This post is part of a series of stories featuring the entrepreneurs who participated in Unreasonable Mexico’s second annual program.

A decade before they knew they would co-found a company together, Walter Ángel, Uriel Gracia and Esteban Calderas met at at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). In 2006, the three friends wanted to recuperate the spirit of community service among their fellow students and specifically channel it toward supporting rural communities across Mexico. According to them, by spending time experiencing the complexities hindering development in rural areas, students could better work together with these communities to design the most appropriate technology solutions.

Globally, around 3 billion people rely on toxic indoor stoves to cook their food every day. Tweet This Quote

“Many communities in Mexico receive technologies and donations, sometimes from NGOs or governments, that in reality don’t correspond to their specific cultural history,” said Ángel. “Therefore, the people don’t benefit from or even use them. We identified that you could combine the traditional and cultural knowledge of these towns with new technology proposals from universities in such a way that the two experiences combined would succeed in developing a solution that would be more accepted by the community.”

Over the next three years working in different communities, teams of volunteers saw multiple examples of the harmful effects of indoor wood burning stoves. Upon further research, Ángel, Gracia and Calderas determined that around 25 million Mexicans still use these simple stoves for heating and cooking. They also realized this wasn’t a problem unique to Mexico.

Mexico indoor cookstove

An example of a wood-burning cookstove emitting toxic pollution in Mexico.

Globally, around 3 billion people rely on open fires and simple stoves to cook their food every day. Often built indoors, these stoves emit toxic smoke and soot particles from the burning of wood, crop waste, animal dung and other kinds of solid wastes. Daily exposure to and inhalation of this household air pollution leads to a host of respiratory problems, including pneumonia and lung cancer. Every year, 4.3 million lives are lost prematurely to diseases caused by household air pollution. That’s one person every eight minutes. Women and young children are disproportionately affected because around the world, they still spend the most time in the nearest proximity to these dangerous fumes, most often preparing meals.

One person dies every eight minutes from a disease caused by household air pollution. Tweet This Quote

The global community has picked up on the severity of this previously neglected issue. Public-private partnerships like the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves hosted by the United Nations Foundation have ignited a marketplace for clean cooking solutions. But in order to succeed, this global alliance relies on the efficacy of local initiatives.

What started as a simple student activity grew into much more. In 2009, Ángel, Gracia and Calderas (two of them engineers) started designing a more efficient stove they named Xalpaneca—the feminine form of someone from the community Xalpatláhuac, in La Montaña Alta de Guerrero, where they prototyped the project. As the predominant users of the stove, the women remained the most curious and involved throughout the design of the clean cookstove. According to the team, more than 4,000 women die every year in Mexico from breathing in the toxic fumes of traditional cooking methods.

InfraRural clean cookstove

A version of InfraRural’s Xalpaneca clean cookstove.

However, it wasn’t until 2013, after several more years of fine-tuning their technology and approach, that Ángel, Gracia and Calderas officially founded InfraRural in Mexico City. Their mission is to design the most appropriate technologies, starting with clean cookstoves, to improve the health of people in remote communities of Mexico.

The Xalpaneca stove is made from a combination of mud, gravel and cement and consists of four major parts: an opening for the wood, a combustion chamber, burners for cooking, and a chimney for the smoke to escape. Because every community differs, InfraRural always starts by analyzing how to tweak the Xalpaneca model to fit the local specific needs.

Over 4,000 Mexican women die every year from inhaling fumes from traditional cooking methods. Tweet This Quote

“We do situational studies to see what kinds of modifications we can do in each community to make sure that the user will actually use the stove,” said Angel. “For example, a tortilla can measure 11 cm across in Mexico City, 21 cm in Guerrero, and up to 45 cm in Oaxaca. If you install a stove with a small skillet, the amount of tortilla production is going to decrease due to not being able to make a lot of tortillas quickly. Studies like this help us have one product that can adapt quickly to other conditions.”

