Solar Cookers for Developing Countries
Jenni Christensen Currit and Steven E. Jones
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Brigham Young University
Provo, Utah, U.S.A. 84602
The developing world suffers from a variety of problems including lack of food, fuel shortage, environmental abuses, and unemployment. Many non-profit organizations work to alleviate these problems, but often find that a coordination between scientists and developers is difficult yet necessary to make effective improvements. This project is an attempt to bridge the gap between technological development and international development. Dr. Steven Jones of Brigham Young University, has been developing solar oven technology for several years. I joined the project after much progress had been made. My project had two phases. The first phase was spent developing solar oven designs that would be both effective and practical in developing countries where money and materials are hard to obtain. The second phase was an effort to take the technology to non-governmental organizations currently doing work in developing countries in an educational approach that would allow them to have a flexible approach to implementing valuable technology for those with the most urgent need. This paper includes the findings and accomplishments of both phases. The educational materials distributed to the organizations are also included as well as a list of groups who have received this information in hopes that future interest will rise and the materials will be made available to an even wider audience.
Science is a valuable tool with the potential to improve quality of life. I have both an intense interest in why “things” work and more importantly how they can help alleviate suffering and change the course of a people. For this reason I chose to double major in History and Physics. Although this combination may seem counterintuitive it has allowed me to develop an understanding of civilizations and people, while simultaneously learning the fundamentals of science and technology. My Applied Physics degree emphasized international development, which has allowed me to bridge the gap between these disciplines and this project has been the culmination of that effort. I began working with Dr. Jones of the Physics department at Brigham Young University in 2002. We began by simply developing solar oven technology with the people of developing countries in mind. But as we progressed we became aware that although we had a valuable product, we were struggling to have it put into use in the areas of the world that it is intended for. In the fall of 2003 I expanded our project to a multi-disciplinary effort under the combined direction of Dr. Jones and now Dr. Warner Woodsworth of the Organizational Behavior department. Together with students from disciplines such as advertising and business we created an approach to solar oven technology that would be usable and teachable while also being sustainable and economical. We then put together an educational program on compact disc that would be easily distributed to those with the means and connections to implement the knowledge. We then aggressively contacted many organizations all over the country, which have projects all over the world, and distributed the materials to a wide range of groups who intend to use the materials to enhance their current efforts in developing countries.
This project has been an intriguing combination of my own educational and life goals and has proven valuable to both the fields of international development and physics. Often the research efforts of these two disciplines are difficult to combine and the unfortunate result is that the two develop independently. It is becoming increasingly important that we, as scientists, learn the implications and valuable applications of our knowledge and then learn to communicate with those who can magnify our own efforts to serve the peoples of the world.
Third world countries typically suffer from a variety of problems. The most commonly known problem is the lack of adequate food, which leads to starvation and malnutrition. Although this must be directly approached, there are a variety of other issues that must be addressed in order to alleviate this problem. One problem involves the lack of fuel to cook raw foods. This is a result of years of cooking over fires. Nearly half the world’s population must burn wood or dried dung to cook their food. This creates widespread deforestation, health problems due to smoke inhalation, and the loss of valuable time spent gathering wood, particularly by the women in developing countries. Another related problem is the lack of clean water in developing countries. Because of the complications described above it is difficult for families to boil water because it requires too much fuel. As a result disease spreads rapidly and malnutrition results. Another issue that is a deep cultural and traditional problem being addressed by many organizations is the issue of female subordination and disadvantage. This comes from both their traditional roles in the domain of reproductive work, which is not only time consuming, but is directly associated with the problems mentioned above, as well as their lack of access to valuable employment.
These problems are well known to those who serve in the world of international development, but solutions are elusive. The current goal of international development is to create solutions that are not temporary or superficial, but that involve education and self-reliance principles that will improve the sustainability of the efforts once the organizations are no longer involved. While there is no simple solution to these problems and a multi-level response is certainly necessary, technology can offer unique options to alleviating the struggles in these countries.
