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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

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: Halfway around the world from Vancouver Island there is a far different movement afoot to save trees. In East Africa, where rapid population growth is straining many resources, whole areas have been stripped bare of vegetation, as more and more families struggle for firewood to cook their meals. While East Africa is extremely short on trees, it is rich with sunshine, and that's led to a growing movement to use the sun to cook. Louise Tunbridge reports from Kenya.

(Sound of village women)

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 percent of energy consumed comes from wood - and most of that is used for cooking.

(Sound of cooking and stirring)

TUNBRIDGE: Inside a smoke-filled hut, so smoky it makes your eyes tear, a woman stirs a pot of beans on a three-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 wood burning; 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?

(Sound of hammering )

TUNBRIDGE: Daniel Kammen thinks there is. He's heading a project in Kenya for the American organization Earthwatch. 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 is glass, two 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 a 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 really never seen the oven before like this group here, about three days to put one together, and after that three days they know all the tricks. So this technology really does transfer in a hurry.

(Sound of arrival in village)

TUNBRIDGE: The Earthwatch team has come to the village of Mangelete, in a hot and dusty part of the country, 150 miles southeast of the capital. 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 Kamba 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 gikob, yeah? . . . (fade under)

TUNBRIDGE: Kammen explains that while the oven won't burn food, it is slow - it can take up to eight hours to cook the local staple dish, ugali - a mixture of maize-meal and water. But on a very hot day, it'll 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: It's not magic, yeah? It will work slow, but you will conserve wood, and there'll be no smoke to hurt the eyes of the children, yes? and no fire.

(Sound of sawing)

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

KUKUVI: It is, certainly, at home I use firewood, and this one is all right for cooking, you see it does not smoke.

TUNBRIDGE: The eight solar ovens built by the Mangelete villagers are theirs to keep at the end of the seminar. The Earthwatch 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 (translated): So many people have been influenced by the cooking, first of all that many want to come, they want to buy them and have them for themselves.

(Sound of Transworld radio jingle and program; fade under)

TUNBRIDGE: Another solar oven project is being run in Kenya by Transworld Radio, a Christian station whose Africa Challenge program is listened to by some six 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 the people started writing in - how can we get that solar cooker? How can we get in touch with that box you're 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 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: When solar ovens were first started in the '50's in a large way in India, there was a big drawback that was identified by the National Physical Institute. That was that if these people don't want to change cooking habits, and there was this chorus 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 and 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 - you want to see results in twelve 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 individuals that are using them, I'm less worried about the time-scale issue. So, I mean, the good and the 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? Well, that remains to be seen. For Living on Earth, I'm Louise Tunbridge in Nairobi.



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