Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Visiting With SAIPEH

Although I am only in Mumias on a short visit, I brought a couple of solar cookers with me, along with some black pots. I was hoping I would be asked to demonstrate the impressive, but very simple, trick of cooking food without any costly fuel. Sure enough, I was taken to SAIPEH's feeding centre, where volunteers feed 100 or more children who are orphans, in some way vulnerable or disabled. They get through a lot of fuel every day and the cost over the course of a year is in the region of $1000. This is a very sizable sum to an organisation like SAIPEH. Any way of reducing it or eliminating it would be very welcome.

There were only a few people when I got there as it was far too early for lunch. But we set up the cookers to prepare some rice, just to demonstrate. We also set up a cooker to demonstrate how you can pasteurize milk or water to make them safe to drink. Solar cookers heat things up to 80 or 85 degrees, which is hot enough to cook and to kill all bacteria. In order to show that the water had reached the required temperature, we used a WAPI (Water Purification Indicator). This is a plastic cylinder with a lump of wax inside which melts at a little over 80 degrees. The wax is at the top of the cylinder when you start, but as it melts, it slides to the bottom.

Both the demonstrations worked well, despite a lot of thin cloud. The sun was hot even though the cloud didn't shift the whole morning. The rice cooked faster than I expected, in about one and a half hours and the water was ready in about 45 minutes. People were appropriately impressed. Every time I demonstrate, I keep thinking, what if it doesn't work. But it always does, as long as it doesn't cloud over. But in addition to being impressed, I would like to think that people would adopt the technology. They always say they will, but people who have been demonstrating for a long time say most people never adopt it. So we have to wait. Given that SAIPEH pay for the fuel, perhaps they will make sure that the fuel bill is cut, substantially.

We also had the opportunity today to demonstrate cooking baskets, at least, to some extent. There were lots of banana trees growing nearby and there were deep, round baskets available. We weren't organised enough to cook anything in one, they were too small, but I think the point got across. These can really save a lot of fuel and you can use them whether it's night or day, sunny or raining. They can be made of easy to find materials, such as straw, hay, newspaper, leaves, old clothes, etc, along with a bit of sacking material if you don't have baskets of the right size.

A technology we didn't have the opportunity to demonstrate yet, we just described it, is that of fuel briquettes made from organic waste, such as kitchen waste. They are made of various kinds of waste, finely chopped and mixed so they bind into a cohesive lump. These can be dried or compressed with a simple press made of wood or metal. We haven't got a press yet but we are still hoping to get one made as a template. Then they can easily be produced by 'jua khali' workers (jua khali meaning 'hot sun', they work outside).

If you combine these three technologies and put the required amount of work in, and that's not a lot of work, you can reduce your fuel bills to almost zero. Perhaps you can eliminate them but I suspect there will always be unforeseen occasions when you will need wood and charcoal. But even a few hundred dollars a year could mean better food for existing children or more food for more children. Now that the idea is there, hopefully there will be those who want to use these intermediate technologies. I'll be checking up on them now.

SAIPEH support several hundred children and teenagers and this brings up many problems that children have when they are orphaned, disabled or in some way vulnerable. A meeting revealed that some girls are still unable to go to school when they are having their monthly periods. I felt so bad when I heard that there was even a girl who reported using leaves because she didn't have access to any alternative. But it is unthinkable that even some of them are unable to go to school because of something like this.

Some community development workers in Kenya and other African countries teach girls to make re-usable sanitary pads out of flannel or other appropriate materials that can be recovered from old clothes. They are easy to make, especially for SAIPEH, as they have a training and resource centre that teaches tailoring. Making sanitary pads would be a great thing for prospective tailors to start off with. You can start and finish several of them in a few hours. A perfect lesson plan! Again, I hope there are people willing to adopt this simple alternative to commercial disposable sanitary pads. They are very expensive and ultimately unsustainable, both economically and environmentally.

No matter how good these intermediate technologies are and no matter how appropriate they are, the main challenge is getting people to adopt them. Just being impressed is not enough. You may think that anything would be better than using leaves instead of proper sanitary pads, but these technologies have been promoted elsewhere and they haven't always taken off. For me, it's all very well doing the research and giving people the plans and diagrams, but I'd really like to crack the nut of why people seem unwilling to adopt things that seem so obviously good and how I can meet this challenge. If and when the scales drop from my eyes, I'll report back.


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