35,000 flames for social and environmental development in Guatemala

Meet Marco Tulio Guerra, founder of EcoComal, a social business that develops improved cookstoves in Guatemala. For the past 12 years, Marco has been pursuing his lifelong dream of improving the quality of life of communities living in rural areas of Guatemala.

Words

Arthur Laurent

This article by Arthur Laurent was featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

Born in a rural area of East Guatemala, bordering Honduras, Marco always knew he wanted to have a wider impact on his country. The community where grew up in was isolated, where horseback replaced motorised vehicles.

To provide enough food for the entire family, the sons helped their dad working in the fields. “Playing was an extremely rare activity as a kid,” remembers Marco. Once he finished primary school—being part of the privileged 30% that were afforded this—he learned about a program developed by the catholic church. For him, this was an opportunity to further his education and dream bigger. At 17, Marco graduated from secondary school and, having no desire to work as a member of the clergy, he decided to move to the city. Marco worked intensively to finance a university course on its own. “I saw in environmental engineering a precious tool to bring improvements to rural communities of Guatemala, which is what I’d always wanted to do,” he explains.

For seven years, Marco worked in a program that allowed him to travel around the country. His job was to identify the key problems that families in rural communities were facing around the use of household devices, as well as housing. The young man quickly noticed that open fire traditional cookstoves represented a massive problem for many families. Indoor pollution was causing several health issues mainly among women and children, and the amount of wood used for cooking was excessive and heavy on the families’ budget. “I found a field that motivated me to find solutions that could improve these realities.”

“With 2.5 million houses still using traditional cookstoves in the country, there’s an important segment to be covered and families’ lives to be improved.”

When Marco left his job to work on his social business idea, he quickly understood that this entrepreneurial adventure was going to be filled with challenges. Guatemala, a country with almost 60% of the population living below the poverty line, presents high rates of unemployment and a complete lack of support to businesses, even to the ones with social development purposes. “I had less than 100 US dollars in my pocket,” Marco recalls. Still, he decided to make the leap and embark on this journey. The entrepreneur started to study solutions to develop improved cookstoves using local construction materials. He built his first prototypes in his courtyard, funding cookstoves one by one, thanks to anticipated payments from interested customers. 12 years later, Marco has produced and installed 35,000 improved cookstoves around the country and employs 16 people. “With 2.5 million houses still using traditional cookstoves in the country, there’s an important segment to be covered and families’ lives to be improved,” he points out.

© All photos by Annabelle Avril © All photos by Annabelle Avril

“What I love the most is the surprise in a woman’s eyes when she switches on her improved cookstove for the first time and realises there’s no toxic smoke coming out,” Marco explains. However, to change people’s attitudes or behaviour and switch to an improved cookstove is not always easy, especially when families need to make a significant initial investment. So Marco is constantly looking for new partners and new ways of financing the cookstoves. One of his ideas is to sell carbon credits, something that makes sense in Guatemala, one of the countries in Latin America that are suffering the most from climate change. Guatemalans have witnessed the acidification of rivers and lands and people know how much biodiversity is compromised. The improved cookstoves developed by Marco help reduce emissions and halve the quantity of wood used for cooking, which makes them an environmental solution. With a job that became a life mission, he aims to make his improved cookstoves more accessible to more communities around the country.

As part of his business corporate responsibility, Marco has also developed side social projects and he’s currently helping 75 children to further their studies and give them the same opportunity he had in the past, allowing them the right to dream bigger. Driven by the same values of simplicity, humility and altruism of his parents, he’s now a successful entrepreneur facing the daily challenges of an enterprise located in an extremely difficult environment. Despite all the difficulties, Marco looks forward to seeing more flames from improved cookstoves be switched on and he’s eager to continue bringing the change he’s always dreamed of.

 


Arthur Laurent has been working for 15 years in Latin America supporting clean cooking projects in Peru, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. He is the Co-Founder of Microsol, a social business that develops carbon projects and supports governments and international organisations in implementing clean cooking programmes and energy efficiency strategies in the region.