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Balancing the Scales

Reduction of inequities through the use of solar box cookers

Presented by Bill Sperber of the Pillsbury Company on April 7, l990 at the Solar Box Cookers International Annual Meeting.

Many of the world's people are confronted by staggering inequities in matters of health, environmental quality, economics and personal and political freedoms. The inequities tend to be interrelated; consequently many people are forced to live in abject poverty.

Inequities

Health: The general unavailability of health care and family planning services in the third world has exacerbated many chronic health conditions. Several billion people suffer regular bouts of diarrheal illness because of the lack of clean water. Many suffer respiratory and eye ailments because of the extremely smoky cooking conditions which are equivalent to smoking 10-20 packs of cigarettes per day. A great deal of malnutrition is caused by the lack of food, the under-cooking of food (because of the shortage of fuel) and the practice of single pot cooking which means that separate weaning foods cannot be prepared. As a result, 14 million young children die each year and the life expectancy in many countries is less than 50 years.

Environment: Unequal distribution of energy sources is causing environmental degradation in the third world. Even though the third world consumes little energy compared to the first world, 90% of its energy is used for cooking food. Already, 1/4 of humanity is affected by a fuel wood shortage; by the year 2000 the shortage will affect at least 2.4 billion people (UN/FAO estimate). The ensuing deforestation causes soil erosion, water pollution, a loss of soil fertility, and ultimately, desertification. Sub-Saharan Africa is a graphic example of this process.

Economics: Many of the third worlds people are trapped in a vicious economic cycle of poverty because of their low income and lack of land ownership. Many families are forced to spend more on cooking fuel than they are able to spend on food. Third world governments are unable to assist their poor citizens because of the high interest rates attached to their foreign debts accumulated in the past decade.

Freedoms: The poor of the world are further impoverished because of a lack of personal and political freedoms. In our terms, they endure a subhuman existence. Many people suffer at the hands of oppressive governments and are victimized by the prevailing (male) attitudes and cultural practices. Almost universally, the poor of the world, and especially the women, are enslaved to the processes of fuel collection and cooking. Very few are literate; most receive less than a third-grade education.

Solutions

Gloomy as the above situation may seem, there is hope for the poor of the world. There must be hope, or else humanity will perish. Many of the more fortunate people in the world are developing programs and strategies to balance the scales and reduce the inequities which separate humans.

We have learned in the past 14 years that a simple cooking device, the Solar Box Cooker (SBC), can ameliorate each of the inequities cited above. SBCs can serve as a focal point to catalyze the attainment of many objectives in international development programs.

Health: The SBC can improve health in the third world in numerous ways. It can be used to pasteurize water, by heating it to 65C (150F), thereby reducing the incidence of diarrheal illnesses. The SBC is smokeless, its use will reduce the incidence of respiratory and eye ailments. It can even be used to disinfect medical instruments, as such it could be of significant benefit in many poor areas; it can even destroy the AIDS virus. Importantly, several pots of food can be cooked simultaneously, permitting separate preparation of weaning foods. All foods can be thoroughly cooked, thereby aiding digestion and enhancing nutrient absorption. Breadstuffs can be baked in an SBC, yielding foods which have some degree of stability.

Environment: Use of the SBC will reduce dependence on fuel wood and charcoal. Reduced rates of deforestation will yield reduced rates of soil erosion. In many villages there is a complete lack of fuel wood and the people have resorted to burning dried animal dung or crop residues. These practices deprive the soil of much of its potential fertility. Use of the SBC minimizes the burning of dung and crop residues, thereby permitting those materials to be used as natural fertilizers.

Economics: Much of the expense of fuel wood, charcoal or kerosene can be eliminated through the use of an SBC. The SBC also requires a low capital outlay; it can be built for about $20, an amount equivalent to one or two weeks of cooking fuel purchases. The SBC should be a useful tool to stimulate economic development in poor areas. It is ideally suited to low -technology cottage industries. Because of its relatively low cost, revolving loan funds could help spread the SBCs quickly.

Freedom: For many, the SBC is a significant labor-saving device since less time would need to be spent in accumulating and transporting fuel wood or dung. A project leader in Guatemala said, The Solar Box Cooker can liberate women from millennia of slavery. The saved time can be used for education, better family care, and food production. In turn, greater economic and political freedoms will follow.

We are living and participating in a very strange system. Humanity has one foot stepping towards the stars, while the other is mired in a sinking sea of poverty. The distance between humanity's two feet is growing. We can help reverse the process by teaching several billion people in the Third World how to build and use solar box cookers.

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