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Challenges and Advancements in Solar Cooking
Sarah Rich, 26 Feb 07
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We recently got a note from someone who runs a volunteer agency in rural Kenya. She was writing about the benefits of solar cookers for villagers, and wondering why such a simple and potentially transformative existing technology has not been taken up more widely in place of traditional wood-fired cooking. We published a piece a few years ago about solar cooking, at which time several readers piped up pointing out that while the benefits of this tool for human health and the environment are great, there are serious cultural and social factors inhibiting its adoption; namely, that removing the need for women to collect fuel and tend fire can upset gender roles, and that solar cooking may alter the taste of food, which is fundamentally disruptive to familiar experience.

The email sparked a little internal conversation which seemed worth opening again here, since there are likely a number of you out there with experience designing, distributing or using solar cookers. As Ethan Zuckerman said in our recent exchange:

Solar ovens are a good example of a long-standing debate over appropriate technology. Does it make more sense to try to convince people to change their behavior - i.e., the kind of food they eat and the way they like to cook - to have a major cost savings and environmental impact? Or should we figure out how people like to behave and try to make those processes more efficient and less costly?

In the time since we last mentioned them, Solar Cookers International (SCI) has launched a wiki, where a global community of solar cooking advocates can explore this debate. They also have an extensive resource archive, which has expanded in the last few years, and now includes, among other resources, a detailed piece addressing cultural variables and challenges to dissemination of solar cookers, written by Ramon Coyle, a database coordinator for SCI.

Coyle's analysis looks at both sides of cultural fence -- reasons for abandoning solar techniques, as well as reasons for embracing them. In our email thread, he mentioned a newer solar technology that has improved upon some of the earlier glitches in ultra-simplistic solar cookers, the HotPot, from Solar Household Energy (SHE). The HotPot is said to improve upon the basic, older cooker model by using a refined design for the reflector that is made of anodized aluminum and steel, instead of standard foil and cardboard. It also uses a tempered glass bowl around a black-enameled steel pot which retains heat and creates a greenhouse effect that keeps temperatures stable -- an improvement over the approach of using a plastic bag to insulate the interior pot.

The primary trouble with this new and improved design is the cost. Whereas the foil and cardboard cooker costs less than $5, the HotPot costs $28-$42. It is a more inclusive package than the cheap CooKit model developed by SCI a decade earlier, but still a drain on village families' resources. Coyle argues, however, that with fuel prices rising, the long-term savings of purchasing a better cooker may become more apparent to potential consumers: have an impact on dozens of millions of families, it seems likely that private enterprise will play a big role. Because rising prices of traditional fuels are already draining poor people's finances and are likely to drain them even worse as growing shortages force higher prices, the future is arriving where paying $42 for a solar cooker that will save a family $100 per year will be a "poverty reduction" measure that poor people will be taking themselves, without waiting for a non-profit to help them.

Of course, even the decision over how to spend money carries a lot of cultural and social weight. Men tend to make financial decisions, while women are the ones preparing the food -- whether with fire or solar energy. No doubt, more than two years after we first introduced SCI on Worldchanging, designs have been refined but the pros and cons of adopting the cooker seem to keep the technology's widespread success in the developing world hanging in the balance.

Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. A number of advocates and designers were involved in the beginning of this conversation and will probably be watching this space for your thoughts and input.

Thanks, Ali.

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Another area to consider is solar food preservation. It's as old as the hills, really. Codfish, when it existed, dried beautifully, and when salted, could last for years. Many types of produce dry beautifully and last forever. A small transparent plastic dryer could be made from off the shelf Tupperware. What's important is to hang the item so a minimum of it touches any surface, and venting to carry away the moist air without letting in any icky bugs.

However, most of these kinds of foods would need to be rehydrated by boiling.

Posted by: rob on 26 Feb 07

Seems as though the promotion of solar cooker (as well as other 'women specific' technologies) in conjunction with the micro-credit loans to women would be an appropriate course of action ... with the micro loans serving to assist in getting the financing in place, and involving women at the outset. Women have the notably successful repayment, too.