After incorporating modifications, the team holds capacity building workshops to teach community members how to build, use, and maintain the stove. InfraRural requires that the community work together to build them, fostering collaboration and unity. All stoves are built on-site in individual homes from locally sourced resources and materials, reducing production and logistical costs.

Mexico community development

Community members participating in building an on-site Xalpaneca stove.

Finally, the team implements a monitoring and evaluation system they developed, returning three times to every home with a Xalpaneca stove in the community to gather data and ensure everything is functioning properly.

Compared to traditional open fire stoves, the Xalpaneca reduces between 65-80% of the wood needed to cook a meal and up to 95% of the gases resulting from combustion that traditionally remain inside of the kitchen. InfraRural asserts that one of their stoves eliminates the generation of 7.1 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year and saves 20 trees from being cut down—important when Mexico has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world.

The Xalpaneca stove costs around 2,300 pesos (127 USD), which includes the stove, workshops and follow up maintenance. According to Gracia, other clean cookstove models in Mexico cost around 2,500 pesos (138 USD), but they are often built in factories and simply dropped off in communities, with no instruction or maintenance support. InfraRural differentiates itself by supporting the construction of the stoves in-house and including a monitoring and evaluation program.

Around 25 million Mexicans still use toxic, indoor stoves for heating and cooking. Tweet This Quote

As many Mexicans living in rural, low-income areas often cannot independently afford to replace their current stove with a new clean cookstove, InfraRural generates revenue by selling their stoves to local governments or NGOs that subsidize the price, as well as accepting donations to help cover costs.

So far, the company has helped over 400 families, benefitting over 2,100 people in several communities across Guerrero, Michoacán, Puebla, Estado de México, Oaxaca and Chiapas. They have reduced emissions by nearly 12,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and saved over 18,000 trees.

Mexico clean cookstove

A woman makes tortillas using her Xalpaneca clean cookstove.

Moving forward, the team plans to broaden its perspective beyond just clean cookstoves and rekindle its approach of determining the most appropriate technologies for each community. According to Gracia, they are pursuing a few other projects, such as the production of biogas, rainwater collection, solar panels, compostable toilets and a new kind of stove that generates electricity—all with the goal of helping communities use them to generate income and support themselves economically.

Ultimately, the InfraRural envisions expanding beyond their country’s borders. They see the opportunity for this business model, with its non negotiable emphasis on community participation and design, to work in countries all over the world.

“We are passionate about Mexico because we feel committed to the education we obtained here,” said Gracia. “But we definitely believe all of us around the world are brothers and sisters. Some of these people have been marginalized throughout history. What I would like to see in the future is that these people in their communities are capable of resolving their problems and fulfilling their needs. We would like to share our experiences so more people can transform their situations.”

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About the author

Brittany Lane

Brittany Lane

Brittany is the editor of for Unreasonable Group. She believes lasting social and environmental change happens at the intersection of entrepreneurship and empathy.

  • Charlee Riggio

    I love what you are doing! I think that one of the most important aspects of this design is the incorporation and collaboration with the consumers. Allowing the residents the opportunity to be involved in the assembly and the maintenance is crucial for retention. I can’t wait to see the number of people you help, grow each year!

  • James Robertson

    This concept seems to be making a very relevant change even on a small scale at this point! I don’t see why this can’t grow and continue to help the large number of people affected by indoor pollution especially at a reasonable price!

  • Nicholas Carter

    This is great! I love what they are doing to help these low-income communities that are affected by indoor pollution. This product can grow on a much larger scale and benefit communities worldwide. It it critical that this product grows and continues impacting communities that are affected by indoor toxic pollution. I think that this product is very reasonably priced, especially since they also offer maintenance, but I would also like to see free community gatherings that educated those affected by indoor pollution to educate the consumer on how to make their product for those who still cant afford the 2,300 pesos for a new stove top.

