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Earlier this year Phil Ferranto, one of the original founders of EcoZoom, went back to the company’s roots to visit our partner Plotsa LLC, in a country where we had some of our earliest sales of cookstoves- Guatemala. Phil documented his trip and wrote this article about the beautiful country and its relationship with clean cookstoves.
Volcano rimmed Lago de Atitlan.
Guatemala’s cooking practices and pervasive use of firewood first came into the global spotlight around 1976 after a devastating earthquake left over a million people homeless, and international aid organizations provided resources to help rebuild the country. Engineers observed countless families cooking on open fires, and several industry pioneers began work on an improved cookstove.
Unfortunately, progress since that time has been sporadic and slow. A tragic 36 year civil war that ended in 1996 did little to rebalance income equality between the indigenous Mayans and Guatemalans with European bloodlines. Corruption continues to plague all levels of society and it has become a land of extremes. The country produces more food than people can eat, but has the highest rate of malnutrition in Latin America and the fourth highest in the world. Over 50% of households live in poverty, yet 2% of landowners own over 70% of the land.
How does this relate to how people cook? Today, over 2 million households in a country of 17 million people cook with firewood, with 1.3 million of those households buying firewood. With all of that background information, EcoZoom was eager to partner with Plotsa LLC to bring more attention to an underserved market with a clear use case for our products.
Firewood bundled into 20kg stacks, enough wood for one week on an unimproved stove.
The purpose of our trip would be to understand exactly how people consumed household energy, how they earned money, if a clean cookstove would be a product they would benefit from purchasing, and exactly how households would be able to afford a large purchase that would have great payback for them over the life cycle of the stove.
Alleyway in Zona 3 neighbourhood, Basurero.
Our trip began in Guatemala City (the nation’s capital), where Plotsa LLC is based. Guatemala City is organized in zones, or “zonas”. We focused on Zona 3, home to the “basurero” or city dump. Here we learned approximately 7,000 adults and children forage through the 40 acre dump site in order to earn about $5 a day through selling scrap metal and other items.
The neighborhood itself houses about 500,000 people in a city where over a million people live in slums identified by tin corrugated roofs and a smoky haze that is the product of cooking and garbage fires. The typical basurero resident has chronic respiratory illness and is at constant threat from street gangs, corrupt policemen, and environmental hazards. To overcome the challenges of doing business in this neighborhood, Plotsa is forging partnerships with local NGOs that focus on basurero to access this market. Together Plotsa is working with these NGOs to build a dedicated sales force and access financing options for the residents of the slum.
Cobblestone streets in Antigua.
After wrapping up in Guatemala City we headed an hour west to the buzzing town of Antigua. Here you begin to appreciate Guatemala’s abundant natural beauty, as the town is surrounded by green volcanic peaks and has pleasant year-round temperatures. A tourist haven with a population of 50,000, Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Because of immense popularity with tourists, very few locals can actually afford to live within city limits. Instead they live in several neighboring towns on small subsistence level plots of land or on coffee farms in the surrounding area, and descend upon the town to participate in the market days. Market days are the heartbeat of economic activity in the Guatemalan highlands, especially for the indigenous population.
Many of these market vendors cook on improvised stoves with firewood- in Guatemala the locals have to have that taste of smoke! Yet the amount of firewood they use is staggering. Some vendors will use a simple barbecue grill, others will use the cooking stove sold by the dominant market player, yet most will simply cook on a contained open fire. In Antigua, Plotsa is working with a local market vendor that is taking the initiative to sell EcoZoom branded stoves to the general public.
Scenes from a market day.
Moving on from Antigua, we began heading north towards Lake Atitlan. Along the way we passed through Chimaltenango, a town that serves as head of the Department (similar to a County Seat). This region is known for its ceramics and textiles, an industry that has returned to Guatemala in recent years. Some NGOs have most likely sourced ceramics from this region to build earlier versions of improved cookstoves throughout the country. Plotsa has begun talks with factories in the textile and other industries to supply factory workers with improved cookstoves.
On the road from Chimaltenango to the towns dotting the Lago de Atitlan shoreline, we passed lush farmland and forests- the product of rich volcanic soil that spans across Guatemalan highlands. We spent that night in Panajachel, a small town that dots the north shore of Lake Atitlan. The town is inhabited by ex-pats wanting a simpler life and locals struggling with maintaining their cultural identity while striving to increase their economic status for family and self.
As we left town the following morning we began to pass pervasive firewood stands- in the northwest region of Guatemala you can’t go more than 500 meters along the road without having an opportunity to purchase fuel. With each average household of 7 using more than 2kg/day for their cooking and heating needs, deforestation has accelerated and we noticed the effects simply by looking up the mountainside. The average 10 kg bundle of wood would cost 50 quetzales, equating to a household fuel cost of about $1.33USD a day. For many families in the rural areas, this is a staggering 25 percent of household income.
Typical set up for street vendor cooking.
By the following afternoon we found ourselves in Huehuetenango, head of Huehuetenango Department, Guatemala’s second most populated region with over 1 million inhabitants. Nearby we stopped at a roadside street vendor to interview her and get feedback on the EcoZoom suite of stoves. After we were rebuffed it was explained to me that mistrust between the indigenous population and outsiders is high. Rational, I thought, based upon the centuries of exploitation by outside civilizations.
One anecdote displaying this mistrust is after a visit by US President George Bush and his staff Mayan shamans performed a ceremony to “cleanse” the land the administration walked on. To do business in Guatemala amongst the indigenous population you need to build trust and have the primary sales effort come from a fellow indigenous tribe member. Plotsa has been focusing on building these relationships in order to accelerate its impact in the market.
Traditional Mayan dress. The color variation indicates these women are from several different tribes, and the headdress indicates marital status.
The next day we journeyed back towards Guatemala City via the coastal route. As the elevation dropped towards sea level the climate became more tropical and the terrain more jungle-like. Here the locals are mostly Landino or of mixed Mayan-Spanish descent. Sugar mills dominate the local economy and employ thousands of workers. With trade unions being non-existent (due to a history of politically motivated reasons) each sugar mill operates like its own community. Several have their own foundation, house their workers, and provide schooling and recreational activities for workers’ families. Each of these workers fall squarely into Plotsa’s target customer demographic.
The trip concluded with it being clear there is immense need for EcoZoom stoves and Plotsa LLC striving towards creating the linkages necessary through industry contacts, partnerships with organizations advocating for indigenous rights, and financing partners. Challenges exist with corruption, however these challenges can be overcome. Plotsa LLC is now bringing EcoZoom stoves to the Guatemalan market in order to save countless households over half of their annual fuel budget and allow these households to realize net savings on their purchase within a two to three month timeframe. With deforestation decimating two percent of Guatemalan forests every year, Plotsa’s efforts can help slow the trend in order to ultimately reverse deforestation and play a role in helping Guatemala unlock its immense potential.
The EcoZoom team looks forward to continuing our expansion in Guatemala. For all global and wholesale enquiries, please email Charles Kariuki (email@example.com) and visit www.ecozoom.com to read more about what we do!