Solar Cooker Dissemination and Cultural Variables
A solar cooker promoter asked for comments on ways culture and customs affect
the spread of solar cookers. I am not an anthropologist, but I have read
hundreds of reports and thousands of letters from solar cooker promoters around
the world. So I wrote something up. Then I was asked to re-edit my comments for
publication on the internet.
Among all who may read this article, I expect my primary audience to be people
considering or already engaged in their first years of promoting solar cooking
internationally. Most will probably be from the richer countries of North
America and Europe. The cultures of these promoters is something to consider.
Having lived mainly in the United States, I perceive that the culture here does
not particularly encourage patience or humility. The culture does seem to
promote a high level of optimism and an insular rather than planetary outlook.
The optimism may tempt US-based solar cooker promoters to launch grand schemes
with short time frames and too little research, planning and resources.
Europeans seem more worldly in their outlook, but I am not sure they are any
more patient or humble. Impatient westerners may want to avoid imposing their
pace, expectations and timelines when they are visiting another culture.
Patience, humility and the ability to listen to new points of view are helpful,
but solid knowledge of the local culture is important, too. In the early 1990s,
Dr. Barbara Carpenter of Southern University advised SCI to seek partnerships
with organizations with roots in the local community, with knowledge of the
local culture, and with the trust of the local people.
SCI tries to shrink many cultural gaps both by consistently recruiting local
women to be the teachers and promoters of solar cooking in SCI’s field projects,
and by working with in-country evaluators to assess our projects.
Here is a sampling of perspectives that may be of interest to solar cooking
promoters and that may serve as a reminder to seek local partners for greater
The first place I sample is SCI’s own “Spreading Solar Cooking” manual
(available at http://solarcooking.org/advocacy/fieldguide.pdf). Among the items on the
manual’s assessment check list, these speak to cultural variables:
- “Are there open, sunny spaces near homes, where a solar cooker and food can be
safe from stealing, tampering or damage?
- “Is cooking already usually done outside?
- “Are main meals around noon and/or around sunset or soon after?”
- “Do gender roles allow/encourage women to participate in community groups and
allow women some decision-making in family financial matters?”
Food preferences and customs vary by culture, and the manual asks promoters
to consider whether high-heat frying consumes a significant portion of household
fuel. In cultures where most foods are fried, parabolic cookers may be the most
suitable, while in cultures where frying is less important, lower cost box and
panel cookers may be the most economical choice.
- Here are a few other variables promoters should consider:
- How many people do
most women cook for in the community?
- What size or style of cooker suits this
- What pots are used? Will they work with solar cooking and will they fit in the
- What time of day do women buy the day’s food?
- Is there enough time after
purchasing the food to solar cook it?
- Will they have time to solar cook both
lunch and dinner?
Knowing local food customs can help promoters find niches where solar cookers
can have dramatic pay-offs. For example, I have been told that in Hausa
communities in West Africa, there are usually a significant number of people
involved in small businesses roasting chickens. These chicken roasters could be
a great market for solar box cookers.
Gender, Culture and Cookers
One important factor is the disparity in decision-making power between men and
women in many cultures. In most cultures, women do most of the cooking, but in
many cultures men make the decisions about spending money. Since the men don’t
cook, they may be reluctant to spend money to improve the working conditions of
the cook. On the other hand, we’ve heard of a man in Kenya who bought his wife a
solar cooker, but she refused to use it.
I’ve also been told that in some cases women fear to try a new cooking method
because they worry their husbands will beat them if meals do not taste the way
the men are used to.
A study from Central America by Dr. Dulce Cruz discussed a project in which
women organized into groups to build and learn to use cookers. Some men were
threatened by the fact that their wives were getting out of the house, meeting
with other women, and learning new skills—and they beat their wives to
There have been reports in Africa of opposition to solar cookers because men
were afraid that the cookers would provide women time to be idle.
In those families that rely on gathered firewood instead of purchased wood or
charcoal, women and girls usually do most of the fuel collecting. Under some
economic analyses, the time spent gathering the wood would be considered a
“cost” of cooking. However, in many places, time spent by women and girls doing
work is not assigned a recognized value. Therefore, “saving” their time through
solar cooking does not have a recognized value. In many cases, it is not
exclusively a gender issue. Work that does not bring cash income may be less
valued than work that does produce cash.
I have heard that one reason for rejecting solar cookers is that an indoor
cooking fire is effective at reducing the number of insects that live in the
roof of the family dwelling. I have heard that in some places women like working
together in hot, smoky kitchens with a cooking fire because the heat and smoke
keep the men away and allow the women a space of their own.
On the other hand, men’s attitudes can support the acceptance of solar cooking.
I’ve seen examples of men praising their wives’ move to solar cooking because of
the lack of smoke and soot. Some men have said that with solar cooking their
wives smell better (not smoky), look better (no red eyes from smoke), feel
better (reduced coughing) and have more time for the family.
In fact, in some of our projects, especially in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, we
found a surprising cultural change. Men began cooking their own meals. This may
have been due partly to the fact that the problems that led people to become
refugees also disrupted families, so that some men had no female relatives
available to cook for them. However, what the men said was that they liked solar
cooking because it was clean and modern. By removing the worst negatives of
cooking, solar cookers may foster enormous cultural changes if it leads to men
and women sharing the cooking chores more equally.
The cleanliness, lack of smoke and image of modern living is one that attracts
many women in the developing world to solar cookers, even as others may cling
hard to the old and traditional ways.
