Sunday, March 21, 2010

Development is Not All About Money

It's basic science that if you insulate a hot cooking pot properly, the food inside will continue cooking even after you remove the heat source. But however basic, probably most people in the world cook with a continuous heat source, gas, electricity, parafin, wood, charcoal, whatever.

So it comes as a surprise to some people, people who would recognise the basic science, that you don't need to keep the food over a continuous heat source. You can bring things to the boil and then transfer them to a heat box, hay box, cooking basket, fireless cooker, whatever you want to call it. This insulated container will allow the food to continue cooking. Even if it's something slow to cook, like beans, it will eventually cook completely.

And when people don't even have ready access to the basic science, seeing food cook without any obvious heat source seems like magic. Of course, there is an obvious heat source, but when the food is removed and put in a stone cold container, it still cooks. Using this method you can save a lot of money on fuel. I don't think I need to rehearse the benefits of cutting fuel use or cutting costs of any kind.

The technology goes way back but interest in it seems to wax and wane. I've heard it was popular during and after the second world war, when there were shortages of food and fuel. And not only is the technology widely known and cheap, it can even be totally free to make one of these devices. Then it saves you money and you can use it to cook, keep things hot, even keep water hot all night so you can use it to wash with in the morning.

Here in Nakuru, working with Ribbon of Hope Self Help Group, I'm hoping that most people will be interested in making and using this neat trick. Most of them use charcoal or wood. These are expensive and trees are in short supply. It also requires a lot of work to search for fuel. Any way of cutting fuel use and costs would be welcome as most people in and around Nakuru are poor. And using cooking baskets even reduces smoke inhalation, water use and degradation of the nutritional value of the food because it cooks at low temperatures. And washing up is easier!

You can buy cooking baskets, marketed as fireless cookers, in the supermarkets. They are fine looking and work very well. But they are expensive. Not many people would shell out the equivalent of a whole week's salary, perhaps even two week's salary, for one of these. But the good news is that they are easy to make and they can be made using locally available materials.

On Friday we went to Athinai, a place totally dominated by sisal plantations and some factories that use the raw material for very basic products, such as ropes. The best of it is exported as a raw material, earning the company less than it should and earning locals even less. Especially considering the factory's habit of not bothering to pay people for months and even years.

Anyhow, the factory has some by-products, some of which are dumped, some of which are sold for good money and some of which are sold for very little money. The dry fibres, even the ones that are not fit to be sold, make perfect padding for cooking baskets. People in Athinai can get it in large supplies, free of charge. If they can't get enough, or if the factory starts to charge for it, they can use rolled up newspapers, dry banana leaves, hay, straw or anything dry and light that is a good insulator.

Instead of weaving expensive baskets and using other materials that go into the beautiful cooking baskets you see in supermarkets, I got a couple of used sacks in the market, one small and one large. People can get sacks free of charge if they know where to look or who to ask. Then all they have to do is stuff the large bag, make a little nest for the samll bag, which will hold the pot. A piece of material of some kind, stuffed with the stuffing and tied off or sewn, will do as the lid. Then tie off the big sack to make it all snug and you're cooking.

In front of the people who turned up for the demonstration, we stuffed a pile of sisal waste, something people there are so familiar with, into the sack as described. A pot of rice was brought to the boil and transferred to the cooking basket. And 40 minutes later people were shown the cooked rice. Not only were they astounded, but they were invited to take the whole thing apart so they could be sure there was no trick involved, which they did.

Cooking just for myself, I spend about ten shillings a day on charcoal but people with families can easily spend twice or three times that amount. It is estimated that you can cut charcoal (or wood) use by half by employing a cooking basket. So the amount saved is considerable. If someone earns 150 shillings a day working in the fields and they spend 600 shillings a month on charcoal, it's like getting an extra two day's wages without having to do the work. 24 extra days a year!

Rather than just concentrating on income generating activities, Ribbon of Hope is also looking at ways of cutting expenditure. These cooking baskets are perfect because they need not cost anything and they start saving you money straight away. Coupled with solar cookers, the amount of money people could save throughout the year begins to look like an excellent bonus. If you only use the solar cooker on 100 days of the year, that's another 6 day's wages to add to make a cool extra one and a half months. And as we don't have to give people this estimated 4,500 shillings a year, we think it's a pretty sustainable way of helping people with their finances.



Bob Lloyd said...

Wonderful realistic practical use of very simple technology with immediate benefits. It's just such an impressive idea and like all such ideas, it's obvious as soon as you see it. But it takes guys like you to see it! Well done!

Simon said...

Thanks Bob, I'm just hoping that people here will adopt it. As long as some do, I'll be happy.

Claire said...

Agreed! You sond like you are in your element, that you know you are onto a great thing. That's wonderful.

Simon said...

Thanks Claire, I'm hoping it will spread, here and in other places. Then I'll be in my element. But yes, I'm enjoying it!