[clic aquí para el Español]
Ruth Saavedra de Whitfield is a Bolivian social entrepreneur in Cochabamba
with deep concern for the hard lives of her compatriots. In the spirit of
Wangari Maathai, she helps them help themselves. Ruth's infectious
enthusiasm for her products and her boundless energy have had an impact
beyond her community and now beyond Bolivia. She is a lead trainer in a
World Bank sponsored initiative in Mexico.
Ruth sells the means of liberation from drudgery; protection from bodily
harm; financial savings; pasteurized water; a better quality of life.
Ruth sells solar ovens.
Gathering firewood in a
region that now has none to spare
With her husband, David, who directs the Bolivian NGO Centro de Desarrollo
en Energie Solar. she has been going from village to village over the last
several years to demonstrate solar cooking. Those interested are offered
materials and instruction to build an oven of their own, then training in
how to use it. It takes David and Ruth a week in each community to do the
Some people can afford to pay the cost of the oven on time. Others are
offered a barter contract in which they agree to build more ovens for the
community or to train neighbors how to use them. Women can be transformed by
learning to solar cook. Of one of her students, Ruth says: "Previously,
Carmen had no self-esteem. Learning to solar cook gave her new confidence in
herself. She is now my best trainer."
In 2000, the mayor of Cochabamba wrote to support David's competition in the
International Tech Awards Program: "Clearly this technology has improved the
lives of low income people in our area. . . . Requests for these cookers are
greater than the current supply can meet."
"Solar ovens?" you say, "do those things really work?"
Not only do they work, they can protect women and children from the pandemic
of respiratory disease caused by inhalation of smoke from wood fires. They
can free women from the punishing work of foraging for fuel wood and from
the hours spent tending the cooking fire. They can reduce the degradation of
the environment caused by unsustainable foraging and by the carbon dioxide
released as fuel wood burns.
In 1995, Hubert-Paul Normil, director of the Solar Energy Program at the
Free Methodist Church Mission near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, surveyed women he
had trained to solar cook about their actual use of their solar ovens.
In a Bolivian altiplano
community, Ruth Saavedra de Whitfield, describes the fuel efficiency of
different cooking methods: the energy efficient, traditional three-stone
fire and two fuel-efficient stoves that use 50 percent less firewood; in
back are state-of-the-art solar ovens: the ULOG box oven and the SK
paraboloid from EG-Solar.
In a representative interview with Mme. Joseph Valmon of Dubreuil (Commune
de Torbeck), Cayes, told Hubert that, in the two years since she acquired
her solar oven, she used it whenever the sun shined because the fuel was
free. She bought charcoal for use on cloudy days. Mme. Valmon said she
cooked everything --- beans, rice, meat -- for a family of eight.
"Sometimes I cook twice a day," she said. "I start at 9 o'clock and around
10 the pot gets hot enough to cook. At 11 a.m. it's cooked and I can start
something else in it. The food tastes very good. I'm happy with it."
Less well known than the crisis in Haiti are similar conditions throughout
Latin America. The cost of cooking fuel is a serious drain on budgets. For
example, a researcher from Queen's University, Kingston, Canada, wrote from
the Bolivian Altiplano in 2002, "many communities . . . are in dire need of
a new source of energy for cooking ... firewood [is] virtually exhausted."
The unsustainable use of firewood had denuded the land.
Pedro Serrano, an ASHOKA Fellow and environmental activist from Santiago,
Chile reported in 2001 that "planners estimate there are 300,000 potential
users of solar ovens in northern Chile. . . One person in every family
dedicates all day, every day, to search for firewood." A 2001 study by the
Earth Council of Costa Rica estimated that we are burning "about one third
more of the earth's biological productivity than can be regenerated."
At present, El Salvador has some of the most threatened ecosystems on the
Nevertheless, there are relatively few who will change their traditional
ways of life until they must. For growing hundreds of millions of people,
that day is here or is imminent. When the wood is gone and petroleum
products are unaffordable, unavailable, or both, what are the alternatives?
In some places dung is used. The smoke is three times more toxic than that
from wood. Or crop wastes can serve where they exist. Both would otherwise
be valuable fertilizers. There are no other alternatives.
The attached map depicts areas of the Americas where solar ovens are viable.
In the Oaxacan town of
San Andres Huayapan, coauthor Louise Meyer, at left, fields questions
about the Mexican-made HotPotTM.
There will, of course, be days of inclement weather when a back-up means of
cooking is required. A combination of solar ovens, fuel efficient stoves and
retained heat cookers is most desirable. However, solar ovens can be the
primary means of cooking. For example, Ruth Whitfield and her husband David
report 86 percent usage in some communities. Some areas enjoy over three
hundred days of sun a year.
The growing awareness in the Americas of the compelling need for solar
cooking is evident. There have been initiatives to introduce it in at least
twenty-one countries including Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Paraguay. The
scale of these efforts has varied, but all have been too modest.
A major impediment to solar development is absence of capital. Having worked
so long on a shoestring, Ruth and David can attest to that. (A couple of
years ago they were obliged to discontinue their phone service to pay the
rent.) Thus, almost all solar ovens are the product of artisans or of
individual manufacture. Production is far short of meeting the demands even
of the few who know the technology exists.
Only a fraction of that third of humanity needing solar ovens has ever heard
of them. The means have not been available to publicize solar cooking on the
massive scale required. There can be little demand without awareness.
People have cooked with wood since the domestication of fire. Cultural
resistance to change of so basic a tradition has been strong. However, many
are confronted with a painful reality: there is nothing left to burn!
Countless solar ovens have been on the market for decades. Most are
expensive, customarily around $100 or more. Cheap ones have been made for
refugee camps at a cost of as little as $8 or so. Although remarkably
effective, they tended to be fragile and had little commercial appeal.
