is easiest.

I genuinely hope that the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves will make a lasting change in cooking habits of people in coffee growing lands. I think regulation on a global level is key -- perhaps a combination of a carbon tax and stringent health and safety standards for workers. But whatever the technology choice, it must be grounded in respect for traditional cooking customs. Meanwhile, on Finca Sofia, we will be monitoring the effectiveness of the Onil stoves, and working with our neighbors to see if they too will embrace cleaner stoves for more productive workers. Who knows? Maybe Finca Sofia can be the catalyst for a clean stove project in Panama.

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