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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sun-Powered Ovens

Air Date: Week of

Louise Tunbridge reports from Nairobi, Kenya on the slow but successful spread of solar ovens. In a country where deforestation and wood smoke are serious problems, solar cookers offer a low-tech, environmentally sustainable alternative to cooking over wood fires.


CURWOOD: The movement of Non-Governmental Organizations thrives on the hope that by helping people to help themselves, sustainable development can become a reality. An example of how much this can work is taking hold in East Africa, where rapid population growth is straining many resources. Whole areas, for instance, have been stripped bare of vegetation, as more and more families struggle for firewood to cook their meals. But while East Africa is extremely short on trees, it is rich with sunshine, and now there is a growing movement to harness that solar power for the kitchen. It's helping to free many women from the drudgery of searching for wood, while protecting the region's forests and human health at the same time. Louise Tunbridge has our report from the Kenyan countryside, originally broadcast last fall.

(Women conversing as firewood is chopped)

TUNBRIDGE: As the sun loses its afternoon heat, women from a rural village in southeastern Kenya begin their daily task of chopping and collecting firewood. In Kenya, some 60% of energy consumed comes from wood, and most of that is used for cooking.

(Pots clanging in a hut; continuing conversation)

TUNBRIDGE: Inside a smoke-filled hut, so smoky it makes your eyes tear, a woman stirs a pot of beans on a 3-stoned wood fire, cooking in the centuries-old African tradition. Environmentally, the consequences of this reliance on wood in the developing world are enormous. At least one third of all greenhouse gases emitted comes from woodburning. Forests are being destroyed faster than they can be replenished. And once fertile land is being reduced to near desert. But is there an alternative?


TUNBRIDGE: Daniel Kammen thinks there is. He's heading a project in Kenya for the American organization Earth Watch. Here, project volunteers construct a solar oven in a workshop at Nairobi University. Daniel Kammen describes how this simple box cooker works.

KAMMEN: Everything is available in Kenya, produced locally. We would never use materials that come from outside. There's glass, 2 sheets of glass for the top of the oven. All the wood that goes into building this outer box - and basically the oven is a wooden box surrounded by cardboard or another wooden box, with insulation between - is a sheet of plywood. We then use cardboard to make the inner walls. We use glue, we use paint, we use nails, and we use a metal sheet on the floor of the oven. And we find that it takes people who have never seen the ovens before, like this group here, about 3 days to put one together, and after that 3 days they know all the tricks. So this technology really does transfer in a hurry.

(Sounds of solar box construction)

TUNBRIDGE: The Earth Watch team has come to the village of Mangelete, in a hot and dusty part of the country 150 miles southeast of the capitol. The purpose of the visit is to hold a seminar in which the volunteers will impart their newfound skills of solar oven construction to a group of local people from the tribe.

KAMMEN: It is first most important. We will start with building the ovens, but we want to also teach how to cook. Because this is different than with the giko, yeah?

TUNBRIDGE: Kammen explains that while the oven won't burn food, it is slow. It can take up to 8 hours to cook the local staple dish, ugali, a mixture of maize meal and water.

(KAMMEN lecturing: "...the giko, it cooks slowly. It will not burn food..." Villagers ask questions.)

TUNBRIDGE: But on a very hot day, it will boil water for tea in under an hour. His audience, a group of some 40 villagers gathered 'round a model oven, listens intently. Inevitably, they're curious. Can the oven work at night? What type of foods does it cook? Will it taste the same? Kammen is careful to dispel their illusions while retaining their interest.

(KAMMEN lecturing: "It's not magic, yeah? It will work slow, but you will conserve wood. And there will be no smoke to hurt eyes of the children, yeah? And no fire." More sounds of box construction and conversation.)

TUNBRIDGE: The group is eager to learn. Agatha Kakuvi, the headmistress of the local primary school, has never done carpentry before, but already she's a willing solar student.

KAKUVI: It was said to me, I tell him I use firewood. And this one is all right, and it is cooking. It does not smoke.

TUNBRIDGE: The 8 solar ovens built by the Mangelete villagers are theirs to keep at the end of the seminar. The Earth Watch team also leaves behind tools and spare materials. If the solar oven idea is to catch on, then the village must take over the project and make it their own. This has begun to happen in Zombe, another Kamba village, first visited by Kammen's team a year ago. Christine Mwende is a member of the Zombe group, which has so far built around 20 solar ovens for sale. She uses hers most days, and has cut her fuel wood consumption by half.

MWENDE: (speaks in Kamba)
TRANSLATOR: Okay. So many people have been influenced by the cooking, such that even many want to buy, not even making, they want to buy then and have them for themselves.

(Music with narration: "A box solar cooker is a new and simple technology that may likely meet your energy needs...")

TUNBRIDGE: Another solar oven project has been running in Kenya by Transworld Radio, a Christian station whose Africa Challenge program is listened to by some 6 million people across Africa. They've gone one step further and have set up a mass production unit in Nairobi which has made and sold nearly 200 ovens. Program director Joe Kamau says only the pressure of constant information can break down people's natural resistance to change.

KAMAU: We started off by giving information. There is this technology; even before we constructed the solar cooker, we started giving information over our radio programs. That we have this technology of the solar cooker, something you can use. Something that is safe for the environment. Something that cannot harm you in terms of the usage at home. And people started writing in: how can we get that solar cooker? How can we get in touch with that box you are talking about?

TUNBRIDGE: These aren't the only technologies available. Another more sophisticated solar cooker has been developed in Germany. Using a system of pebbles and cooking oil, it enables heat to be stored overnight so that meals can be cooked after sunset. But the beauty of the simple box cooker, which sells at 2,000 Kenya shillings, or $25, is that it's affordable for many Kenyans. It's already been tried with some success by Daniel Kammen's team in Central America. He sees Kenya as a proving ground for its introduction elsewhere in Africa. With patience, he says, this simple technology could pay off.

KAMMEN: Solar ovens were first started in the 50s in a large way in India. The big drawback that was identified by the National Physical Institute there was that these people don't want to change cooking habits, and then there are these quotes over and over again about how cooking is something very basic and you can't change it. Well that doesn't make a lot of sense to me, because people were able to adopt microwaves as quickly as they found they were useful; they were able to adopt kerosene stoves here as quickly as they could afford them when they were useful. But it also has to be recognized that there's a time issue involved, and maybe one problem that's gone on in some projects has been that there's been a rush: do you want to see results in 12 months? You want to get in, your funding lasts so long, your energy level lasts so long, and then go out again. But if we get the people here to both be instructors and the people who are using them, I'm less worried about the time scale issue. So - I mean the good and bad are very much mingled together.

TUNBRIDGE: So the first small steps have been taken. But can solar ovens be a way forward in a country like Kenya? That remains to be seen. For Living on Earth, I'm Louise Tunbridge in Nairobi.



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