Across East Africa, families living in huts constructed of natural materials are accustomed to burning wood, animal waste and plant scraps on open fire to cook and heat their homes. Though it’s utilitarian, that tradition can pose serious health risks — particularly to women and children, who spend the most time near the hearth.

Risk in the air

Esupat, a 34-year-old mother of two who lives in the rural Tanzanian Monduli district, near the popular Ngorongoro Conservation Area and crater, was one of millions of people in the developing world engaging in that practice. Now, she’s breathing easier with work from the agency G Adventures and its nonprofit, Planeterra Foundation.

The agency and nonprofit have partnered with the Maasai Stoves & Solar Project to teach women like Esupat how to install safe cook stoves in their “bomas,” the communities where Maasai people like herself live, and train other women like themselves to do the same. The agency organizes tours for which travelers can pay to watch the installation, and women like Esupat receive income for their contributions.

NEW TOOLS: Esupat installs clean cook stove on her roof.

Breathing easier

Homes in bomas contain circular structures with thatched roofs, and walls made of wood that are patched over with mud and fortified with cow dung. Traditional cooking fires set within three stones can lead to heaps of smoke that surface from the homes’ thatched roofs, increasing the risk of fire and respiratory illness.

Specifically, the toxic soot generated from the burning of solid materials can enter the lungs, leading to chronic illness and death. Such indoor air pollution is up to 100 times higher than what is considered safe. According to the World Health Organization, smoke from traditional indoor cooking fires claims a life every eight seconds. Worldwide, 4 million people — many who have not yet reached the age of five — die prematurely due to indoor pollution from solid fuel burning.

“In a society traditionally controlled by men, Esupat teaches other young women how to convert their homes into non-toxic places.”

However, sustainable tourism is helping African families breathe easier with the design and installation of safe cooking devices, including wood-burning chimney stoves and solar panel-based electrical systems. The Maasai Stoves & Solar Project also installs settlement-wide solar panel-based micro-grid electrical systems for shared power. 

Empowering African women

Travelers on these tours can often glimpse Esupat perched atop a roof in her boma, hands covered in mud and a big smile on her face.

Six years ago, Esupat — whose name means “the one who cares for others” — learned about clean cook stove installation in her boma. She is one of more than 100 female “fundis” who engineer and distribute the cook stoves in their villages. In a society traditionally controlled by men, Esupat teaches other young women how to convert their homes into non-toxic places where their families may thrive. For many of these women, the responsibility brings not only an income but also confidence. 

In fact, the first person in her community to travel by plane, Esupat has earned the nickname “Airport.” She travels with the Maasai Stoves & Solar Project to train other future fundis. Thus far, these women have installed 3,000 stoves in 65 Maasai bomas across the Serengeti.

Meaningful money spent

Producing a cook stove is only $50, and each visit through G Adventures helps pay for a cook stove for an African family. During tours, visitors cannot only learn about how the cook stoves are installed but also about their health benefits. The effort offers educational opportunities for all parties involved.

With the cook stoves, not only do African families get to breathe indoor air that is 90 percent less toxic, but travelers have the chance to reap the rewards of newfound knowledge, as well as the gift of knowing their tourism dollars have made a difference in more than just their own life.