Belief Systems and Cookers
The person whose questions stimulated the writing of this article offered an
anecdote. She said she heard that some cultures reject square solar box cookers
because they believe that circular shapes are the symbol of perfection.
I have heard that in parts of Nepal, people were reluctant to use solar cookers
because they believed the god of the household hearth was an important spirit
who would be offended if meals were not cooked on a fire on the hearth.
I heard of solar cooking demonstrations in Haiti in which the people grew
fearful when the food started to cook. They thought black magic must be
involved, so they ran away. I’ve heard similar cases in Africa where cooking
food without fire was perceived as the work of the devil. In the United States,
the influential solar cooking leader Barbara Kerr was visited by an engineering
professional. The engineer spent much of the day trying to make his point that a
cardboard solar box cooker could not possibly cook food. He continued his
argument while his lunch was cooking in a box at his feet, and still maintained
that the box could not cook even after he ate the hot, delicious lunch Barbara
In all three of the above cases, the fact of solar cooking is outside the
experience and belief systems of the people who doubted or feared it. In such
cases, it is normal for people to develop an explanation that does lie within
their belief system.
Culture Supports Solar Cooking
Beliefs help spread solar cooking, too, in various ways. For example, people in
Africa and elsewhere have commented that the sun’s power to cook food is more
proof of the benevolence of deities.
Sometimes the motivation is more immediate. I have read letters from African
farmers who celebrate their ability to carry light weight solar cookers into
their distant fields, so that the food cooks while the people work, and a hot
meal can be had with no delay. I have read about women’s groups in eastern
Africa that make extra money by using solar cooking to meet a strongly felt
local cultural need—for birthday cakes. Baking cakes is virtually impossible on
a 3 stone fire, but easy in a solar box cooker. There is a ready demand, so the
solar cooker easily fits into its niche.
But, these and many other individual examples obscure more important attractions
of solar cookers across cultures. I have read hundreds of letters from many
countries from people who decry the coughing and pneumonia that are linked to
indoor cooking smoke, people who desire the smoke free alternative of solar
cooking. I have read many pleas from many countries describing the suffering,
especially among children, who waste away from diseases carried in their
drinking water, and who seek information on solar water pasteurization.
Full realization of the benefits--economic and health-related--occurs only after
people solar cook successfully and regularly for several seasons. An elder in a
Somali community that had been using solar cookers on a regular and widespread
basis for several years told a neutral monitor of the project the following:
“Forest is rain, forest is fuel energy, forest is crop…livestock…money. Forest,
in general, is livelihoods. By reducing their destruction and reclaiming
them…most of us have just started witnessing how valuable these [solar cookers]
The good news here for promoters trying to reach whole villages, towns or
districts seems to be that if you do everything right for the first four years,
it will start to get a lot easier.
Cookers and Changes
I know that I am reluctant to make changes and try new technologies without a
compelling reason—even though I grew up in a culture that worships change and
newness. It does not surprise me that many people are slow to make the changes
in habits needed to succeed with solar cooking.
A study comparing several solar cooker projects in Ladakh, India, looked at this
issue. Their study indicated that acceptance of solar cooking was greater in
communities that were more exposed to encroachments of the modern world.
Communities that were more remote and less affected by modern changes were less
likely to adopt solar cooking. Apparently, if traditional ways are intact,
people are more likely to continue their traditional cooking mode. If tradition
is already crumbling, it may be easier to get people to make voluntary changes
in cooking habits when they have good reasons to do so.
In many places in the world, traditional cooking methods are harder to maintain
because of spreading shortages and rising prices of traditional fuels. These
shortages may drive people to embrace alternatives like solar cooking.
Economics, Culture and Cookers
In our project in western Kenya, we sell very low-cost cookers at slightly
subsidized prices to low-income rural women. We have been told that the women in
that culture do not believe in going into debt. Therefore, they refuse to buy
the cookers on credit. Instead, they pay small installments until they have paid
the full price and then accept the cooker. From a western perspective, the women
would seem to be better off if they would accept the cooker after the first
payment. Then they could pay the rest of the installments by using the money the
cooker saved them on firewood expenses. The reluctance to go into debt of any
kind makes the purchase of cookers more difficult, slowing down the
One can easily imagine problems arising from an opposite attitude. If it fit the
culture to make a down payment, take a cooker, and then postpone making the rest
of the payments, solar cooking promoters would face serious problems.
For people raised in industrialized-consumer cultures, one of the best points
about solar cookers is that they can pay for themselves in a few months by
reducing spending on wood, charcoal or gas. The idea that an investment now will
lead to recurring savings month after month in the future seems to make solar
cooking obviously beneficial. However, in some cultures, ideas about investing
and gaining small but permanently recurring savings are not developed the way
they are in the West. Cultures that have little experience with money in general
are not likely to have developed sophisticated traditions of thinking about
“investing” “savings” and “return on investment.”
One last item. A solar cooker project in Central America worked with wooden
cookers of the box type. Women didn’t like them, because the cookers sat on the
ground and women had to sit, stoop or crouch to put food in and out. In
response, the promoters started building the box cookers with legs, so that the
oven would be near waist height like the ovens the women were used to.
Acceptance improved greatly. Again, listening to local people about their needs
and preferences is vital.
When one thinks about the variability of human cultures, one will easily
conclude that someone sitting at a desk in California probably has some cultural
blind spots. Others who read this article may wish to add their insights. If you
have a contribution to make, please send me an email at email@example.com I
hope to update this article in 3 to 6 months with additional comments from
Meanwhile, here are some articles and studies posted on the Solar Cooking
Archive that offer more insights about solar cookers and culture: