Victor Berrueta

Fellow Ashoka
This description of Victor Berrueta's work was prepared when Victor Berrueta was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.


Through a rigorous process of measuring greenhouse gas emissions in rural Mexican households, Victor and his team are aggregating the carbon emissions savings achieved by replacing traditional cooking fires with energy-efficient stoves and selling those savings as carbon credits on the international voluntary carbon market. Victor’s organization GIRA and other partner organizations use these funds to finance the user accompaniment necessary for rural end users to fully adopt this technology and reap the health and environmental benefits in the long term.

A nova ideia

The Patsari Project tackles the failures characteristic of energy-efficient stove projects by incorporating an improved, user-tested stove design with long-term user accompaniment financed by proceeds from international carbon credit sales. For decades, governments and citizen organizations (COs) in Latin America have promoted the installation of energy-efficient cooking stoves in rural areas. However, in general such initiatives have failed to produce lasting results. The users, mostly rural women, tend to abandon the stoves either because they are too accustomed to cooking over an open fire or because the stoves—often designed cheaply with little durability—fall apart. Project funders are so focused on installation numbers that they often neglect to finance user accompaniment over the medium to long term, contributing to the high rates of stove abandonment throughout the region.

Having identified a number of systemic gaps among typical energy-efficient stove initiatives, Victor has designed a strategy that integrates elements of user-tested design, close contact and follow-up with rural user households, sustainable financing through carbon credit sales, and a long-term plan for replication that embraces other types of appropriate rural technology in addition to stoves. At the core of Victor’s work is the appropriation of rural technology by end users, usually indigenous Mexican women. Realizing that many other attempts at installing these stoves in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America have failed because the stove designs and programs do not take into account users’ preferences and needs, Victor has set out to ensure that the end user actually adopts the new technology in the long term, thus securing the attendant health and environmental benefits.

One of Victor’s key insights is that user-friendly stove design is simply the first step on the road to technology appropriation; a human-centered approach to user accompaniment over time is also critical, as is a sustainable financing mechanism to pay for the entire cycle of technology appropriation. Understanding that the medium- to long-term monitoring and accompaniment process can actually be more costly than the building and installation of the stoves themselves, Victor seized upon the idea of aggregating the carbon emissions offset by thousands of rural families using Patsari stoves, selling those savings as credits in the voluntary carbon market, and using that unrestricted revenue to fund the user appropriation component of his Patsari Project. In one stroke, this financing mechanism helps eliminate the single most important bottleneck in the long-term success of rural technology appropriation. Victor is clear that the money generated from carbon credit sales “belongs” to the end users, since they are the ones generating the carbon savings; Grupo Interdisciplinario de Tecnología Rural Apropiada (GIRA—Interdisciplinary Group for Appropriate Rural Technology), the umbrella CO to which the Patsari Project belongs, uses those funds to pay for the follow-up visits and maintenance and repair of the users’ stoves.

Victor’s plan for expansion does not only involve installing increasing numbers of Patsari stoves, but also lifting the entire rural technology sector in Mexico—and beyond—out of its current dependency on traditional funding sources and beyond its focus on installation instead of long-term user appropriation. He is already applying his experience with carbon credit sales to give other social-sector projects that reduce carbon emissions access to the voluntary carbon market. These COs, whose technologies include not only wood-burning stoves but also biodigesters, solar panels, and other energy-efficient devices, are too small to attract carbon credit buyers on their own. Victor is leveraging his understanding of the voluntary carbon market to help link these COs to a sustainable funding source. Within the next five years, Victor envisions this portfolio of COs evolving into what he calls a Social Carbon Fund that will aggregate the environmental and social impact of the COs and give them a proportional share of revenues from carbon credit sales to pay for follow-up services, ultimately transforming how the rural technology sector operates in Latin America.

O problema

While in theory energy-efficient wood-burning stoves are an ideal replacement for traditional open cooking fires, in reality the general failure of initiatives to install them has led to widespread skepticism about their effectiveness. Still, the negative effects of using open cooking fires are well documented. The fires consume heavy amounts of wood, thus contributing to deforestation and prompting rural families to spend time and money gathering or buying firewood. Wood smoke also releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases, exacerbating air quality and carbon emissions problems. Finally, women and children who spend many hours every day cooking or playing by indoor fires are susceptible to various respiratory illnesses that could otherwise be easily preventable.

Nevertheless, despite the clear advantages of replacing cooking fires with energy-efficient stoves, thousands of installed stoves are abandoned every year in Mexico for two main reasons. First, many of the stoves installed by government agencies, COs, foundations, or private businesses are of inadequate design for sustained rural use. Many are shoddily built of sheet metal, which normally gives the stoves a lifespan of only two to three years if they are not well maintained. The metal also allows the stoves to become dangerously hot during cooking—temperatures of up to 300 degrees Centigrade have been recorded—which poses a safety problem to children in particular. In the case of government installation programs, the stoves are usually manufactured by a third-party contractor that is disconnected from the reality of life in rural Mexico. This results in designs that are ill-adapted to the actual customs and needs of the families themselves, who are reluctant to modify their traditional cooking habits.

Second, donors tend to have an overwhelming interest in seeing as many stoves installed as possible but little or no interest in paying for accompaniment and follow-up with the end users, which can be equally expensive as the installation itself. These funders generally measure their success by the number of stoves installed rather than the number of stoves still in use or the amount of carbon emissions saved in the long term. Many donors underestimate the challenge of changing rural women’s cooking habits from open fires to energy-efficient stoves, so at best a brief orientation is given before or when a stove is installed, but usually no funding is available for any monitoring afterwards. Consequently, Victor estimates that actual adoption rates of stoves in rural Mexico are no higher than 30 percent in the case of poor stove design and 50 to 60 percent in the case of a good stove design that still lacks user accompaniment. Not only do abandoned stoves represent a waste of time and money, but they also do not ensure rural families the longer-term health and environmental benefits that they are supposed to bring.

A estratégia

Having identified user appropriation as the key ingredient for these projects’ success, Victor set out to achieve two goals: First, designing a much-improved stove and user orientation and follow-up methodology to ensure the long-term adoption of energy-efficient rural technology; and second, finding a reliable financing mechanism for this critical, though undervalued, stage of any rural technology program. His overall strategy relies on the human element of the relationship with the users, empowering them to adopt the stoves into their lives while returning the profits of his carbon credit sales to the communities to support their use of appropriate, energy-saving technology.

The Patsari Project revolves entirely around the user experience. Built from construction-grade brick, the durable Patsari stove has a far greater lifespan and requires less maintenance than other similar stoves, which Victor and his team of rural engineers have found is a major factor in determining whether an end user adopts the technology or not in the long term. The design has been refined over several years of user feedback and input. In terms of outreach, Victor and his team visit rural communities and give workshops to explain to families the problems associated with traditional cooking fires and the health and environmental benefits of switching to a Patsari stove. If the families consent to trying the stove, the GIRA team installs the stoves directly in their homes or yards.

Whereas in most stove projects the end user is left on her own after the stove has been installed, with the Patsari Project the installation is merely the beginning of an extended relationship between GIRA and the end user. Three months and six months after installation, the GIRA team schedules individual follow-up visits to help each user and her family adopt the Patsari stove into their daily cooking routine. GIRA maintains a relationship with each family for up to three years post-installation, not only to ensure that the users truly appropriate the stoves but also to repair any stove damage and to measure long-term carbon offsets at the family level, a requirement to receive the Gold Standard certification needed to sell carbon credits on the voluntary market. Victor estimates that most stove projects without follow-up attain stove adoption rates of 50 to 60 percent six months following installation; the Patsari Project attains adoption of 85 to 95 percent with its follow-up scheme. Abandonment of the stoves in the medium term (four to five years after installation) is another common problem with many stove projects. The Patsari team will begin to evaluate this metric as well once the program reaches its fourth and fifth years of operation; it is currently in its second year.

Financing the essential user accompaniment process has traditionally been a barrier for most stove projects, but Victor has resolved the problem through an innovative strategy of aggregating the stoves’ carbon offsets into carbon credits and commercializing them on the international voluntary carbon market. A meticulous impact measurement process designed in concert with Mexico’s leading public university, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM—National Autonomous University of Mexico), distinguishes the Patsari Project from similar initiatives. Victor equips his field engineers and technicians with smart phones to capture the carbon emissions data necessary for external audits as well as GIRA’s own records. With a single smart phone, an engineer can capture a photo of the end user with her stove, the geographic coordinates of the end user’s home, firewood use and carbon emissions data, a timestamp, and the end user’s digital signature. All the data can then be uploaded to GIRA’s central server for rapid access and data analysis. Eventually, Victor plans to hire local community members to gather this data using smart phones, rather than relying on GIRA or partner CO staff.

Once armed with the data, Victor aggregates the carbon offsets into carbon credits and packages them for sale through South Pole Carbon Asset Management, a carbon credit broker. In 2009, Victor secured a seven-year contract to sell carbon offsets to Carbon Neutral Group, a consortium of European businesses obligated by their national governments to offset their emissions. By the end of 2016, the Patsari Project will have offset some 400,000 cumulative tons of carbon through the installation and continued use of over 30,000 stoves. The Patsari Project is currently undergoing a rigorous annual seller certification process with Gold Standard, an internationally recognized carbon credit certification agency. Victor’s contract with South Pole is conditional upon the Patsari Project’s compliance with yearly stove installation targets as well as annual certification by Gold Standard. The profits generated by the carbon credit sales are reinvested in the communities that have adopted the stoves, as the emissions offsets—and the resultant profits—are earned through the dedication and commitment of the families to using their energy-efficient stoves. End users have the right to ask for ongoing training and maintenance visit whenever necessary, all of which are paid for by carbon credit sales. Each stove generates approximately 150 to 200 Mexican pesos (US$12 to US$17) of economic value per year, of which half covers the operational and administrative costs of the Patsari Project and partner COs and half directly toward community training, stove maintenance, and parts replacement for the end users. This scheme reinforces the Patsari Project’s model of empowering rural households to improve their own quality of life.

