Friday, February 26, 2010

The Free or Almost Free Model

Walking around Nakuru town today, I was thinking about why a particular project was going so slowly. The project involves showing people how to make simple solar cookers. They just require cardboard or something similar, reflective paper, glue, tape and a blade. But the main problem has been getting hold of the materials in large enough quantities at as low a cost as possible. It's all very well to say 'just buy them' but I don't have a budget and if I buy them, what use will that be to the free or almost free model.

I would like to think that certain things can be constructed using free or very cheap materials. In Western countries, such as the UK, you can get all the cardboard you need by visiting a supermarket or department store. But here, you have to pay. I don't know about the lowest price yet, but I had to pay the price of half a kilo of maize for a single cardboard box. They are reused until they can no longer be called a box, and that's a very good thing. You don't see lots of cardboard box waste lying around, not until it's completely useless. Because this 'waste' is valued, it doesn't present the sort of litter problem they have here with plastic bags, say.

Similarly, I wanted to find some kind of durable reflective paper. I know that lots of sweets, biscuits, chocolate and other products are wrapped in such paper. Even better, car tyres are wrapped in a very durable reflective paper. Having identified these sources, I now need to identify places where people can get the stuff in large enough quantities. I'm still working on that. Some shops I visited were reluctant to hand over any more than a small sample, others simply said they didn't have any to spare. Perhaps this stuff is also reused for something, perhaps people are just holding out for an appropriate price. Tin foil would be Ok but it's expensive and not very durable.

Anyhow, I think people who are making these solar cookers should source the materials by themselves. They will get a much better price and will be better placed to source the materials for free. I just want to know that the materials are available so no one can tell me that I'm asking them to do something impossible. I'm getting closer, but I'm not there yet. Once I have found a good place to get adequate amounts of cardboard and reflective paper at a good price, hopefully free, then I can tell people where to go and get started making the cookers. I'll throw in a free pot of glue and anything else that is required!

I've had similar experiences with cooking baskets (also called fireless cookers). The main material for these devices, which insulate cooking pots sufficiently to allow partially cooked food to cook completely, is some kind of stuffing. An ideal kind of stuffing is a waste product from a local blanket factory. However, this waste product is also used for furniture, pillows, quilting, etc. So, again, you have to pay for it. Enough for a medium sized cooking basket costs about the price of two kilos of maize meal, enough to feed quite a number of people. I'm sure buying it in large quantities would bring the cost down but it's a challenge to the free or almost free model. Alternative, waste from local sisal factories could be used, but this too costs money as it is used to stuff furniture.

Another of our proposed projects is to construct a press that can compress briquettes made from organic waste. I spent some time looking for someone who could make such a press (it's not as easy to find someone as you might think!). When I found one, I gave him some plans I had found on the internet, a variety of wooden and metal ones. I was surprised that he recommended making the press from metal because the sort of high strength wood required would be very expensive. On the other hand, the metal could be sourced from scrap metal dealers. The labour would be cheap and I'm expecting to have a version of the press in the next week or so.

The briquettes can be made out of many things, fruit and vegetable peelings, charcoal dust, sawdust, waste from food production and other sources. Getting large amounts of waste in the right form may not be so easy. Sawdust has to be paid for, though the other materials are free (unless the word gets around that they are valuable). But they will probably need to be chopped or crushed so they can be mixed in the right proportions. And chopping or crushing machines are available, but they are very expensive. Ok, expensive means tens or hundreds of dollars. But where you only stand to make a few dollars a day profit at the most, no one is going to shell out large amounts for materials.

Economy of scale would make a huge difference, of course. But the aim of these projects is to be small and cheap. They need to be small enough and cheap enough for people who have very little money and probably very little education. If the money, training and education were readily available, there wouldn't be so much of a problem. So I'm looking for as many of these 'free or almost free' ways of either making money, saving money or a combination of the two.

Luckily, the organisation I'm working with, Ribbon of Hope, in Nakuru, has a number of other projects. We grow crops and support people to produce things that get them an income. Some of our clients keep livestock and we are investigating the possibility of breeding rabbits for food. These are all good 'bread and butter' projects because they provide people with income or food or both. But the more we can branch out and find other ways of making money, especially ways that don't require much capital, the better. Hence my aim to work on the free or almost free model to see how far it can take us.


No comments: