Solar cooking provides antidote to wood fuel ‘famine’

Solar cooking provides antidote to wood fuel ‘famine’

Prior to the 20th century, virtually all families around the world cooked their food with fuel wood. In the 21st century, between one-third and one-half of the world’s population continues to do so.Trees are, of course, renewable. Sadly, the level of their exploitation is no longer sustainable. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and other sources have insisted that deforestation is caused by clearing of land for subsistence agriculture, new settlements, and lumbering, not fuel wood for cooking. (It is noteworthy that these analyses relate only to forest and not to sparser stands in inhabited areas.) New evidence, however, suggests that the FAO assumption is no longer accurate, if in fact, it ever was.FAO statistics also tell us that 55% of all “roundwood” (downed trees and branches) is used for domestic purposes. The proportion utilized specifically for cooking seems not to be known. What is certain is that both forests and isolated trees are in serious decline. In the near treeless landscapes of some 30-50 nations, FAO admits there is “fuelwood famine.”Given those circumstances, the past decades have seen a major movement to improve the efficiency of wood stoves. Other attempts to ameliorate the problem include research and development of briquettes made from biomass waste, bio-gas digesters which make energy from animal waste, even stoves which burn dried grasses.

In addition to those measures, one old cooking technique has been continuously improved upon and is even now in use in some areas of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the United States. That technique is cooking with the energy of the sun. It is simple, efficient, and easily taught, though it imposes change in deeply rooted traditional practices.

Until a few years ago, no solar cooker was available for much under $50, which meant that the very poor could not afford them. For this reason most known projects to promote solar cooking have been charity-driven. That is, they are designed to assist the impoverished for whom purchase of fuels could consume a third to half of a family’s resources. Solar cooking devices were either sold at heavily subsidized prices, or given away.

By and large, however, the investment in time and effort to insure the actual transfer of the technology has been inadequate. Consequent failures have caused flagging interest in policy centers and even environmental organizations. In addition, successful projects have not been adequately documented and publicized. Furthermore, experience has demonstrated that adoption of solar cooking is sometimes gradual, not in the short time frame that organizations in cooperation work have required. (However, once the habits are ingrained, the result is a dedicated solar cook.)

Absent much charitable interest, acceptance of solar ovens has slowed. Those who could afford fuels other than wood continue to use them: charcoal, kerosene, coal, bottled gas, electricity. All these have negative environmental consequences, and some cause drain on the foreign exchange resources of impoverished governments.

Solar cookers could reduce by half or more the cooking fuel now consumed.

The poor continue to search out and cut down wood for fuel because it is free for the work involved, (usually done by women and children). They have no choice, for surely the $50 – $75 solar cooker is out of reach, even though it would improve their condition over time. Charitable organizations will never have the resources to provide free or even partially subsidized solar cookers for all of the world’s poor who are in need.

In the late 1990s, a new and very inexpensive solar cooking device came on the scene: the CooKit. It is made of cardboard laminated with aluminum foil, in a design that is halfway between a box and a parabolic cooker. The CooKit can be made virtually anywhere in the world and sold for a few dollars — seldom more than the cost of a pack or two of cigarettes! The inventors and disseminators of the device make no patent claims, and, in fact, encourage manufacturers everywhere to copy the model.In some places, where the larger charitable projects have been mounted, the CooKit is already being produced, for example in Kenya, Turkey, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. However, these manufacturers do little marketing. In other nations, there is strong demand for solar ovens and training is available through women’s groups, but the manufacturing is grossly inadequate.

For adoption of cookers by large numbers of households, the entire system of manufacturing, merchandising, training of cooks, and continuing support of new users is a necessity. Without all of these pieces in place, promotion, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, will not succeed.

SHE, Inc. is in the process of developing a larger, more durable and more efficient version of the CooKit. The result will be specifications for the manufacture of an improved CooKit with pot and lid for a retail price under $30. Once field-tested in mid-2003, these inexpensive devices will be made widely available to poor households in climatically suitable areas everywhere. They will be accompanied by culturally sensitive provision of the required training for end users. To the extent possible, these ovens will be manufactured locally or regionally.

SHE, Inc. is harnessing the power of the free market to effect promotion of solar ovens on a massive international scale. The per-unit profit from such relatively low cost devices is small. However, SHE, Inc. has recruited indigenous, relatively small-scale entrepreneurs who are solar cooking experts and experienced instructors. They understand that there is profit in such a vast potential market. Being socially committed, these entrepreneurs also seek to enable their poor fellow citizens to save fuel expense and to avoid exposure to the smoke and fumes of wood stoves, recognized as a major health hazard in poor nations.

The strategy of SHE Inc. and its recent activities and accomplishments are described elsewhere on this Web site.

Barbara Knudson
January, 2002

Dr. Barbara Knudson is a founder and director of SHE, Inc. She can be contacted at

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