How Are Solar Ovens Improving the Lives of Women and the Environment?

How Are Solar Ovens Improving the Lives of Women and the Environment?

An interview with Louise Meyer and Barbara Knudson from Solar Household Energy Inc. on a new initiative to introduce 2,000 HotPots to people living in protected areas in Mexico.

In December 2003 Solar Household Energy Inc. (SHE), in collaboration with the Mexican Nature Conservation Fund, was honored to be one of 47 winners from a pool of 2,700 applicants to receive a World Bank "Development Marketplace" grant.

Funds from this initiative will be used to distribute 2,000 HotPots (solar ovens) in remote rural Mexican communities during 2004. In particular, the HotPots will be sold to users by newly trained micro-retailers. The project will involve cooperation with community-based Mexican NGOs. This project will benefit the lives of many women while working to protect the environment.

I had the opportunity to speak to Louise Meyer and Barbara Knudson, partners in SHE, about this initiative.

AWID: What is the firewood ‘famine’?

Louise: The firewood famine suggests a dilemma of where to spend your income. The poor spend 30-40% of their income on fuel. They often have to make a choice between, "will I buy fuel today or will I buy food". We have direct quotes from women saying, "should I buy beans or the firewood to cook the beans on?".

Barbara: The first time that I ever heard the term fuelwood famine was in a book published by the FAO (in 1996 or 1997) called, "The State of the World’s Forests". What they were referring to was the clear fact, with the exception of Europe, that forests are declining everywhere in the world. Forests have been declining rapidly in the last 100 years; over a third of the world’s forests are gone.

Historically human beings have always used wood to cook. Before, the balance between the needs of humans and the ability of forests to rejuvenate themselves was sustainable. But with the huge population growth it is no longer sustainable. There is a huge discrepancy between the continents of the earth in terms of the fuelwood famine, with the situation being more serious in some countries than in others. The last FAO publication stated that in thirty countries there is a fuelwood famine, this means there is not enough wood to meet demand.

This is further complicated by the preference for using charcoal by people particularly in urban areas. Charcoal is made from wood so the source of it is still the tree and the forest. The process of making charcoal takes between a third to a half (perhaps more) of the heat energy out of the wood before it is used. As more and more people move city-ward and wish to use charcoal because it is more convenient and easier to use indoors, the fuel famine will become worse and worse.

AWID: What are the environmental and health impacts of using firewood?

Louise: There are incidences of burns. Women that cook with firewood always have their babies around them, perhaps one on their back as well as toddlers near by. Sometimes they fall into the fire. I have never met anyone in the developing world who has not told me a story about one of their children getting burned, it happens so frequently.

The other big health incidence is indoor air pollution. There is new information, now available through the World Health Organization, that shows cooking over firewood is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. This phenomenon has never been researched properly until recently. This is because women who cook with firewood do not live in cities but in rural areas and it is hard to reach them. Cooking over firewood repeatedly, for all of their lives is something that is burdening women’s respiratory system. It is a major killer in the world.

The third impact is collection time. Collecting firewood is a huge burden. Because of deforestation firewood can not be found close to home any more. Some women have to walk up to two days in order to collect it. They often take their daughters with them because they cannot carry enough for their families. This means that girls are deprived of going to school.

AWID: How has this depletion of firewood impact women’s lives?

Louise: It impacts women’s lives because the women of the world are obliged to cook for their families. In many places this is their role. Not being able to provide a cooked meal for your family is embarrassing, a shame, and a scandal.

Barbara: Of course it takes their time. Women are already working harder than the male side of the human population. Because cooking takes so much time women are less able to become better educated, economically productive, and to become active in community organizations where they could have a big impact. Because their lives are impacted the lives of other people are affected as well. Of course, It also impacts men’s lives, if they cannot eat well this is an issue. Louise is quite right, cooking is assumed by many women to be their job and if they cannot manage it or if they have to spend so much money for fuel they cannot buy the food they want then they feel like they are failing. They will go to any length, walk for days to get wood, in order to accomplish this.

Louise: Let me put a number to the deforestation depletion. In Sub-Sharan Africa, 80% of the population cooks with firewood, this includes charcoal made from firewood.

Barbara: Latin America would only be a little bit behind Africa, but they are a heavily urbanized population. In urban populations at least some portion of the population begins to have the modern energy sources and they no longer have to rely on traditional sources.

AWID: What is SHE?

Louise: Barbara and I are both partners of a non-profit organization called Solar Household Energy (SHE), which started in 1999. We work through entrepreneurs in the developing world promoting solar cooking.

AWID: What is the solar HotPot? How does it work?

Louise: The solar HotPot is a solar oven. It is part of a new project, just launched in Mexico where the HotPot is about to be industrial manufactured. It is a panel-reflector with a pot placed in the centre of it that consists of three items: a black steel enameled pot, a glass Pyrex bowl with a glass lid sits inside of the pot. The black pot contains the food and attracts the sunlight, the sunlight is transformed into heat. The glass around it prevents the heat from escaping forming a greenhouse effect, the food cooks that way. [To see an example of the HotPot please visit SHE’s web site at:}

AWID: Does the HotPot extend cooking time at all?

Louise: The cooking takes twice as long, sometimes it takes even longer than twice as long. The advantage is that the food does not burn.

Barbara: In addition, it takes no work on the part of the woman. She can put it out in the sun and then more or less forget it, and is able to do other things. What this means is that she has to develop new habits, for example changing the time you put your food on to cook.

There are many, many solar cooking devices. Basically, they all work, they all function well, and they all cook food. They are all more or less efficient, depending on their design. But, the search has always been, among NGOs that work in this field, for a really inexpensive device that could be useful to the world’s poor people. The problem is that if you get to a really cheap device it is not durable. For instance, there is a very cheap device made of cardboard, it cooks just fine, but if it is caught in the rainstorm it is dead in the water.

Louise: The HotPot is the design that is the most efficient and the most affordable.

Barbara: When we designed the HotPot we wanted a device that was durable but less expensive than the others on the market. We would have liked it to be even less expensive than it is but the search for efficiency and durability means that it cannot be made really cheaply. It is still very cheap to us but it is not cheap for very poor people. They will need access to microcredit, or something of that sort, in order to be able to purchase a HotPot.

AWID: Is part of your program looking at ways to finance the HotPot?

Barbara: That is what the World Bank money is for, to help get that started.

AWID: Where is it being distributed?

Louise: We are beginning a year-long project in Mexico. We won funding in a competition at the World Bank Development Market Place, as we call it the HotPot Initiative. Our partner organization in Mexico is Nature Conservancy Mexico, Fondo Mexicano para la Protección de la Naturaleza, I will call it Fondo. Fondo chooses the area where the HotPot will be introduced. Our plan is to manufacture 2,000 HotPots in Monterrey, Mexico and then sell them in the protected areas selected by Fondo, through the NGOs that work in the protected areas.

AWID: How will solar HotPots improve the lives of women?

Louise: We are dealing with women who are, for the most part, cooking with firewood and spending time cooking over smoky fires. In some cases, if they are in protected areas (I am speaking of Mexico) they are no longer allowed to cut down trees. Because they can be fined for cutting trees they have to buy firewood. The HotPot will improve their lives because they have lots of sunshine which means they can cook 1-2 meals a day (you do need sunshine to cook with solar ovens). They can then save their firewood for nighttime or for those days that they cannot cook because it is too cloudy or rainy.

AWID: Do you foresee any challenges in women adopting this new technology?

Louise: There are challenges. Barbara and I have both worked extensively in many countries training people to cook with solar ovens. People do not like changing their habits. Eating and cooking habits are some of the most intimate that we have and changing them means you might risk changing the taste. Then people may not like your food and your family will complain. You are also teaching women that cooking takes longer, you have to start earlier in the morning. If you don’t teach this process properly, you must make it successful and fun, then women are not going to use the solar oven after the training program is over. Part of SHE’s priority is to put together really good training programs.

Barbara: From a gender perspective and looking at how technology transfers from design to use, traditionally, it is really hard to be the first innovator of a new something-or-rather. Because people will say, "that woman thinks she can cook with the sun, can you believe that?" and they laugh hysterically. When we have had to introduce the solar ovens on a large scale we re-thought the method of presenting it to women. We did not go into a refugee camp and try to get together the women leaders of the groups (there would be a bunch of difference ethnic groups in the camp) together to show them this technology and then expect that they would pass it down. Assuming they would be the early adapters and other people would follow in their paths. We did not think this sounded right from a feminist point of view. We know that women learn to cook from their mothers, sisters, and aunts, and so on. Instead of doing it that way we did it by neighbourhood. We trained 10-12 people at a time and took people who simply lived next to one another. Firstly, they would not be made fun of because there would be a bunch of people doing it, or if they were made fun of at least they would share the ridicule. Secondly, they could learn from one another as they practiced this new technology. There are challenges, no doubt about it, but women take to it quite readily. Not that it is complicate it only requires a slight adjustment.

