Saturday, March 13, 2010

Solar Cookers: Free or Just Cheap?

I want to find community development projects that either make money or reduce costs that are themselves free or almost free. I've started with a simple solar cooker, made by Solar Cookers International (SCI), in Nairobi. But they cost 500 Kenyan shillings (around £4.50), which would also buy you about 12 kilos of the staple food, ground maize meal. That's food for quite a few people, and I wouldn't blame people for saying 'it's a great idea but I can't afford it now'. Especially when you can buy a charcoal burning stove for about 150 shillings.

Of course, charcoal is a significant expense and people with families can use 15 or more shillings a day worth of it. True, you could point out how much less charcoal you would use if you invested in a solar cooker. But the word 'invest' is the big problem. Many people wouldn't have the amount of money they need to invest all at once. And even if they had the money, they still might use it for something else, such as a solar powered light or a battery powered torch. People use their money as they see fit and make their spending decisions based on their own criteria.

I love SCI's cookers, I use them myself. I have the luxury of being able to afford several, which is ideal on a sunny day. They are also great for demonstrating the concept because they fold up and I can easily carry three or four, along with the other paraphernalia needed to show people how to use them. They are resilient and so simple, I'd recommend them to anyone. They are cheap, but not free.

However, when the money available is a hundred or two hundred shillings a day, perhaps less, these cookers are not going to fly off the shelves. I have tried suggesting to people that they could make their own, given that they are simple and require cheap materials. I've said I would come and help them to make cookers so they would have them for a maximum of about 50 shillings. This has been met with some enthusiasm, but not much. I'm not terribly sure why this is, but I'll be looking out for the explanation.

Anyhow, when you demonstrate the use of solar cookers, people are excited, inspired, even stunned. They start off by dismissing the possibility of cooking with a piece of shiny cardboard, regardless of whether you paint the pots black or any other colour. But when they see their everyday foods cooked they are speechless. Even ugali, the tasteless and almost nutrition-free (it's pure starch) staple, boiled maize meal, cooks far more easily than it does on a charcoal stove. At least some people are interested. But there's still the problem of cost.

So after demonstrating their use in Salgaa, half an hour West of Nakuru, I said I'd come back and help people to make them. They make all sorts of things themselves, so cutting out a shape in cardboard and sticking on shiny paper shouldn't be a problem. The cardboard can come from large boxes and the shiny paper could be aluminium foil. These are cheap. Compared to the manufactured solar cooker, it's really cheap, almost free. But that doesn't impress people. They have to pay for cardboard boxes, they are very useful. And aluminium foil is not cheap enough for some people, though the amount you'd need for a solar cooker is small.

Well, it's possible to get large amounts of cardboard very cheaply, perhaps free, if you look in the right places. And it's possible to get very good reflective paper, very durable, much better than aluminium foil. I wandered the streets looking for products that use this material and discovered that new vehicle wheels are wrapped in this untearable material, which is almost shiny enough to see your face in. Also, supermarket products, such as chocolate, sweets, tea and various other things are wrapped in similar materials.

I knew I would be met with more objections, we don't have a car, we don't eat chocolate, etc. But neither do I have a car nor do I eat most of these products. The thing is, someone does. They are not stacked in the supermarkets for no reason. And when people have finished with things, they throw them away. Over the fence, in a ditch, anywhere. Occasionally, they throw things in a bin and they end up in a dump. But still, this means that this great reflective material is available, you just have to look.

I looked and enquired and asked whoever I could think of. I was met with complete incomprehension when I said I didn't want to buy vehicle tires. But when it was realised that I placed a value on the material they were wrapped in, availability suddenly dropped. It was clear that I would have to pay money if I wanted this stuff, being white, and therefore incalculably rich. But the people who were going to make the solar cookers, they wouldn't have to pay money. Not much, anyhow. And people here are good at finding things they need or getting them very cheaply. So I left it up to them to collect the materials.

This hasn't worked so well. On the appointed day, I turned up to find 40 people, 2 cardboard boxes, one too small to be of much use, and three wrappers, around half a square meter of reflective material altogether. But I had brought glue and glue brushes and most of the materials were there to make a start. I said what had to be done and sat down and told people to go ahead. Eventually one person volunteered and a few others joined in. They couldn't complete the cooker, but I think it was clear to everyone there how easy it is to make the cooker. I'm just hoping that they will also see that they have to collect the materials needed, because I can't do that.

Of course, for less than £200 I could buy every person there a solar cooker. For about £50, I could supply them with all the materials to make their own. But how sustainable is that, for a start? And how many people would use the solar cooker if I presented them with it for free? This would not be sustainable, not at all. And I have given people with plenty of education and free time presents of solar cookers. Not one of them has used it. I know solar cooking is a hard sell, in terms of people actually using the technology. And I also know that you can't just thrust it on people.

It's going to take more time. There are community leaders in Salgaa who are very keen. Slowly, we will push the issue and hope that even a handful of people will start to find some way of including the solar cooker in their day to day lives. Who knows what the result will be. Solar cookers are not the only example of free or almost free community development projects, but this is the first time that I have tried one of them with the aim of establishing 'free or almost free' as a development model (or micro model). It's early days and I'll report back in due course.


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