Sunday, February 1, 2009

Sun Worship and Self Reliance

A couple of months ago I had the pleasure of visiting a company in Nairobi that makes, demonstrates and sells solar cooking devices of various kinds; Solar Cookers International (SCI), based in Kileleshwa. These cookers can be used for more than just cooking. They are also great for pasteurising water for consumption, heating water for cleaning, drying foods to preserve them and various other things.

This has numerous advantages: it saves money spent on fuel, prevents destruction of trees and forests, reduces people's exposure to smoke and fumes, cooks food without denaturing nutrients, cooks without dangerous levels of heat, has a very low capital outlay, employs easy to find materials, and even recycled materials, to construct.

I also had the pleasure a couple of months ago of visiting a small community based organisation called Shining Hope for Community (SHOFCO), based in Kibera. They are involved in several projects that support community members. For instance, HIV positive women come to the headquarters several times a week and make bead jewellery which SHOFCO sells on their behalf. Young girls and boys do theatre and other performances to highlight issues that people in Kibera currently face, such as violence, HIV, water and sanitation problems and the like. They also distribute sanitary towels to girls and food to families, when possible.

On Friday, Solar Cookers International visited SHOFCO and spent the best part of the day setting up and demonstrating the process of cooking by sunlight. As a matter of fact, setting up a simple cooker takes seconds, but a number of different styles of cooker were demonstrated. The food was bought and prepared and after around three hours (there was a fair bit of passing cloud to interrupt the vital process!), ten or twelve of us sat down to copious amounts of rice, vegetable, sweet potato, ugali, meat and tea. There was even lots of hot water to do the washing up afterwards.

Before the preparation started there were some sceptical faces, but everyone was fired up by the prospect of seeing this process in action and the added treat of a hearty meal. Faustine and her colleagues from SCI made sure that everyone had a hand in peeling, scraping, chopping and preparing the food. This gave her the chance to insist on rigorous handwashing and care when preparing food. By the time people had got down to the work, they had forgotten their doubts and it wasn't long before the smell of food cooking reassured the doubters.

There was then time for us to go inside and shelter from the blazing sun and discuss what we were involved in. Faustine got people to volunteer answers to questions arising about why anyone would want to use solar cookers. Indeed, people came up with most of the reasons themselves, with little prompting. There were also some welcome questions about some of the drawbacks of these cookers. For instance, what if you are in a hurry, what if it is dark or cloudy or raining?

The answer is that you can't use them under such conditions. The answer is in the question, really. You then need wood, charcoal, kerosene, gas, whatever else you can use for cooking. But even in Nairobi, where there is not all year round sunshine, you could still save yourself a lot of expensive fuel. It's just one technique. Not far from SHOFCO there are people experimenting with biogas. Others use photovoltaic panels, which allow you to charge up batteries to be used later.

When I originally visited SHOFCO I asked them what income generation schemes they had. They mentioned that they made bead jewellery, and that is the main one, at present. Just as solar cookers can't be used when it's raining, bead jewellery can't be sold when there is little or no market. Women make the jewellery but there are few tourists this year because of the post election violence last year. While it is sometimes possible to sell things abroad, markets are difficult to access and not too reliable.

It's still too early to say, but hopefully solar cookers will provide income generating opportunities for organisations like SHOFCO. They could sell, demonstrate or perhaps even make solar cookers. The market is on their doorstep. They will be selling to other Kenyans and benefiting the broader community, not just themselves. There are many other community based organisations that may also be interested in solar cooking.

But there are other technologies that save people money and can even make people money. It's just a matter of people getting together, sharing their ideas and putting them into action. After the solar cookery demonstration, the drama group went to rehearse for a performance. This performance will involve people walking through a market and stumbling upon a solar cookery demonstration. They start off sceptical but gradually see that there is something very interesting to be learned.

Before SCI left SHOFCO, members of each organisation had discussed projects that could be mutually beneficial. I hope those projects are realised. As I said, it's early, but I'll keep in touch and look forward to hearing what happens.

On a similar theme, yesterday I travelled to a village near Thika to visit an orphanage called Watoto wa Barakai (Blessed Children). There are 25 children there but a far larger number of orphans are supported while living with relatives. The place is more like a big family living on a small farm, a beautiful farm. They have cattle, pigs, rabbits and various food crops and they are expanding fast. The people running the orphanage have been very enterprising and have raised a lot of money for the expansion and development.

More importantly, they are interested in sustainability, in particular, in the area of cooking. Trees in the area are being cut down and not replaced. Fuel is expensive and the children (and adults) suffer from respiratory problems. Respiratory problems underlie a huge number of deaths in Kenya, especially among infants and children under the age of five. People running Watoto wa Baraka had already started researching potential technologies, they already have a solar shower and a photovoltaic panel to light one of their buildings. They harvest rain and consider the sustainability of all their projects.

Many people are inspired by intermediate technologies but only some adopt them, ultimately. I think Kenya will only develop if Kenya do the developing and that in many cases, the less Western countries do, the better. Perhaps intermediate technology will be one way that developing countries can become more self reliant.



Anonymous said...

Hey Simon,

Good job with SHOFCO. I'm the founder the guy who introduced you to SHOFCO. I'm coming to Kenya this summer and I hope they can start solar project. I am also going to build a school for girls whose parents have died from HIV/AIDS. We shall need solar cooking in that school.You know that I used to live in Kibera until when I got the scholarship to study here in America. I'm proud of you so much. Lets keep in touch and see how we can help the new school in the slum.


Simon said...

Hi Kennedy, thank you, it was very nice to meet all the people at SHOFCO. We had a very good day with Solar Cookers International. The only problem is that I had to leave Kenya a couple of days later. I'm not sure when I'll get back there, I have not been able to make plans easily. But I hope Nicholas will be able to motivate people. But many of them seemed very motivated already. Now, I'm in Tanzania and I'm trying to do more with Solar Cookers. I wish you all the best with your studies and with your next project and I hope we meet in the future. Regards Simon

Anonymous said...

Hey Simon, great blog! Thanks for all the wonderful things you said about SCI ~ I met you at our office in Nairobi when you were buying some CooKits from Faustine. Great work, and I hope we can keep in touch : )
Stay safe out there. ~ Karyn Ellis

Simon said...

Hi Karyn, thanks, it was good to meet you. I'm in Kigoma, Western Tanzania. I built a Cookit to the specifications on the Solar Cooker Wiki but it's the rainy season and I haven't had the chance to try it out yet. But I had difficulty getting materials and had to use tin foil, which is brittle and expensive. Anyhow, I expect it will work just as well once there is enough sun and it's only for demonstration. I'll blog about it when it happens. Regards