I would like to make a comment following up on what Louise said about taste. Not all foods lend themselves to solar cooking, the bulk do. For example, frying requires a really hot fire, thus it does not work well with solar cookers. You can do it with some solar cookers but they are the very expensive ones. With SHE’s HotPot you would not be able to fry things. In general, the introduction of solar oven works best in places where the solar cooking process fits well with the food. Whenever food cooks long and slow you do not have much trouble with it, if you want something that cooks quick and hot it becomes much harder.

Louise: In Mexico where we have already done a user acceptance program in two villages, the women were trained to cook the foods that they cook everyday, which are beans and all kinds of grains. When they saw how the HotPot Solar oven could cook their beans they were of course very keen on getting one because it takes time and a lot of firewood to cook beans.

AWID: What role do women have in confronting environmental issues?

Barbara: This is a tough question and we have debated it for a long time. In our teaching we always teach that solar cooking is an environmentally sound practice. We stress this point but we know that the people we are introducing this technology to are desperately poor people who are working very hard to scratch out a dinner for today. When people are struggling for the basics you are not going to persuade them to spend a lot of their energy thinking about the consequences of what happens twenty years down the road as a result of today’s activities.

However, I will say after trying to raise this issue in a variety of ways and in different places, I have found that the most useful thing is to appeal to women as housewives. By doing this we say that all of us know what any one of us does on a particular day does not make a whole lot of difference in the big scheme of things. But if you think about all of the women, like ourselves, around the world who are preparing food everyday and you add them all up we could make an enormous difference. They understand this. I have the most experience doing this in Turkey and in the refugee camps in Kenya, where women had every reason not to care a whole lot as it is not their country. If you talk about the role of the cook of the household and what her contribution can be to what is happening in the world today, she can relate. We have to bear in mind that we are serving the poorest level of the population who’s most urgent priority is survival. We are helping them to survive but if we are also helping to alleviate addition degradation of the environment they are happy, but it is still not their main objective.

AWID: In communities where the HotPot has been introduced have you seen an increase in the community’s interest in protecting the local environment?

Louise: In the case of Mexico, because we are working in protected areas where people are working with and being educated by NGOs there are a lot of environmental awareness programs and environmental education in schools. Therefore there is an increased environmental awareness. It is a lucky thing that the HotPot solar oven can be part of this, so it is not a foreign initiative.

I believe in the refugee camps that Barbara has talked about there has been an increase in community interest by our participants in our workshops, don’t you think so Barbara?

Barbara: Yes I do. Not long after we started working in the camps another agency came along and started asking, "shouldn’t we be teaching environmental issues in the schools?". We thought that was a wonderful idea. Not long after that all the schools included environmental issues and solar cooking was taught at the schools, along with many other things.

I think that it is probably fair to say that the great majority of solar cooking programs have not been primarily started for environmental reasons. There has always been two rationales for solar cooking, one, is benefits to the environment and the other is benefits to the human beings who are involved, resulting in economic and health benefits. Most of the projects have been focused on assisting people rather than the environment. This is not to say that all of those people did not pay attention to the environment. But, I think that the project in Mexico has really been started, managed, and the initiative for came from environmental organizations. This is a rather big step that we have not paid a lot of attention to because we are just getting into this project. I think that it is a new departure for the solar cooking movement to be wholly embedded into the environmental movement.

AWID: Do you think that grassroots environmental projects, such as this one, will have a significant impact on environmental degradation?

Louise: We hope so but they have to get rolling quickly. There is a huge emergency and we really need to start pushing on this issue.

AWID: Is there anything that I have not covered that you would like to say?

Louise: I would like to mention that many women are artisans. While they are using a solar HotPot they can use the extra time to work on their craft. This could be a tremendous help. They often have to let go of the time they would spend on their craft in order to find firewood.

Barbara: I would like to say that while those of us who work in this area believe fiercely in what we are doing, however, we are a relatively small band of believers around the world. There is a long way to go before we have enough solar cooking in various countries where the climate is suitable (all countries are not, most are) to have the kind of impact that we believe solar cooking could have. What we need to have is more workers, more resources, more energy, and more ingenuity to accomplish this. We have people all round the world who are networked on this topic. We need to get ourselves organized to think very hard about advocating the message of the potential of solar cooking and working to get this technology into the hands of all the people for whom it could be a health and economic benefit. Solar cooking benefits all of us, if it benefits some it benefits all when we look at the other side of the coin which are the environmental benefits. We need all the help that we can get with this.

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