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The Sun as Sous Chef—Solar Cooking in Kenya

July 12, 2007

With concern over climate change, the sun promises a clean and renewable energy source, which those of us in rich countries often associate with expensive photovoltaic panels for generating electricity. Yet in poverty stricken areas, a far simpler technology—using ample sunlight as a free source for cooking—may  transform the lives of women socially, economically and politically, and through them, their families.
Sustainable DesignJust as CSD-15 was getting underway, further uptown in New York “Design for the Other 90%” opened at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design to showcase a new and important trend—socially responsible, sustainable and “humanitarian” design. The title is meant to suggest that this new breed of socially conscious designers tackles the needs of those traditionally ignored by the design profession, which caters to the privileged 10%. Among more than 30 works—all of them affordable—is a parabolic solar cooker, used in schools and hospitals. Dwarfing the modest panel type device, it is made of bicycle parts and a mass of small variety store vanity mirrors. One of the show’s posters outlines the kind of problem these designers hoped to address:  “In rural Africa, women transport more than three times as much goods as men, often carrying fuel, water and produce on their heads—often at great cost to their physical health….often fifteen to thirty hours a week.” The exhibit continues through September 23.—Regina Cornwell
On a bright spring day this year, I watched and happily sampled a succulent chicken stew prepared in small solar panel cookers on the UN Visitors’ Plaza in New York. Dinah A. Chienjo of Kenya was demonstrating the power of the CooKit as part of her lobbying efforts at the 15th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-15). Chienjo is a project officer for Sunny Solutions, a program begun four years ago by Solar Cookers International (SCI) in the Nyando District of rural western Kenya., Covering 360 square kilometers, with a population of over 145,000, the district is home to widespread poverty and a dwindling supply of firewood but generous sunshine as well. Her California-based employer, SCI, a nonprofit begun in 1987, is today the best known of the many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) promoting use of the sun’s energy for cooking foods and pasteurizing water. It now acts as clearing house for information worldwide. Solar cookers may be an alternative for women in some sun-drenched cultures, but not all. Nor is it a panacea for global poverty. Sajed Kamal, consultant on solar energy projects in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Armenia and the United States, and a Brandeis faculty member, has worked with solar cookers for years. In a phone interview from his office in Boston, he remarked that, like other devices, they have been used as a form of techno colonialism. After repeated attempts, efforts failed in rural Bolivia because of culinary and other cultural traditions. In India, he said, the government enthusiastically gave away masses of solar cookers, with no follow-up strategy, only to find them discarded. Success depends upon cost, local involvement and acceptance—whether it can be seen as a welcome substitute to scouring for twigs and scarce firewood.  Kamal ended with this important question: “What is the entry and exit point for the organization?” As an NGO at work in Kenya for years, SCI is aware of these crucial issues and plans to introduce solar cooking slowly so that it can become assimilated into the rural culture. Chienjo said that today 5000 women are using the CooKit panel style design, the simplest to construct and use of the three basic types of solar cookers. It requires a piece of corrugated cardboard, about 3 by 4 feet, cut and folded according to a prepared pattern, its inside covered with aluminum foil. The kit includes a Water Pasteurization Indicator (WAPI), four clear plastic oven bags, and instructions. Cooks usually set it up on the ground, enclosing their own thin black covered pot within the plastic and resting it on stones surrounded by foil reflecting bright light where temperatures reach low to moderate range (180 - 250ºF), enough to bake, roast, stew and boil. Light weight, it can be folded to the size of a large book. Once factory produced in Nairobi, they are now being made and sold locally by women in the district. SCI first begins dialogues with community organizations on the value of the sun as free thermal energy, its capacity to make tasty dishes and to provide improved health for families and the environment. The NGO then trains local women to demonstrate and sell CooKits and follow up with many visits—solar, while simple, demands different methods, recipes and cooking times from traditional practices. As women are converted by the taste and other benefits, they teach their friends and neighbors. The price, the equivalent of (US) $5 to $6.50, covers the materials and a fee to the seller, who has made the stove. What little is left goes to purchase more raw material. Except to recruit and train salespeople, SCI does not subsidize the undertaking. It is costly for many, but, considering the high price of firewood, those who have them report saving as much as $8.00 per month. Charging for the solar cooker is a way of stressing its value, setting it apart from familiar NGO and government give-aways. Imagine a rural village at mid-morning. In one small yard a panel solar cooker is operating unattended, nothing sticking or burning, while the woman of the house is at the community center, perhaps weaving baskets to bring home money. Her neighbor leaves home in search of firewood.  As deforestation spreads, she must walk longer distances and face increased dangers. Still, she may come back empty-handed. Perhaps she can cut into her family’s food budget to buy firewood or charcoal, or she may be forced to break off wood from the fence around her yard. She will cook indoors without ventilation. More than a third of the world’s population still cooks with traditional biomass, meaning wood, charcoal and agricultural waste, like dung. In Kenya the figure is nearly 90%. In Kenya, indoor cooking is the tradition and solar was met with skepticism when first introduced. But some women began to see that the slower cooking times could work to their advantage. Chienjo explained, for example, that adult education is often available to rural women but few opt for it  because “the poverty level is very high and they would rather do business and put food on the table.”  The “free fuel” of the sun saves time and/or money that might even be used to start a small business, like a solar cooker serviced restaurant. A woman gains time and control in her life. “But for the girl child, this is tremendous,” said Chienjo. “Now they don’t have to look for firewood and have more time for their studies.” They can better compete with boys in school, who have no household chores to manage. Taking the cooking outdoors in rural Kenya means radically reducing indoor pollution, a source of deadly respiratory disease. For cloudy days, women with CooKits can often save enough to buy an efficient stove that emits less fumes and smoke. And food cooked slowly at moderate temperatures can retain nutrients, juices and flavors. When asked about Kenyan men’s responses to solar cooking, Chienjo smiled. “Some men say that this will make women lazy,” she said, but “many men buy them for their wives.” A few even cook on them, she said laughing, considering that a real break in gender roles in Kenya. “Now fences are intact. Men are happy; nobody is spoiling the fence.” The sun as sous chef can make a radical difference in the lives of poor women and their families. But beyond the family unit, solar cooking leaves its positive marks on the community, the economy, and the environment. Sunny Solutions has persuaded solar cooker buyers to plant trees, following the model established in Kenya by Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement. Even if a household uses its solar cooker just three times a week, about 900 kilograms of CO2 are averted per year. While Africa contributes only 3% to global green house gas emissions, severe destruction of the forest canopy leads to more parched land, increased droughts and desertification. Such degradation will only increase unless both the developed and advanced developing world radically restrict carbon emissions. Back to Kamal’s question. What is SCI’s exit point?  Having trained local people to work for Sunny Solutions in a self-sustaining way, SCI scrutinizes its own efforts and methods, hoping to build on what it has learned. Solar cooking is not a quick solution, nor can it work all of the time. Kamal brought up one piece of western baggage all too familiar in poor regions, asking, what about the plastic? SCI didn’t have a satisfactory response. After an oven bag is used 10 to 20 times, it may end up discarded, burned, or, best case scenario, reused when women weave strips into mats and baskets.

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