Group works to bring solar ovens to Tanzania
Judy Martin had a great idea that seemed to be going nowhere. The Okemos woman, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania, wanted to help in that country. So she and others developed a plan to distribute low-cost solar ovens through a nonprofit organization called Solar Circle. They raised money. They recruited Tanzanians to help them get the word out. They figured out how to build ovens in Tanzania, using local materials. But it didn’t get off the ground. “We had begun to doubt that people really wanted to cook with the sun, because we had about 100 ovens in the store room even though we were heavily subsidizing the price,” Martin said.
A chance conversation changed all that. “One day we were speaking in Swahili and when I said ‘volunteer’ in Swahili, they said, ‘You mean they work (for the ovens) and they don’t pay any money?’ ” It turns out that many people who were not willing or able to pay for solar ovens were perfectly willing to work for them. The oven is basically a cooking box with a glass lid and reflectors to concentrate the sun’s rays within the box. Since the bartering began, villagers in the southern Tanzanian area of Masasi who want ovens have dug latrines, built homes and provided care for people who are HIV-positive.
On her last trip to Tanzania, earlier this year, Martin found the area abuzz with activity – both building and cooking. “It was so exciting,” she said. “Because now they have groups of people working on a project. The workers are located near each other. The ovens are located near one another, and people are feeding off of one another as to what they’re cooking and what works well.” As villagers experiment with baking bread, beans and other foods in the outdoor ovens, others become interested in them, too. Solar ovens save women time because they don’t have to collect firewood. And it helps keep women and their babies healthy because they don’t have to breathe wood smoke all day. “They really love baking bread in them,” Martin said. “Bread hasn’t been a staple there because it’s so hard to bake bread on an open fire.”
Over the past couple of years, there have been some changes in oven design. For example, the model Solar Circle originally distributed had a single large reflector, but the people who use the ovens prefer those with four smaller reflectors. They rejected a lightweight, low-cost oven that had a cardboard cooking box as too flimsy.
Besides providing the ovens, Solar Circle also has people in Tanzania who will repair them to keep them in use. There still are some glitches in distribution, though. For example, it’s hard to transport ovens to other parts of the country because roads are so bone-jarring that the glass lids break. But the recent developments have been encouraging. About 1,100 ovens have been distributed since the program began, 500 of them in 2009. “This has made us want to go on for several more years,” Martin said. “It is going to take time for solar cooking to be really established.”