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twelve hundred families now solar cooking at kakuma

interview with jay campbell and barbara knudson in october '95

tom sponheim: how did this project get started?

barbara knudson: we'd always talked about doing solar cooking in refugee camps, but we always knew that box-style cookers were too expensive. while we were in costa rica for the 2nd annual solar cooking conference, the refugee situation in rwanda exploded. we read about people dying from cholera, and we'd say, "don't we wish we could transport thousands of solar cookers there, so people wouldn't have to die from not having clean water!" roughly that same time, this new version of solar cooker [the solar panel cooker] had arrived and sci had received a generous, anonymous donation to be used for teaching refugees.

jay campbell: the solar panel cooker was the basic, boxy version. people were testing it and saying, "this is so simple, and it really works!"

bk: so we thought maybe then we can, in fact, work in a refugee camp. by the time the design had been refined enough, it was clear that rwanda was not the place to start [due, in part, to weather conditions]. but we thought that africa, where the refugee situation was so serious, was the right place to start. so while we were in kenya for the network meeting [an sci effort to encourage dialog and cooperation among the various solar cooking promoters in kenya], we convened a meeting of people who work in refugee camps in order to see who might be interested in this idea. they were real skeptical; there were not a lot of real takers, but we narrowed it down to two camps, kakuma and dadaab, both of which were willing to have us. we decided to start with kakuma mainly because it was a more stable camp where we could do longer-term follow-up.

ts: how did you work out how to set up the program there?

bk: i made another trip to kenya and spent two weeks in the camp just talking to people, telling them a little about solar cooking, and seeing their reaction. i checked into their efficient fuel stove program, and got to know the staff people and some of the refugees at the camp. this turned out to be a very good idea, because we found out exactly what we'd need to bring with us, and it gave us an idea of how to proceed.

ts: how much wood are the refugees at kakuma given for cooking?

bk: each person is given one "stick" every two weeks. a stick is about 5 cm (2") in diameter and a little less than one meter long (30"). so a family of five would have five of these stick to cook all of their meals for two weeks.

ts: so how do they manage to do all their cooking with this measly amount?

bk: they scrounge to find whatever they can find around the camp; but only inside the camp because the local people own the land communally and they have made it clear that no refugee should go onto their land. you can imagine that it is a very neat camp without much left to scrounge. what this means is that they have to trade their food for wood. each person is allotted 1800 calories per day, and they have to trade some of this with the local people who bring donkey carts of wood into the camp.

jc: we've often talked about the fact that solar cooked food is more nutritious, but more directly: you get more food! it's really a very direct trade off.

ts: what kind of impact would you say this new design had on your project?

jc: we couldn't have done the project without the new design. that's really the bottom line. for the cost of one box cooker we could have had ten panel cookers.

ts: how did this simple design affect the workshop content?

jc: we were able to spend all our time on how to use the cooker. we didn't spend any time on construction. you just fold it up and insert the two tabs into the slots and that's it.

bk: here's how it worked: the women would arrive and we'd have them mix the ingredients themselves and put the food into a few cookers along with water for tea. then we'd introduce ourselves and talk about basic solar principles. on the break we'd use the hot water to make tea.

jc: so we went in january of '95 and were there for two months. we started almost immediately. we gave our first workshop for staff people and a few refugee leaders. on the following monday we did our first workshop with refugees who had been designated by their leaders as appropriate possibilities. when we had gone out to invite this second group we told them that we wanted to teach them to cook with they sun, and they laughed hysterically; they thought it was the funniest thing they ever heard. then we said, "and then we'll feed you. we'll give you some food to try out in your new cooker." this was something else then; they would come to the class.

bk: this first refugee group consisted of oromo women. afterwards people said to us, "why did you take these oromos? they've had the least schooling of the whole lot! why would you start with them. they turned out to be just wonderful! they picked it up just like that.

jc: a funny thing happened with these women later. we were back at the oromo site giving another workshop when, all of sudden, the entire class from this original oromo group showed up. we were afraid they had come to attend a meeting we had scheduled with them and forgotten. when we asked them what they were doing there, they said they were there to register for a class in tailoring.

bk: and these were women who had never signed up for anything in twenty-some years of being in refugee camps! some sort of spark had been lit in them.

jc: the following friday, we had a meeting with them to see what kind of problems they had, and they brought rolls they'd baked in their cookers as refreshments for this meeting. we hadn't taught them this; they just chose to make that. by the following week they were trying carrot soup, potato soup, and they asked us how to do pasta. we experimented a bit and found that we could cook pasta just fine if we heated the dry pasta and the water separately first and then combined them once the water reached boiling.