A Solution: Solar Oven Technology
For several decades solar oven technology has been seen as a possible solution to these problems. Cooking food in a solar oven reduces the need for fuel and therefore relieves the burden on women to gather wood and other sources of fuel. It would also reduce health hazards from women laboring over a fire for so many hours a day. An effective solar oven can also heat water hot enough to become purified. If this was the only reason for a solar oven in a family, it would greatly decrease health problems and other complications. Solar ovens are also an option for micro-credit businesses, which is one of the most successful and popular approaches to development today, offering both an income and self-reliance primarily for women.
In order to understand the work done at BYU, it is necessary to understand the previous work done with solar oven technology worldwide. There are many different designs for solar ovens. Ultimately, anything that is able to cook food using solar energy is called a solar cooker.
The many designs can be organized in three categories: parabolic cookers, panel cookers, and box cookers. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Parabolic cookers, as the name implies, are made from any reflective material shaped like a parabola which focuses the light to a single point. They are known for their ability to cook food fast and efficiently. Unfortunately they tend to be more expensive and difficult to make by hand. There are also safety concerns which make them difficult to use and recommend. Panel cookers include any cooker made of a series of flat panels that directs the light to a certain area. It is not as effective as a parabolic cooker, but it is safer and easier to build. Box cookers consist of a box that is insulated on all sides with one side covered with plastic to allow sunlight to enter. Each of the inside surfaces is covered with reflective material. This type of cooker does not necessarily focus the light energy to a spot but rather heats up the entire box and allows large quantities of food to be cooked. For more information on these solar ovens, the educational materials attached offer a more in depth discussion and also include pictures and building instructions.
These cookers have been in use for many decades and many designs have been taken to the developing world already. The work done at Brigham Young University has been two fold in its approach to further the research and functionality of solar oven technology. First, we developed new solar oven designs and second we approached the use of this and the other designs in a new way and shared this valuable information with many organizations who have not been aware of this technology.
Before I joined the project, Dr. Jones had spent several years in this field of study, primarily working on designing solar oven types. He was working on a new type oven called a funnel cooker, which does not fall neatly into one of the categories mentioned above. It combines the advantages of all three types of ovens. It focuses the light like the parabolic cooker, but not to the level of being dangerous. It is also easy and cheap to make. I entered in the final stages of design.
First Stage: Fall 2002-Winter 2003
Initially I joined with Dr. Jones to work on developing and modifying the design of the funnel cooker and to work on developing other designs. My contribution was mainly focused on researching heat-resistant plastic and alternatives to plastic, in addition to testing the funnel cooker and making a new type of box cooker. The conclusions from the plastic research are on the educational CD. The other discoveries were minor, except that I gained valuable insight into the field of solar ovens and was able to see building options. As Dr. Jones and I continued to work on the design we came to the conclusion that the design was well developed and that, in fact, the problem was that no one knew it. We decided that rather than fine tuning our design, we needed to make a more flexible design and learn what materials were available in developing countries and work in that direction instead.
Dr. Jones had attempted to get funnel cookers to developing countries with only marginal success. In 2001 he worked with Jack McGlothin and James and Barb Mossie to build and sent 204 pre-made funnel cookers to orphanages in Haiti. From this experience we learned that it is difficult to transport that many cookers and battle the political issues as well. We also discussed problems with self-reliance when a product becomes a hand-out and when the recipients are not able to repair or find new products once the givers leave. We began to search for alternatives that would allow us to overcome these problems.
In the spring of 2003, on March 15, Dr. Jones and I were asked to give a presentation at BYU’s Microenterprise Conference which attracts Non-profit Organizations from all over the country. The presentation was titled, “Appropriate Technology: Easy To Make Solar Cookers”. I made two important observations at this conference: First, there was a genuine interest and niche for appropriate technology in the world of development. The lecture attracted many students and leaders who asked many questions. I also spent several hours following the lecture talking to the many NGOs representatives gathered there about the technology. Many had never heard of it, but were fascinated by the possibilities and those who had heard of it, did not know how it worked or where to begin. The second observation regards our ability to transmit the power of solar technology in a usable and valuable way. This was a turning point for my project. I then turned to trying to bridge this gap.
At this conference I made a valuable connection with Jennifer Boehme, director of Help International and was able to do some first attempts at bridging this gap. Help International is an organization headquartered in Provo, Utah that organizes volunteers to go to several countries in South America to teach English, work in hospitals and orphanages etc. Jennifer felt that this could be a valuable addition to their program and agreed to experiment with me. I put together a power point presentation with some handouts and attended her training meeting and gave a presentation to her volunteers. They went on to try applying the ideas in Brazil that summer. We received valuable feedback and experience from this opportunity that guided the work done that fall to the present. We learned that the approach, which I will discuss in further detail in the next section, did work and was exciting to those going to work in third world countries. Encouraged by this experience, I entered the culmination of my project in September of 2003.
Second Stage: Fall 2003 to the present
I feel that the most valuable work was done beginning September of 2003. The previous year provided a valuable background and experience that allowed me to confidently and knowledgably lead a group of students to organize and distribute educational materials.
That semester I began a class for my applied Physics degree that was specifically chosen to enhance the solar oven project. It was a graduate course (551) taught by Warner Woodworth of the Organizational Behavior Department called “The Theory and Practice of Third-World Development”. In the class we made a team of four students from different disciplines, Shay Bertola, Brice Stay, Julie Ricks, and me, to work together to put together a presentation of solar oven technology using the most current world development theories and approaches in order to reach as many people as possible.
The most current theories of world development emphasize self-reliance and education. Previous theories that emphasized handouts or short term projects have proven less effective, and unfortunately, in some cases the best intentions have proven destructive. Therefore, we leaned away from designing a perfect oven, and realized that raising money to get materials and to build ovens here in the states to give to the poor would also be a dead end. Therefore we decided that we needed to develop a set of principles for solar oven technology and use the designs developed both at BYU and elsewhere to create a comprehensive program that would allow flexibility and creativity by those in various countries which would in turn give them a sense of ownership of the product that they built themselves and would allow them to repair, and continue to create new models that worked particularly well in their area of the world, given the climate and availability and cost of materials.
Our second decision was based on the current emphasis in international development on coordination and networking. Our specialty is the technology, the distribution and actual education should be done by organizations with experience in those areas. Therefore, we decided to work through as many organizations as possible in order to capitalize on their experience with the culture, language, politics, and needs in each respective country.
The project had now become three-fold: The product, the advertisement, and the distribution.
The first step was to create a product that was valuable, understandable, and applicable to the needs of NGOs. It had to be a product that could stand on its own, without the scientists at hand as a constant resource. We also wanted the product to be reproducible so that it could spread to all volunteers within the organization as well as from organization to organization by word of mouth.
The final product was a compact disc with three sections accompanied with a cover letter. The cover letter that is meant to be read first describes our mission and gives a brief background of the field, as well as an orientation to the materials on the CD. The first section of the CD is a table of contents. The second section is a folder with articles both from BYU and the internet, chosen and organized to provide a deeper background to the field, as well as an understanding of the potential of the technology and ideas of the vast options available.
The third section is a series of power-points intended for training of volunteers and to be used as a basis for educating those in the developing world. The first power-point presentation is a basic overview. The main emphasis of this power-point is based on an acronym by Dr. Jones, C.A.R.E.S., which teaches the most important principles for building solar ovens. The power-point then focuses on uses and teaching ideas. The second power-point has directions for building the funnel cooker, designed at BYU. The third power-point offers other designs that are simple to teach and that use materials easily found in third world countries. These design ideas are intended to give a wide variety of options to organizations, as well as to stimulate creativity, because every country and group will have a unique set of circumstances. The final power-point is a recipe book to give ideas of what to cook and how to cook it, as well as general cooking instructions for solar ovens. The introduction power-point is Appendix A.
The second stage was finding those for whom this product would be valuable and trying to interest them with the technology. We began with a list of more than 85 NGOs compiled in the book, United For Zion, by Warner Woodworth, Joseph Grenny and Todd Manwaring. This was the most comprehensive list of both local and international organizations that we were able to find. We then narrowed that in half according to organizations for whom this product would be valuable. We then made a flier and letter that was emailed, or mailed to all of these groups. We received 4-5 responses to this letter. We then followed up with a phone call to the remaining groups to make sure it was received and to answer any questions. This approach was successful and we were able to make find 7 more interested groups, and discovered that, as we had hoped, there was indeed a great interest. The flier and letter are attached as Appendix B.
We now had both a product and several interested groups and we then simply distributed the product to those organizations. Organizations which were local we were able to meet one on one and present the materials in person. Several organizations were either too busy, or not located closely enough, therefore we mailed them the materials after several phone conversations.
With more than ten organizations becoming interested in solar oven technology we predict a combined effort of hundreds of volunteers annually in countries such as Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Venezuela, Ghana, Zambia, and Kenya. Appendix C has a comprehensive list of groups that have materials and committed to experimenting with the technology. Some groups do micro-credit training as well and conduct conferences in their countries where they teach many (over 100) native individuals skills such as this, who in turn teach more people in their own villages these ideas.
This capstone project began as a project to design and improve technology and ended as an effort to bridge the gap between the world of technology and the world of international development. We as scientists and human beings have the responsibility to use our knowledge and skills to bless the peoples of the earth in a valuable and comprehensive approach that is both scientifically informed as well as developmentally sound. The number of lives that this technology will bless is impossible to predict and the doors that this approach will open for other valuable types of appropriate technology are endless.
There are many areas that I would suggest for future projects and follow up projects. First I would suggest a follow up study on these groups to assess how their experiments worked and what could be improved with the product. It would also serve as a reminder to them to teach this technology in their programs. This feedback would be valuable in order to improve the current educational materials, and would also direct the development of solar oven technology such as Dr. Jones is conducting.
Second, new organizations are created each year, and old ones evolve. I would propose a renewed effort to contact organizations and to network with organizations which have used the materials in order to have a wider impact.
Third, there were opportunities that we were not able to capitalize on such as giving seminars and training meetings. For example, each month Joan Dixon of the Organizational Behavior department organizes a “brown bag conference” to discuss new international development ideas. She suggested a presentation on solar oven technology be made. In addition she does work in Indonesia with education and proposed making solar oven technology part of the literacy curriculum. This would involve a unique approach and renewed creativity. Another opportunity would be to train volunteers for organizations such as Help International who send volunteers to South America each year.
The final suggestion for future research is a more broad proposal to continue developing various forms of appropriate technology that would be simple to make with materials found in developing countries and following the approach we used to make this technology available to as many people as possible.
I would like to recognize Drs. Steven Jones and Warner Woodworth both as educators and mentors. Their support of this project is greatly appreciated, and their dedication to serving the peoples of the world is inspiring.
This is the introduction power-point from the compact disc. It gives a background of solar oven technology and gives suggestions and guidelines for use by NGOs. (Now available as a separate paper on line, many thanks to http://solarcooking.org!)
This is the letter and flier we sent out to Non-Governmental Organizations to advertise solar oven technology (below).
To Whom It May Concern:
We are students at BYU working with Warner Woodworth and other professors to help create technology to help alleviate hunger and disease in developing countries. Our goal is to contact NGOs and other groups with similar goals who are interested in new approaches to solving these problems in the areas they are already established.
We would like to present in person or via email and phone how Solar Ovens can help people in a simple and cost-effective way. We believe that this new technology can significantly improve the overall standard of living in various countries through self-sufficiency and creativity. It is not complicated! We have attached a flier with more information.
We have a 15-25 minute presentation in which we would love to share specific designs and examples along with implementation techniques of solar ovens to see how this can be an enhancement to projects you are currently involved in.
Please respond to this email with your thoughts and questions and let us know a convenient time we can come share our presentation with you.
Other contact information:
Shay Bertola (801) 492-0897
A low cost improvement in quality of life for the poor, especially those who cook over open fires
• Half the world’s peoples must burn wood or dried dung to cook their food
• Over 1 million children die yearly because of un-boiled drinking water.
• The average peasant either spends over an hour each day gathering cooking wood or pays up to 15% of their salary to provide cooking fuel.
• Wood cut for cooking purposes contributes to the 16 million hectares of forest destroyed annually.
What is a solar oven?
• Bend a cardboard sheet into a funnel and glue tin foil to the inside.
• Paint a jar or pot matte black to absorb more heat and put it inside a plastic bag.
• Put the bag and the jar in the funnel.
• The funnel reflects enough sunlight onto the jar that water will boil and food will cook thoroughly.
When and where do solar ovens work?
• Within the tropics: all year
• Outside the tropics: all year, with longer cooking times in winter
• Cloudy days: as long as some of the UV gets through there’s no problem
How much does it cost and who can make one?
• About $1 per person: they can pay for it themselves!
• Anyone can make one. Cost can be reduced through scavenging or by using homemade glue. Materials: cardboard, glue, tin-foil, a pot or jar, black paint, a small block of wood, and a special plastic bag (like an oven bag).
• Making a solar oven your first time takes 2 to 3 hours
• 3 cups of most foods takes 1 to 2 hours to cook, but requires no stirring
• Distribute the know-how for solar ovens by teaching individuals or groups
This is easy because solar ovens are:
• Built by the people
• A great micro-entrepreneurial idea
African women with cookers they each built.
The following is a list of organizations we gave materials to. Unfortunately contact information changes often and this list may become out of date. This is the most up to date information I have:
Business in a Box—Yehu Bank
Troy Holmberg at 235-9001
Charity Anywhere Foundation
Gordon Carter at www.charityanywhere.org
No current contact information
Families Helping Families
4040 East Greenway
Mesa, AZ 85205
Food for Everyone
Jim Kennard at growfood.com
located in Provo, Utah
International Aid Serving Kids (3 sets of materials)
432 E. 1200 N.
Orem, UT 84097
Joan Dixon (801) 373-5897/ (801) 372-8233
Mothers Without Borders
498 E. 10000 S.
Salem, UT 84653
Reach the Children
1077E. 2500 N.
Provo, UT 84604
World Wide Canneries
Mel Farmer at http://worldwidecanneries.com
Note: The following articles are valuable for a background of solar cooking as well as practical approaches and other general information. This information was not only used for my own research, but were also given in our packet of information distributed to NGOs.
Section 1: Background
Steven E. Jones, “The Solar Funnel Cooker”, courtesy of Solar Cookers International,
Sperber, Bill, “Balancing the Scales: Reduction of Inequities through the use of solar box
cookers”, Presented on April 7, l990 at the Solar Box Cookers International
Annual Meeting, courtesy of Solar Cookers International,
Journey to Forever, “Solar Box Cookers”, http://journeytoforever.org/ (11/18/2004)
Woods, Casey, “Cooking with the Sun: Chilean Village’s Experiment with Solar Ovens
Offers Alternative to Widespread Deforestation” San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday July 26, 2001, Found at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2001/07/26/MN33373.DTL
Section 2: Information on Micro-Enterprising with Solar Ovens
“Micro-Sun-Bakeries” web page, http://sunoven.com/micro.asp (2003)
“The Temple Solar Project”, http://www.quakepro.com/sunovens/solarproject.htm
Schroeder, Sister Donna Marie, “Bakery Co-Operative San Antonio-One Year Later”, http://www.quakepro.com/sunovens/bakery.htm
Section 3: Solar Cooker Review
“About Solar Cooker Review”, Courtesy of Solar Cookers International,
Excerpts from March 2002 Solar Cooker Review, Courtesy of Solar Cookers
Excerpt from July 2003 Solar Cooker Review, Courtesy of Solar Cookers International,
Section 4: General Information
Solar Cooking Frequently Asked Questions, Courtesy of Solar Cookers International,
Solar Cooking Non-Governmental Organizations, Courtesy of Solar Cookers
International, http://solarcooking.org/contacts.htm (2003)