Monday, August 11, 2008

Solar Cookers in Darfur

Different versions of Solar cookers

Time Magazine did a great photoessay on solar cookers being disseminated in Darfur.

The photoessay proves a very important point...that all technology has its place.

While solar cookers are environmentally friendly and convenient in many ways (less labor/time intensive than gathering wood), they've never quite caught on in the developing world. I've never been to a village where solar cookers were being used, even in areas of extensive sun/heat where firewood was scarce! I even came across a couple of villages where the cookers were given away for free as part of some program. The women/families would pull it out when guests came and do a short demo. But for everyday use, they still preferred firewood and its smokiness.

The reasons were mainly:
  • most women cooked early in the morning and later in the evening, before the family had awoken, when sun light/heat is at its lowest. During the day, they were out collecting wood for light, heat, and cooking (which solar cookers can't compensate for) and doing other income generating activities.
  • the last thing any of these women wanted to do was sit out in the hot sun and cook (its the same reason why smoky cookstoves are placed inside the house rather than outside)
  • flies and bugs are ubiquitous outside (inside too, but they are minimal compared to the outside). Cooking out in the open is simply less comfortable and sanitary. This is another reason for why women prefer to inhale smoke rather than cook outside.
  • the cookers rarely come with instructions/training and aren't have a problem and who do you go to for help??
  • Finally, depending on the culture, women aren't allowed or don't feel safe sitting exposed outside the house for extended periods of time when their husbands aren't around. Cooking outside means being more exposed, less safety, or even asking for trouble. Granted hunting for firewood is dangerous, but its more socially acceptable and there are other women around with you when you are doing your search.

Yet I do believe that the solar cookers in Darfur have a lot of things in their favor:

a. They come in a kit, which means that they are standardized, and they are buildable (which increases ownership!), and they are transportable. Some enterprising person can even take the same kit apart and make their own.

b. They used fairly locally available materials...again some enterprising person can build their own.

c. They come with specialized training. Most women I had met with the free solar cookers didn't quite know how to use them and didn't have the time to invest in sitting idly for three hours cooking food.

d. MOST importantly, the security situation is so bad, that there is a STRONG negative incentive for them to use the cookers. In some ways, they have no other choice but to use the cookers. They probably also spend a lot of day-time in their homes (it being a refugee camp), to allow day-time cooking rather than taking part in income generating activities as you would in a safer/regular part of the world.

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