  • Rachel Rodriguez

    This organization is great, I love how they are so committed to helping the people of Mexico change for the better and are there for them every step of the way. I also think this product is great because the design varies for different cultures and their needs, which is something you do not see very often. I think they should continue to apply this business practice in their future endeavors, because it will help set them apart from any competition, while bettering communities globally.

  • Kunal Patel

    I love the idea and the fact that it is making a positive impact and change on the environment. Not only does this stove seem to be much more efficient with resources but I love the fact that it regulates smoke and it from being inhaled by using a chimney directed out the roof. I lam also very fond of the idea that the communities come together as a whole to work on these stove projects rather than just being given a setup stove from the government.

  • Jessica

    The amount of change that this endeavor is actually providing is astounding! These stoves provide an overall increase in the standard of living for these families. Not only are the toxic gases reduced, but it allows for conservation of resources such as trees, and the stove still accommodates the needs of tortilla production! There was such great detail put into the creation of these stoves, not to mention the team of creators shows their dedication and empathy for these families by ensuring that they are using the stoves properly and showing them how to build and use them! I also love the understanding and time put in to customizing each stove so that it is something useful to each family. This is a beautiful movement and I can’t wait to hear more about the progress of InfraRural!

  • Ben Heiserman

    Jessica, that is a fantastic point that you brought up. Not only do the stoves protect the environment, but more importantly they protect the people while conserving resources like wood. However, what can be done to completely reduce the use of wood to use for cooking and warmth, considering deforestation is a huge issue in the area.

  • Alessandra Orlandini

    I loved this post because it is so inspiring to see how three young people could make such a great and powerful change for people who did not even know these things were affected them so deeply. The creation of these stoves allows for toxic gases to be reduced but also how they work to tweak the stove to fit with specific local needs. After reading this article it hit close to home with me because it said how women and children are most affected because they are the ones who spend the most time preparing these meals. I think this is such a great movement and its so inspiring that three friends were the ones to get this project into gear.

  • danlorusso

    I really enjoyed reading this post because it shows how young college students can notice a problem in society and strive to fix that it. The beauty of this is that the stove can adapt to the different living conditions it will be used in along with decreasing the amount of wood needed to cook a meal. One thing that really stuck out to me is that workshops are held for the purpose of educating community member on how to build, use and maintain the stove. Not only is this stove beneficial to the environment by reducing deforestation and emissions but it is going to help save lives.

  • Claire Salvucci

    This organization has a really great mission. One particular aspect that I enjoyed were the accommodations made for varying communities. I think that it is effective to acknowledge that the “one size fits all” method may not work for every community or culture. This organization addresses this issue by adapting their product to the needs of different Mexican regions. It sounds like this company will continue to be successful and potentially expand their product base.

  • Kevin Marshall

    Dan, I also took to heart the fact these were college students trying to make a difference in the world with one great idea! I was very impressed by their dedication to this issue that has been a problem for families in Mexico. I was wondering if someone else will go out and look for the next problem and start designing it for other countries. Maybe appliances such as a washer/dryer, dishwasher, etc?

  • Kade Hanson

    Its great that we have the awareness to see the problems within the world and someone my own age could think of such a simple and easy solution. The company is very innovative and seems to be on the ball when it comes down to it know how to help these communities and adapt to their challenges. This organization has such a great message and great goal and they will continue to be a success.

  • Teddy Grebenc

    Always fun and interesting to see innovations on old ideas especially when these innovations help improve communities and the environment in which these communities are housed. Great idea can’t wait to see whats next.

  • Taylor Lonsdale

    I think it’s so important to involve the community you are attempting to assist in the process of finding a solution. I love that InfraRural starts by looking at what needs to be done for each particular community and understanding that needs vary in different locations . It’s a step that gets overlooked and undermined sooo often. Teaching community members to be able to “build, use, and maintain” is another step in the process that helps community members to be self sufficient.

