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Solar Box Cookers in Ladakh

Helena Norberg-Hodge, a linguist from Sweden, is the founder of The Ladakh Project in India, an international non-profit organization concerned with the search for more sustainable ways of living in both the developed and developing parts of the world.

Situated at the West end of the Tibetan plateau in the Himalayas, Ladakh gets roughly 320 days of sunshine per year. It is one of the best places in the world for solar cooking.

In 1978, Helena introduced the first solar cooker in Ladakh. In 1981, she increased the visibility of the cookers, taking them into the bazaar and giving cooking demonstrations. The cookers were mostly made of wood though the Ladakh project has used the metal cookers the Indian Government makes and has tried a mud and dung version. They found all models worked similarly well.

In 1983, the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG), an affiliate of The Ladakh Project, opened the Ecology Centre at which, among other projects, they feature a restaurant that serves food cooked by solar cookers. This restaurant continues to grow and is an excellent demonstration site to inspire solar cooking. Visitors from around the world stop by, see the cookers, read literature about them, and taste food cooked by them. Concurrently, Ladakhis see solar cookers in action, see Westerns and Ladakhis alike using them, and use the Ecology Centre as a way to familiarize themselves with the cookers. Presently the Centre subsidizes cookers, selling them for 200 rupees, though the actual cost is 400 rupees. 200 rupees is affordable to many Ladakhis.

I visited Helena and the Ecology Centre in 1986 and saw solar cookers in use both in the restaurant and Ladakhi homes. I was impressed with how effectively the restaurant makes a full range of solar cooker information available to visitors and ladakhis alike.

Recently I talked with Helena in San Francisco to discuss insights she had as to Ladakhi adaptation to and use of solar cookers. Her years of keen observation analyzing what factors influence Ladakhi's acceptance of solar cookers are valuable to better understand what directions further effort should take to be most beneficial.

Helena reported that, though the cookers are recognized as saving time, money and energy over collecting dung for fuel, they have not caught on as quickly as one would have liked. One of the main reasons for this, she says, is that cookers aren't associated with what is modern and fashionable. This is a motivating factor determining why things are adopted by Ladakhis, and other traditional cultures. "Westerners need to understand this fascination with and apparent need for 'the modern,'" she said.

Helena emphasized that it is imperative that more cookers be used in the West, and that to the extent they are already in use, they must be made more visible. If Ladakhis and other people from traditional cultures saw more Westerners using solar cookers, they would be more likely to adopt the technology.

If one soap opera or other T.V. show such as Dallas showed a solar cooker being, it would be the kind of fashionable marketing that is needed. This kind of creative visibility is badly needed to get solar cookers used regularly in both the developed and the developing countries. Getting solar cookers into mainstream America would do most of our promotion work for us.

There is a great need to collect information about how much cookers are used in the West, how they are being built, where they are being used, and so forth, and to get that information to developing countries.

Lots of visual material is helpful. Pictures, videos, and some written materials are effective tools. One method Helena has used is to bring pictures to Ladakh of an engineer in Switzerland using solar cookers, and distribute them to show that modern people in the West admire and use cookers. "You can't pretend things are happening in the West if they are not. What we must make more visible, is the growing interest in renewable resources."

Helena states that the structures in the less developed parts of the world make alternative energy ideas easier to introduce than in the West. "New energy projects are actually easier and less expensive to get into less developed parts of the world. They are easier and less expensive to start up than conventional energy resources such as gas stoves."

When you do not have the centralized and expensive infrastructure like in conventional development, these alternatives are clearly cheaper. "Once you establish that centralized infrastructure, being established does not mean that you build it one year and then that's it. It's an infrastructure which is continuously and constantly subsidized. That's true in the developed countries today as well as in the developing countries."

Once that enormous structure is established and continuously subsidized, then the decentralized renewables are definitely more expensive. "And in part they become more expensive because you have the urbanizing influence: people crowding together, no access to sun in high rises, etc."

Believing we need to work on both places at once, Helena pointed out that though the structures in the West make it more difficult, the attitudes and the consciousness of the need to try a different direction and try a more ecological path, tends to be greater in the more industrialized countries.

"The structures in the West are more difficult, but the consciousness of the need for alternatives is greater. For example, it is more likely in Delhi than in Ladakh that people would understand the need for cookers. And globally it would more likely to be in Sweden than in India."

Throughout our conversation, Helena balanced her comments between indicating that cooker use is indeed growing, and that a much deeper understanding of cultural factors is needed to really gain momentum and widespread acceptance.

Cookers are catching on but it's slow. Some families use cookers regularly for dahl and beans and things that take longer and for heating water. Helena has found that the more traditional Ladakhis tend to be the ones to adopt the cookers. The young and fashionable won't use them; there is no glamour in it.

Helena said that there is even a demand for cookers which the Ladakh Project can't fulfill, but it could be much more. The current trend is towards using gas. The Indian government encourages private entrepreneurship such as selling gas stoves. If the government were pushing its own metal solar cookers enough, it would help tremendously.

Helena stressed the need to understand fully the range of cultural and psychological factors affecting cooker use. "The analysis of cultural aspect is typically done in a narrow way." she stated.

"'Cultural barriers to appropriate technology'" is the usual way resistance to change in traditional cultures is described. But we must look more closely at what is going on."

"Do we really believe that a traditional farmer in Ladakh working with a dung fueled mud stove, is going to have a bigger transition going to a solar box stove than in going to a bottled gas stove? The fact is that very capital energy intensive development is spreading like wildfire. In comparison to solar box cookers, such development is much more alien to diverse local cultures around the planet." By not keeping that in their field of vision as they start looking at the cultural barriers to improved technology, they often get lost and sidetracked."

Once we have this context -- that great change is happening in traditional cultures -- we have new point of reference about "cultural barriers to appropriate technology." We must ask, "What is it that makes a capital energy intensive monoculture spread like wildfire if it is so alien culturally? [Why shouldn't we expect SBCs to spread just as fast? -- Ed.]

Helena advised that we shouldn't hesitate when we are aware that a very expensive and often economically suicidal development is being imposed, advertised, and pushed on people. "The fact is that that mechanism along with the psychological receptivity means that it is spreading everywhere. We know that. We shouldn't feel so reluctant to really make visible and to really show that there is an alternative path."

Overall, one should take a more active role in promoting what one believes in, though, of course, that doesn't mean that we would ever think of pushing it down people's throats or ever using force. The point is to make other paths of alternative energy sources available.

It is important for Westerners to use the appropriate technology they advocate. Otherwise the attitude is that this technology is being pushed off onto Third World countries, and may be second rate, or even dangerous. We need to distinguish the second rate things that are pawned off on third world countries from good technologies like solar cookers.

Her overall view is that if one could have enough money and effort to invest, cookers could spread effectively. More Ladakhis need to learn the potential for cookers to really catch on.

The Ladakh Project is trying to make a major push this summer to introduce greater numbers of cookers. The full energy of someone with both a technical and cultural perspective will focus getting the cookers out and in regular use.

People who might be traveling in India, and are interested in solar cookers and who would be able to help out in promoting them are welcome to contact the Berkeley office. Ladakh Project, P.O. Box 9475, Berkeley, CA 94709 USA . Tel. 415-841-6758.

Edie Farwell can be contacted at