Posted by: David on 26 Feb 07

I live in Guatemala and work on social enterprise projects, and I've seen much the same phenomena as that mentioned in Kenya. In Guatemala, rural women seem to worry about losing their familial role if there is no firewood to collect and no meal to prepare in the traditional manner. Solar ovens haven't caught on for that reason, among others.

As for the micro-credit model mentioned above, my organization sells efficient, wood-fired stoves on credit, and solar stoves would be a great complement to that innovative business model. Preaching the value-add of a new wood-fired stove is difficult and slow work, however, and it would be exponentially more so for a solar stove. Definitely worth a try, though.

Posted by: Andrew on 26 Feb 07

Instead of worrying about the cost of the solar-cooker, what's needed,
is a design that barbecuing fans would rather use,
than their own grill and fuel.
That would mean that the food would have to taste really special.
Now . . . design a solar-cooker that improve's the taste of food?
I'd want to buy one of those!

Posted by: Ed Carey Sr on 26 Feb 07

Thanks for this great post. A few comments come to mind:

1) Are solarcookers "sold" as a replacement or as a complementary tool? Their value for treating water or for drying food has been noted in another comment. Maybe something you use for one thing will have other uses eventually (a kind of backdoor selling, I know).

2) Any successes in "evolving roles"? What happens along time?

3) If it's a matter of tradition, how about going through grannies first? Or through young girls as part of their "I can do this unattended" learning?

4) I know I'm a bit fixated, but I see value in people (specially children) being able to not move around too much in the next flu pandemic. So I'm wondering if solarcookers would be one element in such a strategy. Just wondering ...

Posted by: lugon on 27 Feb 07

I talked to some folks doing a solar cooking demo in Chicago one day. They were talking about introducing their technology to some government minister in an African country, and the minister said "we won't have solar cookers here because they cause domestic violence against women!!! No way!!!"

It turned out that if there was a cloudy day, and the food was cold by the time the husband got home, a beating frequently resulted.

Now, while better solar cooking technology could certainly help with that problem, I think it shows just how intractable the real-world case is.

Andrew, what do you think of the stove design here: - they think they can get the cost down a long way with mass production. I've cooked all my meals on one of these for a month and found it an excellent technology, but I don't know how it would go over in the field. (and, yeah, I have a solution for the battery problem.)

Also, solar water pasteurization needs mentioned: it may be that solar turns out to be the hot ticket for water sterilization, even if it never quite catches on globally for cooking.

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 27 Feb 07

I love the idea of anything actually.
The thing that caught my eye in this article was the idea that people would be unwilling to use the technology because it changed the flavour of the food or that it changed the social dynamic within a group of people. Now this is going to sound harsh but I think the situation many are finding themselves in is harsh:
If they are unwilling to adopt technologies for reasons like this...they don't deserve to thrive and in the end, even to survive. If a group of people are unable to solve the problem locally and some outside ideas are presented that solves this problem and they are not adpted, it is no longer our concern. It is up to the people in the situation to take command of thier well being. We have a long pathetic history of trying to "lift the third world from poverty" and I would guess trillions of dollars have been thrown at the problem....and there is not a single success story out there on a large scale. I would imagine many who read this site know full well that there are simple solutions to ALL of these problems on Earth...if we choose to not use them....then we don't deserve to make it as a species. It's pretty simple really.

Posted by: keith on 27 Feb 07

Wherever solar cooking leads to violence against women, the materials could be made available to the men to get them involved in making and customizing their solar cookers.

It should be emphasized that the family needs to keep a small pile of firewood for days when the sun doesn't shine, or shine enough.

Solar Cookers International (SCI) found that, in every village they went into, it was the same story: there were a few "hippies" among the inhabitants who would try anything new; they might be given a free cooker to test. The relatively rich among the inhabitants looked on disdainfully, pretending to ignore the whole thing; but if the cookers worked, the rich would usually buy them. The rest of the villagers only watched the rich. When these village elite began using the cookers, the rest of the village followed suit.

Lest we be tempted to look down our noses to that kind of monkey behavior, I believe that we "civilized" folks do the same.

The microlending idea for women is a great idea where sexism is not too strong.

Economies of scale could be realized by making large community solar cookers for several families to cook their meals in separate compartments.

I design and make multipurpose solar-thermal systems.

Frank Michael

Posted by: Frank Michael on 27 Feb 07


I see what you're saying about technology adoption in developing countries, and working currently in international development I definitely feel that way sometimes. But there's more to it than just simple take-it-or-leave-it technology.

There are abundant examples of this in the U.S.: Priuses, carbon credits, even Macs (some, including me, would argue) are all examples of new technologies and new ideas that have the potential to change the way we live and/or reduce our emissions. In the case of a hybrid car or carbon credits, the proof is in the pudding. But that doesn't mean that everyone is adopting them, because there are "cultural" factors: Americans' propensity to buy SUVs and pickups, for example.

What I'm saying is that you can't just drop down a superior technology somewhere and assume it's going to catch on. Things are never that simple. It is always prudent, I think, to design a product around current customs, or at least have them in mind when designing something new. This consideration, or lack thereof, is part of the dilemma with current solar stove options. It is also, perhaps, where the solutions lies.

Posted by: Andrew on 28 Feb 07

Speaking from experience, solar cookers are just not as convenient as combustable cooking options.

First, they take longer to cook food, usually twice as long, if not longer.

Secondly, one will need more than one if one is going to be cooking for an average size family.

Thirdly, it's pretty much only really good for late breakfast, lunch, and very early dinner meals. Even on a blasing hot day with no clouds if people come home in the evening from work the food will have chilled, and this assumes there is someone at home during the day to do the cooking. (But perhaps if the cooked food was stored under some blankets the heat would be retained well enough, I don't know.)

Finally, clouds are fickle, and using a solar cooker can only realistically be used as a suppliment to some other form of cooking. I live in the tropics and we can have weeks with no sun.

The problems with adopting solar cookers go way beyond a matter of "taste."

We may have to wait for cheap PV solar with cheap batteries to show up to power electric stoves before the problem is really solved.

Posted by: Tavita on 28 Feb 07

This Solar unit claims "Boils water in minutes."
Does anyone know if this can be true or not?

Posted by: Ed Carey Sr on 1 Mar 07

My husband, my 9 year old daughter and myself went to Nepal in December / January to make a small documentary about an Nepali organization called FoST.
The organization FoST is providing low-cost, low-tech, easily adaptable and locally built sustainable technologies to improve the lifes of the poor people living in the rural areas of Nepal and to protect the very fragile environment of Nepal.

They have been providing wide selection of products for cooking, drying, heat retaining and water purification using both solar and other environment-friendly sustainable technologies.

They are also working to further empower Nepalis, especially women, by providing training and employment opportunities through projects designed to create micro-enterprises in sustainable technology.

With very limited resources they are doing research and they are constantly evaluating existing sustainable technologies and adapting them to the specific resources and needs of Nepal.

We are not professional film makers (yet), but we are just a small Dutch family trying do some humanitarian work and to protect our planet. It was our own initiative to promote this great organization and my husband and I worked on the video in the evenings after work.

We put the video on the internet. The quality is not as good as the original video, but it still gives you a good idea.

I would really appreciate if you could find the time to have a look at our video.

Go to Google Video and type "FoST Nepal" or "Sustainable Technologies" etc.. or click on the link below. The documentary is 39 minutes.

Please let me know what you think of the documentary. If you would like to receive an original copy of the video, please let me know as I would be delighted to send it to you.

This is the website of FoST:

Looking forward to your reply,

Sandra Wijnveldt

Posted by: Sandra Wijnveldt on 14 Mar 07



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