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unesco funds solar cooking project in zimbabwe

an interview with dr. bob metcalf of solar cookers international.

tom sponheim: tell us about your most recent trip to africa.

bob metcalf: i started by visiting the dadaab refugee camp in kenya for three days, and then i went there down to zimbabwe for a whole month.

ts: is this a new project in zimbabwe?

bm: yes, this is the project that unesco is sponsoring. they helped initiate the project and which is in cooperation with the department of energy in zimbabwe and the development technology center at the university of zimbabwe.

ts: how did this project come about?

bm: unesco is having a world solar summit in zimbabwe in september. when they looked at the program, they had a lot of high-tech things, but they didn't have very many low-tech applications of solar technology. this was a significant omission since in developing countries, most of the energy is used for cooking. they heard about our projects in kenya and contacted solar cookers international. we sent bev blum, linda helmcraft, and jinny mitchem over to zimbabwe in late april to make contact with the government and local groups in order to develop a plan for how the project would proceed.

the first phase of the project then was to bring 100 solar panel cookers from the us and have two sites--one in epworth near harare, the capital, and the other in the southern part of the country near a town called bulawayo, which is about an hour bus ride outside of town of mtabazinduna, which a couple of ngos recommended. chief kayisa was approached about the solar cooker project and he thought it would be a good idea. this area is on the communal lands. there are two types of land in the country, the commercial areas, which are large farms mostly owned by white former rhodesians, and the less productive lands, which are known as communal lands. this is where most of the people in zimbabwe live.

we are working in an area of about 20 square miles with the approximately 300 families. we eventually selected fifty people (49 women and one man!) to be the first solar cookers for that area. the way we introduced the project was through a general demonstration for some of the community leaders including the chief. we set up the cookers and put food in them, and about 2 1/2 hours later the food is cooked. it's kind of an amazing demonstration.

in this area, there is hardly any wood to collect. the vegetation is mainly thorn bushes. so most of the people buy their wood, which is hauled in from the commercial farms. typically it cost about $50 zimbabwe (ca. $5.50 us) for a cart load of wood. this lasts a family about two weeks. this works out to be about one quarter of a family's income is spent on this wood. so they have to do without some of life's necessities.

ts: what was the chief's reaction when he saw the solar-cooked food?

bm: he was quite impressed. but he was particularly moved at our closing session about three weeks later when about 15 of the women who had been cooking with the solar cookers got up and talked about things that they had cooked and the importance of the solar cookers. he got even more enthusiastic after this.

ts: did any of the women report any problems?

bm: a few reported that they had had trouble cooking because they didn't have appropriate pots for solar cooking. the good thing about pots in zimbabwe is that they are already black including the lids. these are perfect for solar cooking and they're made right in zimbabwe. about 10% of the families though did have shiny pots, and they were the only ones who had any problem cooking.

ts: what kind of support did you provide for the novice solar cooks while you were there?

bm: after a full-day training, we gave each of the participants a week or more to try some serious cooking, and then we went around and visited all 50 families. this was quite strenuous since we had to walk up to six miles to get to the farthest ones. that was really exciting to get to visit the people in their homes and see what their lives were like.

ts: how did this differ from the project in the urban area?

bm: in the cities, many people cook with kerosene. this is also expensive for them. when you cook with kerosene, your food tastes like kerosene too. they also remarked that the solar cooker was much easier to use, since they didn't have to tend the fire.

ts: did you get any media coverage?

bm: the epworth group had a big demonstration. forty or fifty solar cooks came and set up their cookers in one place and the tv station of zimbabwe came out and did a three minute spot on solar cookers. we even saw the broadcast while we were there! there's just a lot of interest in the solar panel cookers.

ts: how will the project proceed now that you are back in the us?

bm: what the department of energy is doing is now is arranging to get the next set of cookers made there in zimbabwe. so they're talking to cardboard manufacturers and companies that can laminate foil onto it. it seems that they have the basics there.

ts: how about plastic bags?

bm: i'm pretty sure we'll be able to find them in the country. if not, we can always get them in kenya, where they cost less than $0.10 each. each bag lasts conservatively for about 20 cooking sessions.

ts: you also paid another visit to the refugee camps at dadaab, kenya to check up on the project you started late last year. what did you find there?

bm: yes, i was there in early june for three days. by that time, in each of the three camps, there were over 200 families cooking with solar cookers. solar cookers are used as an incentive for tree planting. to qualify for receiving a solar cooker, a pot, and training, a family has to plant 25 trees and keep them alive for three months. so the interest in solar cookers has caused thousands of trees to be planted there.

ts: were there any special problems at these camps?

bm: the food distribution has been reduced so much that there is only enough food to eat for about 10 days of each two-week period. after that, there is nothing to cook, so the cookers aren't being used that much. when there is food available they are used quite a lot.

ts: did you visit the kakuma refugee camp where there are thousands of families now cooking with solar panel cookers?

bm: no. while we were there, there was a riot and a couple of people were killed at kakuma. they closed down the camp to visitors. we recently got a letter from our lead trainer in kakuma, and she reports that as far as solar cooking goes, things are continuing okay.

ts: what were some of the poignant moments from your trip.

bm: there were a couple of things that really stuck home. one day when we were walking the roads several miles away from our training center, we came across an older women with an ax on her shoulder. we had seen here about an hour before when we walked by. we stopped to talk to her, and she said, "i can't find any firewood." she had spent an hour or more looking around in these thorn bushes and couldn't find any wood at all. so she was not going to be able to have a fire and wasn't going to be able to cook that night.

another thing that struck me was when we asked the women how they were going to spend the money they saved by using the solar cooker. their answers were basic things: "i'll get some clothes for my kids," or "i'll get some bread and butter for my children to eat." one woman said that she would pay for sending her kids to school. so the kind of things they were doing without were basics: food, clothing, and education.

and, of course, it is always exciting to walk around unannounced and see a bunch of solar cookers busy cooking away in front of many of the houses.

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