  • Michael Kaelin

    I really enjoyed reading this article because of how it is having a positive impact for people who are in need of assistance. It is awesome seeing someone that is close to my own age doing something this impactful and innovative. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for this situation and other innovative inventions.

  • McKenna Solomon

    Claire, I think you said it very well when you say there’s not a “one size fits all” method. I think that’s a very good way to express the importance of considering the culture of a community before marketing to them. Culture, though incredibly dynamic, is heavily rooted in tradition which often complicates the acceptance of foreign ideology and technology. Rural communities are often more skeptical about modern methods, which makes this project and it’s adherence to traditional methods even more incredible. I think it’s important to incorporate more sustainable technologies across the globe and appealing to the distinct culture of an area could ease that process.

  • Emily Butler

    I think this is so awesome. A lot of times people in countries that are very wealthy think their technology will be useful when in reality it’s useless to the people who receive it. People don’t really take cultural concepts into mind when donating but these three came up with something so beneficial by looking at what the people really needed and I think we can learn from them.

  • Victor Ribakare

    This a great idea and I believe that it i something that make have a huge impact amongst those in Mexico and maybe any other country they expand to. There is only one small concern on my part, how is something like this to help decrease the number of deaths from those that are inhaling these fumes, if they cannot afford it? Unfortunately these women specifically are exposed to the fumes due to funds to purchase a real stove, how will this really change anything if they need 2,300 pesos just to do so?

  • Brittany Lane

    Hi Victor, thank you for your comment! Good question. You’re right to observe that even though the cost of the Xalpaneca stove is lower than other models on the market, the price of 2,300 pesos would still exclude a lot of people who need it most. However, in my conversation with InfraRural, the entrepreneurs mentioned that they work with local municipal governments and NGOs operating in the communities to help subsidize the costs. They also accept donations, which can cover costs as well. So, while the stove itself costs over 100 USD, the customers themselves likely aren’t often paying the full amount. Thinking about it now, I would be curious to know (if I were to share a follow up conversation with the team) if they experiment with different models of financing depending on the community, family, etc., to ensure maximum affordability.

  • Amanda

    I really appreciate the work infra rural is doing, especially because they have made the process hands on and interactive. While us American’s may enjoy having something delivered to us, I believe that the work shop and follow up is what helps make this company so special and effective.

  • Katie Frank

    Emily, I think you made interesting points about how technology is not always the most effective answer to many third world issues and the importance of taking cultural differences into account. InfraRural is an excellent example of beneficial innovation that takes these factors into consideration. I’m excited what they will accomplish next and am truly inspired by their work.

  • Danielle Flynn

    The first statement that really grabbed me into this article was the break down of how many people die due to household air pollution, “one person every eight minutes”. That number completely astonished me because this isn’t something I would think of as a common way for people in lesser developed countries to pass. My favorite part about this company is the hand on features and how they took into account even the smallest details such as tortilla sizes in different areas, showing how invested they are with actually helping the community.

  • Gregory Clemmons

    I think that an important point can be drawn from this article, that being that the cultural gap between those giving aid and those receiving aid is large. That being said the students from UNAM had a great solution. Being more familiar with the cultural landscape in Mexico, they will be effective in bridging the gap so that those who need assistance can get it in a way that fits in with their own cultural values. More philanthropic organizations should plan to communicate with people native to the area so that they can design programs that are culturally sensitive but also effective in providing aid

  • Chris White

    When I was in the Dominican Republic, I remember helping to build and install similar types of stoves for various families. Being around the more traditional stoves while food is being prepared will quickly have you realizing that for many women and children cooking is a very hazardous task, and also a task that is taken on a daily basis. I fully support InfraRural and I encourage you all to donate your support as well!

  • Sarah Nelson

    I have recently started hearing a lot about these stoves not just in Mexico but around the world. Reducing household air pollution can not only help the environment, but also save lives. The statistic that every 8 minutes someone dies from a disease caused by a household air pollutant really stayed with me because reducing household air pollutants is something that can be done so easily and save millions of lives. If companies like InfraRural can continue to grow and cross borders, a major problem in rural areas around the world will be solved.

  • Jessica

    I did a call to action for this article and social issue that is being corrected using social media; Facebook specifically. I chose to use social media because I believe, if done correctly, it can spread an issue, statement, or message to a large number of people quickly and efficiently. I also did it because it is more likely for people to care about something rather important if they see that someone they know cares about something important. I posed the link to this article (which then populates and pops up so they can see what it is), and I also posted a short blurb explaining what the article is about. I asked my fellow Facebook friends for their feedback, telling them that I wanted their opinions, whether they were good, bad, or indifferent. I received one “like” before the next day. Because I received little attention regarding the issue, I posted it a second time, really emphasizing the fact that their opinions are valuable! I received nothing on that post, no likes, no comments, no shares. Needless to say, the Facebook route was unsuccessful for me. I was disappointed because I genuinely wanted to hear some feedback from people who are in a completely different mindset than those of us in business, and I wanted to see where there were agreements and/or disagreements. I think people relate better when there is a personal element; for example, if I had been there, building these stoves, they would be able to relate better because if I’m able to make a change, they are too. Because that wasn’t the case, they really didn’t have a personal connection to the issue, so the apathy is higher. It is good to note, and maybe it will provide insight on how to make the most out of the social media realm of calling attention to social issues and what is being done about them!

  • Chris White

    After first reading this article two months ago, I was very excited to finally do a call to action project on it. More specifically, I wanted to see what kind of positive impact I could create for InfraRural and families in these communities. What I chose to do, was to take the opportunity to speak to friends and family members who happened to be cooking, whether it was on a stove or the microwave, about the convenience and privilege we have with food in our country. While many agreed, they were often shocked that in Mexico and other poorer countries the cooking methods/appliances create toxic pollution for the family, especially the women and children. I was able to tell my friends and family about when I was in the Dominican Republic and we worked to build stoves with better ventilation for families to solve the same issue, and how it’s only through support and financing that these families can get the healthier stove. I then asked them if they would be willing to donate a small amount to help create a big change and help improve the lives of families in Mexico. I didn’t raise a ton of money, but I was able to generate $45 for InfraRural!

  • Brittany Lane

    Chris, what a great call to action project! I’m glad this article inspired you to reach out to friends and family to continue the conversation. Additionally, any contribution matters, and I’m sure the team at InfraRural would be humbled to know their work impacted you. I’m curious, what did you learn in the process of informing other people about this issue? Would you do anything differently next time in order to spark increased support? Thank you!

  • Chris White

    Some things that I learned through this project were that many Americans are unaware of some of the realities outside our own country. Our media and news sources do not do the best job of letting us know how we can help in our own communities let alone across the globe, so it is important for those of us who have been privileged enough to travel to these countries, or be educated surrounding the issues, to spread that knowledge and experience to help generate more support and understanding. If I were to something differently with this project, I would have tried to pair up with someone who was good at social media marketing to try and help attract more attention and conversation to these communities and the organizations like InfraRural who are working to make a difference.

  • Charlee Riggio

    After reading this article I was really inspired by unreasonable and how they go about providing the resources for entrepreneurs to succeed all over the world. I spoke at an international conference with my professor as well as another student and the author of this article to talk about our collaboration with unreasonable. During this session I collaborated with my fellow panelists and came up with a simulation of this article that illustrated different approaches to social entrepreneurship all over the world.

  • Robert Neville

    Charlee i agree, this was truly a feel good story. But it also made me realize that there is still so much more that needs to be done. Especially after seeing that 1 person dies every 8 minutes from inhaling house hold fumes from the fire pits. But yes this story does show that there are young entrepreneurs out there doing wonderful things to actually change the world and to not just make a profit.