Friday, October 2, 2009

Nairobi Trade Fair and Solar Gadgets

A colleague and I went to the Nairobi Trade Fair yesterday. Many of the exhibits were the standard agricultural and small industrial production, crops, animals, goods such as rope and honey and the like. There were impressive fields of sunflowers, bananas and cabbage and well fattened cows, ostriches and sheep. And there was agricultural machinery aplenty for ploughing, preparing, irrigating, reaping and threshing.

But much of what I saw looked like it was aimed at rich or relatively rich farmers. The majority of farmers in Kenya are subsistence farmers with small amounts of land. They often aim to provide their household with some food and perhaps some surplus to sell. But they would not be able to afford the high grade machinery that was on offer. Even the machinery that was specifically aimed at 'small' farmers was very expensive. We were told that it was cost effective to grow an acre of jatropha for its oil seed crop, used for biofuels. But the machinery to press the oil would put most farmers off. And no farmer with only one acre would give it over to a cash crop.

Of course, farmers would be well advised to steer clear of biofuels anyhow. Their price are predicated on large scale production, which is, by definition, beyond the reach of small farmers. And producing energy products for Western countries is unlikely to make anyone in Kenya very rich, unless they are very rich already.

But farmers have been hoodwinked many times in the past to produce cash crops, such as sugar, tea, sisal and coffee. Small farmers have the most to lose when they find that it is not as productive as they were told. Some are giving up on these cash crops to find an alternative or even to grow food crops that they can use and sell the surplus of. But sadly, much of the best land in Kenya is already given over to inedible cash crops which only the wealthiest of farmers and dealers make money out of.

Millions face starvation because of lack of food, millions are malnourished because of the lack of variety in their diet. The current drought doesn't help but the gradual loss of land to inedible cash crops or large scale factory farming that is of little benefit and much detriment to the majority continues to push even more to the brink of starvation.

There seemed to be little evidence at the Nairobi Trade Fair that the Ministry of Agriculture and other large and official bodies there were reaching out to small farmers, producers and artisans. In fact, the 250 shilling entry fee and nearly 500 shilling travel costs just from Nakuru would keep most small farmers away, when many of them are lucky to get 150 shillings a day for their work.

There were exceptions. There were solar driers that allow people to save wasting much of their produce that they are unable to sell. There were solar cookers, something very close to my heart. The cookers are very affordable and can even be home made. Anyhow can make them. The driers are not so affordable but again, people can work out how to make them for themselves. There were cooking baskets which can be used to reduce use of solid fuels (and also made at home). And there were even improved cookers that claim to use less fuel or use various kinds of fuel.

But even some of the low cost exhibits forget just how little money people have. One of the improved cookers was ten times the cost of an ordinary 'jiko' or charcoal burning cooker. It's great to see innovative designs but until the inventors and developers of these products find out how to really reduce the cost to one that people just can't refuse, their work will lie on shelves.

Going back to solar cookers, I have tried to use a parabolic cooker, made by lining an umbrella with tinfoil. The focal point gets very hot and it should be possible to cook with it. But, alas, there has only been intermittent sun today so I just have to wait. But this design is only a prototype. Umbrellas and tinfoil are not very durable and they are not produced locally. In the long run, I'd like to be able to construct such a design using local materials, especially recycled materials.

Well, as always, I'll post my progress here as soon as I make further progress.



Claire said...

do people in nairobi use staellite dishes? i suppose there would never be enough wast satellite dishes to make enough solar cookers.
The drought made it onto the Today programme this morning, they were reporting from a village in Kenya about people slaughtering all their goats.

Simon said...

Hi Claire
I've never seen a dumped satellite dish. I'm sure some of the ones you see on roofs are no longer working but it would probably be difficult to 'liberate' them. I was thinking of taking a paper mache cast of the umbrella and cover the inside of that with foil.

So the drought is being reported there. I suppose it's not considered worth reporting in time for emergencies to be prevented. Some people are getting rid of their animals and emergency efforts sometimes involved slaughtering animals for food. But many of the animals are starving too so it's too late to use them as food.