Victor’s longer-term goal is to create what he calls a Social Carbon Fund with a portfolio of multiple COs that aggregate carbon offsets through promoting various types of energy-efficient rural technology. With this fund, Victor will share with other COs his knowledge of how the voluntary carbon market works as well as his established relationships with brokers and buyers, thus shifting the Mexican rural technology sector away from its current reliance on philanthropic funding and its focus on installation statistics rather than long-term appropriation. As of 2010, he has already signed agreements with three other COs that install energy-efficient stoves, and he is working closely with them to meet the reporting and certification standards required to participate in the carbon credits trading. He also plans to leverage his rural distribution network to help partner COs bring other types of appropriate technology to isolated communities, such as water filtration systems, composters, and solar heating systems. He envisions rural technology promoters advising families throughout the Mexican countryside on affordable rural technology, much like the model of health and social welfare promoters that the Mexican government and some COs have already implemented in those fields. The Social Carbon Fund will therefore be a mechanism that can finance user accompaniment in the entire energy-efficient rural technology sector, rather than being limited to GIRA and stoves alone. While he believes that much work lies ahead of him in Mexico, Victor is purposely designing the Patsari Project using an open architecture so that interested COs elsewhere in Latin America can draw from GIRA’s experience to replicate the model in their own countries.

A pessoa

The three passions in life that have led Victor to his work with the Patsari stoves and the international carbon market are his experiences living with rural indigenous communities, his engineering talent and background, and his love of applying research to improve quality of life. As a young man, Victor was actively involved in numerous school and church service trips, and one particular missionary trip to northeast Mexico left him with a lifelong drive to improve rural standards of living. During an extended stay in the impoverished Tarahumara region, Victor was asked to accompany a local indigenous man as he bore his three-year-old son’s body to church for mourning. The child had died of pneumonia, which Victor knew could have been easily prevented had the family enjoyed decent living conditions, but like so many other people in the region, they lacked even the most basic food and shelter. From that point on, Victor became determined to apply his talents in engineering design and research to help rural families improve their health and quality of life.

Victor immersed himself in his engineer training through both academic preparation and practical field experience. He continued to harbor an interest in working with applied rural technology, putting his engineering skills to the test in designing and implementing tools like a solar-powered coffee bean dryer in the coffee-growing highlands of the Mexican state of Chiapas. Victor has always insisted that rural technology design must take into account the end user’s culture, habits, and preferences; otherwise, no matter how brilliant the design is from an engineering point of view, the technology will inevitably fail to change users’ lives in the long term. As a result, his engineering projects have always involved working very closely with rural and indigenous communities. His work in rural technology helped garner him the renowned Ashden Award in 2006, which opened the opportunity to pilot a small-scale carbon bond contract with the United Kingdom-based broker Climate Care in 2006 to 2007. This experience inspired Victor to design and implement his carbon credit financing strategy.

After getting married and having three children, Victor joined the CO GIRA to pursue his passion for developing applied rural technology, which has always been GIRA’s primary focus. At GIRA, Victor has been able to dedicate himself full-time to the combination of research, design, and implementation of rural technologies that has always been his driving force. Victor originally joined GIRA’s stove project team while he was studying for his doctorate degree in energy engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Upon finishing his doctorate, Victor was invited to join GIRA as a full-time staff member, and as the director of the Rural Energy Program, an autonomous programmatic area, he is considered one of GIRA’s six principal partners.

Although he works under the umbrella of GIRA, Victor enjoys full autonomy to personally direct the Patsari Project within the Rural Energy Program. Victor independently administers his own budget and staff and reports directly to GIRA’s Board of Directors. Victor’s Patsari Project also has the personal backing of Omar Macera, a founding partner of GIRA and Victor’s academic and professional mentor. Omar is a member of the Nobel Prize-winning International Panel on Climate Change and thus is personally invested in Victor’s work with the voluntary carbon market. His affiliation with GIRA grants Victor all the benefits of a respected, established Mexican CO with a long track record in rural technology without circumscribing his freedom to guide the Patsari Project. His plan is to continue operating under this non-profit scheme until the time when the Social Carbon Fund grows large enough to be spun out independently from GIRA, at which point he will seek an independent non-profit legal structure or trust to administer the fund. Today, as the director of the Rural Energy Program, Victor runs his Patsari Project full-time, for which he has garnered both national and international recognition. For Victor, the Patsari Project represents an enormous opportunity to improve thousands of rural families’ quality of life while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions in hard-to-reach rural areas.