“I told my husband that we’d spend all our money on that stove and not have any left to buy food to cook on it,” recalled Mercedes, pausing momentarily to look up from the pot of beans she stirred as we chatted.
After all, she continued, throughout their marriage Mercedes and her husband had struggled to make ends meet on the $24 a week (or about $3 a day) he brought home from long days working as a contract farmer. Back home, Mercedes stretched their meager income to prepare simple meals of beans and rice on an open wood fire. She knew breathing smoke from the fire put her health at serious risk, but what could she do? With so little income, change seemed impossible, or at least unaffordable.
Then one day her husband came to her with an idea. After attending a community meeting where the Amigos for Christ Health Team presented the Clean Air Kitchen project, he became determined that his wife would have one. The kitchens, which feature a specially designed smokeless ONIL cookstove, practically eliminate the risk of lung disease that otherwise plagues rural Nicaraguan families.
But Mercedes was skeptical. “I didn’t think we’d have enough money,” she recalled. She resisted, but her husband persisted; her health was too important. “So we just started saving up a little bit at a time – one week, we’d put $3 or $4 aside, the next week we couldn’t – and after a few months we’d managed to save up.”
And once her kitchen was built, Mercedes was immediately impressed with how easy and comfortable her stove was to use; no longer was she plagued by fits of coughing, watery eyes, and shortness of breath. When she realized cooking was no longer a chore, but a joy, she got an idea. “I decided to start a little tortilla-selling business,” Mercedes explained, hopeful that any extra income she could make would take the edge off her family’s financial worries.
But more than simply helping her family, her new business completely transformed it. With just a few hours of work every morning,
Mercedes manages to bring in $20-$25 a day, increasing her family’s income sevenfold. Thanks to her initiative, Mercedes’ new kitchen not only saves her health, it also opens up opportunities for her future that she never before imagined.
Her first project was renovating her house to protect the new stove; a simple but significant investment in her small business. Mercedes points out each improvement proudly: a more protective metal roof to replace the plastic tarp, tables to provide more cooking surfaces, and a gate to keep the space clean and free of pests. It’s an impressive change, but even more striking is the sense of accomplishment I observe in her voice and gestures as she speaks.
After all, never before has Mercedes had the hope or the resources to create positive change in her life. Now, for the first time, her family has the means to invest, save, and dream about a bigger, better future. And, more importantly, for the first time she believes those dreams can come true.