Notes from the Field: Partnership Brings Clean Cookstoves to Uganda

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

A woman cooks on her new clean cookstove, The Rodelle Rocket Stove, in the Bugonia District of Uganda.

In the months that followed the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a flurry of support and interest from our Colorado community led to a promising call from Joe Basta, managing partner of a successful Fort Collins company, Rodelle Vanilla. Joe explained that his supplier of vanilla beans from Uganda, UVAN Ltd, bought his stock at above-market prices from a network of 9,000 vanilla farmers throughout the country, and that UVAN had launched a series of social programs to thank them for their loyalty. Through these programs, farmers in UVAN’s network gained access to mosquito netting, HIV/AIDS awareness and counseling, rural savings and loan programs, and trees for local reforestation. The missing link, explained Joe, was to provide these farmers and their families with a cleaner, more efficient way to cook.

During an exploratory trip to Uganda in early 2011 with Joe and his business partner Dan Berlin, I had the opportunity to visit UVAN’s vast network of farming communities, where vanilla harvests ensure a twice yearly boon in an otherwise uncertain rural existence. Homes were simple, people were extremely humble, and the challenge was presented: Could Trees, Water & People (TWP) implement a cookstove program that would help these families reduce their daily exposure to smoke and reduce the rate at which they consume firewood? The result was the Rodelle Rocket stove – a double-burner household cookstove that replaces two open fires at once, and which is currently being tested in communities throughout UVAN’s supply network.

This project serves as a great example of how private businesses and nonprofit organizations can partner to make real and lasting impacts around the world.  For more information about TWP’s Corporate Partners Program, contact Megan Maiolo-Heath, Marketing & Communications Manager, at

Notes From the Field: Clean Cookstoves in Uganda


TWP's Sebastian Africano sits with UVAN founder Aga Sekalala during a site visit in Bugonia district, Uganda.

Notes From the Field by Sebastian Africano, TWP’s Deputy International Director:

BEEP!  While shocked that my Ugandan cell phone had been able to pick up a text message at 630am, GMT+3 in the outskirts of Gayaza, Uganda, the message that followed was even more unexpected:  “A long dry season has been predicted. Expect shortages of food, water & pasture. Store food and water to avoid hunger.  – The Office of the Prime Minister.”

I reflected back to the focus group we had held the day before with 30 women – wives of smallholders on the western banks of the Nile – where dust whipped through our conversation for the entire hour, as if to shush their aspirations and keep us from meaningful conversation.

TWP's Sebastian Africano leads a focus group discussion about cookstoves in Bugonia district, Uganda.

But I know that their opinion is secondary – everything here depends on the rains… and the rains have not come.

The vanilla crop this year is down.  Coffee, plantains and cassava aren’t doing much better.  Many are worried.  But these families have an advocate – in fact several – which through long-term planning, foresight, and decisive action are trying to ease their concerns.  UVAN, a top Ugandan exporter of vanilla, and the company that has brought me here, pays a premium for their beans (almost 3 times more than the international price), and provides farmers and their families with extension services in health, livelihoods and environment – a service few companies of this nature would be willing to invest in.

Vanilla blossoms are hand-pollinated, and only open for one day, making them one of the most labor-intensive crops to produce in the world.

UVAN is supported in their work by almost all of their buyers – it is part of the culture that the founder, Aga Sekalala, has instilled in his business, and he has remained true to it.  One of his partners is Fort Collins, CO based Rodelle Vanilla (, which happily pays the premium price for the beans Sekalala collects from his network of 9,000 farmers.  They also proudly support the extension services that UVAN provides, which teach farmers to thin their shade trees responsibly, to intercrop, to check-in regularly with UVAN’s mobile health services, and to seek support from UVAN’s savings and microloans programs, rather than harvesting prematurely to make a quick return in tough times.

So when Rodelle asked Trees, Water & People to advise them and UVAN as they launched a fuel-efficient cookstoves program for their farmers, we jumped at this unique opportunity.

Local leader of a Bugonia district community in a typical local kitchen.

One week into the project, we have traveled all over this amazing region meeting with women, with other NGOs acting locally, and with a range of stove manufacturers, slowly forming the foundation for what promises to be a far-reaching social and environmental contribution to this broad community of rural families, reducing the firewood they consume and cleaning the indoor air in their kitchens.

Rodelle Vanilla Partners Joe Basta and Dan Berlin, TWP Board Member Jeremy Foster, and two UVAN extensionists tour an intercropped vanilla plantation near Kayunga, Uganda.

Our goals are ambitious for the coming week, but we have had tremendous good fortune in building a strong network for the project, and UVAN’s extension team is one of the most impressive I’ve ever worked with.  So when I leave – one week from tomorrow – I know I will leave exhausted, but gratified to have had the opportunity to serve UVAN, Rodelle Vanilla and their network of farmers, and to have contributed to easing one concern that these families have as they wait for the rains to fall.

Read more about this new partnership in this recent article from the Coloradoan.