03/22/2012 12:47 EDT | Updated 05/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Saving Lives Can Start With a Stove

Sharadaben bustled around the tent making tea for her visitors.

Outside, the salt flats of Gujarat, India, stretched into the distance. This tent is her family's home for eight months of the year as they pan for salt, their main source of income.

Within just a few minutes, Sharadaben delivered the tea, beaming as she brought a cup to her guest. Sitting on the dirt floor, her husband, Bhadveer, and her children looked on proudly. As the hot sun shone through the thin burlap walls of the shelter, neighbours huddled around the tent opening, peeking in at the visitor.

With a Tim's on every corner, it might seem odd to a Canadian to make such a deal over tea. In fact, it's not the tea itself but how it was made that has Sharadaben's family overjoyed.

At one time, the task of making tea would have required an arduous trek to gather wood, and more time to start a fire and wait for the water to slowly heat. All the while, family and guests would be coughing as the fire filled the tent with swirling smoke and ash.

This time there was no trek, no smoke and ash, and the tea was ready in minutes, thanks to the family's new solar-powered stove.

"It was incredible to see the joy on their faces," says Radha Muthiah, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. It was Muthiah enjoying Sharadaben's hospitality that day.

When you're trying to help make a better world, it's easy to get wrapped up in the big problems. Sometimes it's important and valuable to celebrate the little victories and marvel at how such a small action can make such an enormous difference.

Simple clean-burning stoves can saves millions of lives, benefit women, improve the quality of life in developing communities, and reduce climate-altering carbon emissions by as much as 900 million tonnes over the next decade.

Canada is giving $1.7 million to support the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. The Alliance is a worldwide public-private partnership initiative led by the United Nations that is working to bring clean-burning stoves to 100 million households in developing communities.

Traditional wood-burning stoves and open fires are the primary means of cooking and providing heat for more than three billion people around the world. Smoke-related health problems from cook fires kill more than two million people every year.

Sharadaben's family already enjoys a health benefit from their new clean stove. "We are not coughing all the time," she told Muthiah.

Before the start of the salt panning season, Bhadveer must go ahead of the family to set up camp and drill a well. Salty brine from the well will flood the surrounding plain into a bunch of small ponds where the water will evaporate, leaving the salt for the family to harvest over the coming months.

Bhadveer must walk the 15 kilometres from their village carrying at least a week's worth of supplies like tools, food, water, and wood for fuel. At just six kilograms, the solar stove weighs a lot less than an entire week's supply of wood.

Around the world, entire swaths of land are stripped bare of all wood as people in developing communities gather kindling for their cook fires.

In many places, gathering firewood is women's work. As nearby resources are depleted the women must go further afield, exposing them to ever greater risk of assault.

Clean cookstoves also provide an income opportunity for budding entrepreneurs in developing communities.

In Gujarat, a group called the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) empowers Indian women to build their own small businesses. SEWA's latest project is the Green Economy Initiative. Women can become agents, selling green products like clean cookstoves and solar lights.

In India, stoves like Sharadaben's cost 2,500 to 3,000 rupees -- about $60 Canadian. It's nearly a month's income for Sharadaben's family, but Sharadaben says it's worth it.

There are a wide variety of clean cook stoves. Sharadaben's family has an electric stove powered by solar panels. A simpler solar stove uses a reflector like a satellite dish to concentrate the sun's rays on a cooking surface. Other stoves are constructed to more efficiently burn wood, charcoal, or other clean-burning fuels like specially-formulated wood pellets. Many clean-burning stoves are equipped with fans that re-circulate gases for more complete and efficient combustion and reduced emissions.

The different options mean there's a stove capable of meeting the differing needs and available resources in developing communities around the world.

Sometimes changing the world is as simple as new stove for a woman in India.