Three billion people worldwide still use open fires fueled by coal, wood and charcoal to prepare their meals.
That inefficient and environmentally harmful form of cooking can drain a family physically and economically, according to a press release from The Paradigm Project, a low-profit organization dedicated to providing five million cook stoves to people in need.
In rural Kenya, women spend about five hours each day trekking more than 10 miles to collect 60-pound bundles of wood for cooking, the release says.
Preparing food over an open fire is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day for anyone standing in the hut where the fire is made. An estimated 1.9 million women and children under five years old die annually from pneumonia contracted after daily exposure to cooking smoke, according to The Paradigm Project. Women in war-ravaged areas have been attacked, robbed, raped or killed while gathering wood for their families.
Greg Spencer Jr. is out to change all that. The Paradigm Project co-founder wants to bring fuel-efficient stoves to poor, rural communities around the world. The stoves can save time and money, while also reducing toxic emissions from wood fires by 40 to 60 percent. That results in 7.5 metric tons of carbon offsets, which can then be sold in European and American-based carbon markets.
Over time, the goal of the project is to create a self-sustaining carbon economy in which proceeds from carbon sales eliminate the need for continued outside funding and actually generate a profit.
Spencer Jr. said he also wants to change the way Americans view poor people around the globe. Too often, he said, Westerners are presented with a depiction of world poverty that paints the victims as helpless. To this end, he helped create the web series Stove Man, which follows Spencer Jr. and director Austin Mann as they explore what it's like to cook over an open fire, walk miles to find wood and live on less than $2 per day in northern Kenya.
"The people we met are not laying out in the gutter waiting for you to pick them up," Spencer Jr. said. "These women are working from sunup to sundown for their families to provide some income."
Though their daily lives can be brutal, Spencer Jr. said the Kenyans he worked with also displayed an irrepressible positive attitude.
"That's what people don't necessarily see, Spencer Jr. said. "There is joy. There is laughter in the midst of this harsh reality. It's making the best of what's in front of you and what you've been given."
Spencer Jr. doesn't get to stay in constant contact with the friends he made in Africa because their access to cellphones is limited. But when they do see each other, he said, the connection is immediately re-ignited.
"They get teared up and I get teared up," Spencer Jr. said. "The great thing is we pick up from where we left off."