There was evident need of a new solar oven that addressed these problems.
Not only did it have to be inexpensive for those in greatest need (known as
"preferred customers,") it had to be durable. And efficient. And portable.
And easy to use. And alluring. Without such a breakthrough, popular
acceptance would continue to languish.
On a sunny, tiled
veranda, Ruth Saavedra de Whitfield demonstrates cooking with the HotPot
to a Mexican family. Solar cooking requires no stirring, only an
adjustment to the path of the sun every hour or so.
Six years ago, Solar Household Energy, Inc., (SHE, Inc.) a U.S. nonprofit
organization, addressed this challenge. Funding was acquired to retain
leading solar energy scientists and engineers for the research and
development. Various prototypes were designed and underwent multiple tests
by solar-cooking experts on five continents and technical evaluation by
numerous scientists and engineers. The result is a new, high-tech, low-cost
solar oven called "HotPot." It can meet a need of countless millions. SHE,
Inc. has recruited expert solar cooks to train indigenous solar cooking
instructors wherever the HotPot is sold. These experts are called Sunflowers
While the HotPot is still in its infancy, it has already proven to be
commercially viable. There is demand wherever it is introduced. But how does
it get into the hands of the millions who need it urgently? Those who exist
at the edge of possibility, who actually burn a significant portion of their
meager assets just to be able to cook from day to day?
At the global level the task of distribution is enormous. It would overwhelm
the capacity of all the world's philanthropies, private, public and
international put together. They have tried temporary local programs in the
past and had some enduring impact, but the means have not been there for
them to do more.
On the other hand, private entrepreneurs distributing solar ovens for profit
have strong incentives to persevere. But how can they succeed selling a
product to customers with inadequate resources? That's a dilemma requiring
A Bolivian child looks on
as measurements are taken for the construction of an inexpensive,
box-shaped solar oven.
In many places, members of local women's groups contrive to support each
other in efforts to improve quality of life. Some groups have pooled their
money to buy one or two ovens to share. In some places stores offer easy
installment paying schemes. Elsewhere, customers with urgent need for a
solar oven have offered to make installments until it's paid in full before
taking it home.
In some such cases where there is no disposable income, barter deals can
work. For example, several years ago at the Dadaab refugee camp in eastern
Kenya, women earned solar ovens by planting and nurturing trees.
Whatever funding is required to insure the success of private enterprise in
the sale of HotPots is more than offset by the social, environmental,
health, and economic impacts solar cooking promises. The cost-benefit ratio
is great. For example, solar ovens address six of the eight United Nations
Millennium Development Goals:
Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger---by reducing the need to buy
Improve maternal health---by permitting women to avoid respiratory disease
and eye infection caused by toxic smoke.
Achieve universal primary education---by reducing the school time children
must spend helping their mothers forage for fuel wood.
Promote gender equality and empower women---by liberating women from the
onerous task of foraging for fuel wood, enabling them time to pursue
profitable or educational endeavors.
Ensure environmental sustainability--- by reducing the destruction of
trees for fuel wood.
Reduce child mortality--- by minimizing the danger of children falling
into fires; by enabling the pasteurization of water.
Environmental degradation and war are depriving populations of their
traditional household fuels.
Solar cooking is the most humane alternative for millions of women cooking
with fire and suffering the punishing consequences.
A high tech solar oven that combines durability and low cost with high
performance is now available. It is being distributed to the greatest extent
possible by private social entrepreneurs. By dedicated people like Ruth. She
tells everybody who will listen: "The best single way women can improve the
well-being of the Bolivian family is to adopt solar cooking."
With a volume of five liters, the
HotPot cooks all foods with only the sun's free energy. The
concept is elegant: A black steel pot is suspended by its flange
inside a transparent tempered glass bowl with a half inch of air
space between the two. The pot has a tight-fitting transparent
tempered glass lid.
Surrounding the pot is a reflector. It
is collapsible for easy carrying and storage. Direct and indirect
solar energy penetrates the transparent glass, strikes the pot and
converts to heat. The heat is retained around the pot by the glass
bowl, achieving cooking temperatures.
Unlike cooking over fire which
requires frequent stirring to keep food from burning, solar ovens
need only an adjustment to the path of the sun each hour or so.
Solar cooking time can be twice as long as traditional methods.
This is offset by freedom from the need to forage for fuel or the
cost of purchasing it. Little or no water is necessary for solar
cooking, which renders food more savory and nourishing.
On the initiative of Lorenzo
Rosenzweig, managing director of FONDO MEXICANO PARA LA
CONSERVACION DE LA NATURALEZA, (FMCN), the HotPot is now mass
produced by a factory in Monterrey, Mexico, at a cost of $24. A
choice of two reflectors is available, a durable cardboard one for
$4 and a deluxe aluminum model for $24.50.
Sr. Rosenzweig is now guiding the
introduction of solar cooking in the network of biosphere reserves
around Mexico. Through the Pan American Association of
Conservation Organizations (REDLac), which he headed until this
year, he introduced the HotPot to colleagues from all over Latin
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Dar Curtis has lived in Asia and Africa and traveled in Latin America where
he witnessed the hardships imposed by traditional household fuels.
Subsequently, he became a champion of solar cooking as a tool of social
development and environmental protection. In 1991 he published a watershed
global analysis of the potential of solar cooking. In it, he advocated
market mechanisms for dissemination of solar ovens rather than earlier
"welfare" models. Since then, he has guided R&D culminating in the mass
production of the HotPot, a durable, efficient and inexpensive solar oven
offering an urgently needed alternative to diminishing traditional fuels.