bk: then we did six more workshops like this with various ethnic groups. we decided that the participants in any workshop had to live near each other so that they could assist and encourage each other. we also didn't use the standard diffusion model where you start with the leader and the others will follow. we started with groups of women who lived near each other. before the last workshop was done, it was clear we had a success on our hands. so we identified the two most capable and enthusiastic participants from each group and invited them to become trainers. we asked twelve and eventually got sixteen because the sudanese said they needed more.

ts: why was that?

bk: the sudanese make up 90% of the camp, so when we started to specifically train this batch of trainers, four extra sudanese showed up and said, "you're going to train us." so there they were and we trained them. we made contractual arrangements with them for incentive payments. we hired a coordinator and two monitors: one for the sudanese zone and one for the non-sudanese zone.

ts: how did you decide the amount of these incentives?

bk: we set them at the maximum allowed by the camp administration, within the guidelines for similarly-skilled work. in return for a $4 incentive payment, each trainer identifies a group to train, conducts the training, does home visits, and leads a follow-up group meeting with all the participants. during the home visits she interviews the participant and fills out a form describing the woman's experiences and difficulties. when she turns in the completed paperwork, she receives payment for her work. she may do up to one of these trainings a week. a monitor then makes a follow-up visit to each household involved in the workshop.

ts: what supplies are needed for a training?

bk: each participant receives a cooker, a plastic bag, a black pot, and some food to try out the cooker with so that they don't have to risk their own food on their first try.

ts: how much of the incentive for being in the workshop comes from a desire to learn to solar cook, and how much comes from wanting to get a pot and some free food?

bk: i don't think you can tell exactly. when we first went there, the decision had been made in sacramento not to give them a pot along with the cooker. but people had one pot. how could you tie up your one pot for a whole day of cooking.

jc: and they were not as willing to paint their pot black.

bk: now there is where i put my foot down. i said, "you are not going to ask people to paint their pot black before they have had a demonstration that this works!" these are women who had killed themselves to keep these pots shiny. it's an endless job trying to keep your pot looking decent. after the demonstration we painted their pots black if they wanted us to.

jc: we found a company in nairobi that made spun aluminum pots for us$3 each and we found a latex paint from a hardware store. bear in mind that this almost doubled the cost per participant in the workshop. but that cost is only $10 - $12 for the whole package.

ts: does everyone in this camp of 30,000 know about solar cookers now?

jc: people knew about them pretty quickly. within a week we had people coming up to us with lists of names saying, "we have this group. come teach us!" they didn't understand that we couldn't be everywhere first.

ts: how many of these 30,000 have cookers now?

jc: there are roughly 5,000 households and as of today [october 7, 1995] we've trained 1200 households . . . so we're roughly a fourth done. by the end of the year, we'll be a third done.

ts: are your trainers training more trainers?

jc: no. we have twenty-four trainers training about eighty-five families per week, but not new trainers.

ts: if you had extra cookers for sale in the camp right now, would there be a demand?

bk: yes, i don't think there is any question whatsoever!

jc: we've been limited in our ability to fund the logistical pipeline that gets the supplies from nairobi out to the camp, so we've focused all of this into our trainings. we don't even have enough to meet that demand. there are waiting lists that i think many people would want to avoid. and many people would want to buy a second cooker so they could cook more. there is a sort of economy in the camp, so there are people who could afford to buy their own.

ts: if you travel through the camp can you see cookers out cooking?

jc: yes, you would see cookers out. i saw several of ours from the main streets. when i went with the refugees and they could show me where to look i could see a large number of them. the houses are rather randomly placed around this large area.

bk: you can see them from the air! you can see the twinkle of reflectors here and there all over the camp. so they really are being used. of course in a refugee camp you have a desperate need. they're not doing this for environmental reasons. they're doing this to survive. solar cookers are most apt to be adopted when people are desperate, but do we have to wait until the whole world is desperate before we adopt this? i hope not. i'd like to think that people will start using sensible methods before we've deforested the whole world. solar cooking can slow down the deforestation.

ts: tell me about the production of the cookers in nairobi.

jc: the cardboard manufacturer takes a large roll of corrugated cardboard and laminates aluminum foil on one side and sprays a waterproofing wax on the other side. this is then die-cut to form the cooker, complete with the folds and slots. then they are bundled into lots of 25 (which is about as large as one person can handle). it can all be done rather quickly once he works us into his production schedule. if we could have orders larger than the 1000 or 1500 we have been ordering, the price would drop somewhat. he knows what we are using the cardboard for and has graciously absorbed the recent paper price rises. if the un or other large organization were to come in and order 20,000 of these he could do it.

ts: what have you set up to keep the project going now that you are back in the us?

jc: we've set up all the logistics in kenya; each link in the chain knows what it is supposed to do. solar cookers international will see to it that the whole machine stays in motion. at the rate we're going, it won't be too long before every family at kakuma that needs a solar oven will have one.

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