Lane County Home to Leading Humanitarian Research Center

A rocket stove in use in Government Girls Secondary School in Bida, Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Fred Colgan

Lane County Home to Leading Humanitarian Research Center
Nate Gartrell, EDN

Gibba and Sianis during their trip to Africa. Photo courtesy of Eliman Gibba

Eliman Gibba and Alexandra Sianis are used to taking notes when they go overseas. After all, the couple own several restaurants in Lane County, and have made a habit of voyaging to far-away places, so that they can add new recipes to their menus. But when they traveled to Senegal and Gambia last December, they searched not for food ingredients, but for ways they could assist impoverished Gambians and Senegalese.

“We just would like to help them take care of their daily needs,” said Sianis. “And hopefully help them sustain themselves a little bit better.”

For Gibba, the trip was a homecoming; Gibba was born in Senegal, moved to Gambia as a child, then left Africa for the United States in 1990 as a Peace Corps teacher and hadn’t been back since.

After an emotional visit, Gibba and Sianis had identified a major problem: citizens in both countries rely heavily on indoor wood-burning stoves for their cooking, which pollute heavily, both indoors and outdoors, and require a great amount of biomass to work.

“The people cut a lot of wood, and deforestation is creeping in,” said Gibba of conditions in both countries.

The health risks associated with using indoor wood-burning stoves are well-documented. According to the World Health Organization, indoor air pollution is responsible for 1.6 million deaths annually across the globe. Additionally, the majority of those affected are women and children, since they’re often culturally tasked with indoor chores such as cooking.

A rocket stove in use in Government Girls Secondary School in Bida, Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Fred Colgan

Gibba and Sianis returned to their home in Eugene, searching for a solution to this problem. Fortunately for them, they didn’t have to look very far.

That’s because Lane County happens to be home to Aprovecho, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the production of super-efficient rocket stoves, designed for the citizens of impoverished countries to use as an alternative to normal wood-burning stoves. Aprovecho has worked with the United Nations and Mercy Corps, and their work has received international acclaim.

“We’ve done 160 projects in 60 countries all over the world,” said Fred Colgan, Director of the Institutional Stove Project at Aprovecho. “This is a global organization.”

The rocket stoves that Aprovecho make, which run on biomass, are designed to improve cooking efficiency while drastically reducing toxic gas emissions. With normal “stoves” (which can be as primitive as a pot on an open flame), 90-95% of the heat energy can be lost, according to Colgan. Aprovecho’s stoves, by contrast, force the energy to a certain area, which heats the pot faster, and longer, per unit of fuel.

“All the smoke and pollution from all these fires is huge,” said Colgan of normal wood-burning stoves. “And it’s a part of global warming.”

Fred Colgan inside an Aprovecho stove factory.

Additionally, according to Aprovecho’s website, the rocket stoves use 60-75% less fuel, and emit 85% less toxic gas. To poor people in underdeveloped countries, this means less risk of death or sickness, and fewer long walks to the nearest wood source.

In some areas, [women] have to walk 10 kilometers out to find wood and 10 kilometers back, with these enormous bundles of wood, to keep their families alive,” said Colgan, who added that women are frequently raped on such trips. “It’s a huge problem.”

Colgan has dedicated much of his life to Aprovecho. He rents a piece of he and his wife’s Cottage Grove property to Aprovecho, and converted a building used by previous owners as a slaughterhouse there into a small rocket stove factory. Both that factory and Colgan’s office are located less than 100 feet from his home, which Colgan referred to as a “dream come true.”

Soon, with the help of Gibba and Sianis, Aprovecho is planning to take their project a step further. Gibba and Sianis want to set up a rocket stove factory in either Gambia or Senegal, so that citizens in both countries can be employed to produce rocket stoves and distribute them throughout. So far, no such factory exists in Africa; the couple plan to establish the continent’s first.

To do this, they plan to first send some rocket stoves to both countries to see how the people there will react. Gibba said he’s confident that they will be responded to positively, and if they are, the next step involves getting help from the Gambians and Senegalese.

“We’re gonna try to bring people from there (Gambia and Senegal) to come and learn how to make the stoves,” said Gibba. “And then, they’d go back, and we’d make plans for sending a container with all the equipment.”

Sianis and Gibba estimated that this would cost roughly $25,000 to do, and the couple may look to the public for help. They plan to establish a charity in the name of their daughter, Nima Gibba, who was killed at age 11 along with three others, by a drunk driver, in 2009. The charity, which the couple plans to launch in late July, will focus on general aid for impoverished Africans.

Gibba and Sianis both praised Nima’s “giving spirit,” and said that they were planning to create the charity to carry on Nima’s legacy.  They said that’s also why they donated many of Nima’s things to children in villages within Gambia and Senegal.

We took all her clothes, her school bags, her shoes, and passed them around to the kids in the village,” said Sianis. “They were happy, and it made us happy too. And that, honestly, is the biggest inspiration.”

Nate is a senior at the University of Oregon, studying journalism. Since joining EDN last year, he's covered a variety of local topics--baseball, foot fungus, murder, and a lot of stuff in between.

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