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Last updated: 21 May 2015
What began with chance conversations over a decade ago has evolved into multiple integrated projects that currently involve hundreds of women in Central America.
The Central American Solar Energy Project (CASEP) was founded as a formal organization by William Lankford, professor of Physics at George Mason University, Fairfax VA in 1991. Professor Lankford first considered the idea of solar ovens when he was studying Spanish in Costa Rica where he was given a design by Costa Rican professor, Shyam Nandwani in 1986. A test model was immediately built, and the seed was planted.
Later that year, while studying in Antigua, Guatemala, Bill, with the encouragement of sister Jan Gregorich, contracted a carpenter to build a second oven using the Nandwani design. After they finished Spanish school, Jan and Bill took the oven to her parish in the coastal town of Rio Bravo. The oven worked beautifully in the intense sun there, but it became immediately apparent that the capacity was too small for the large Guatemalan families that were enthusiastic about using the oven.
The next step came to define the uniqueness of the CASEP project. Both the physical oven design and the technology introduction protocol were developed in response to experience on the ground. As the process later spread to other countries, the result was a truly Central American model, well adapted to both the climate and culture of the region. In this case, the oven size was increased by about 50% in the first workshop that Bill instructed in Rio Bravo. From there the oven building workshops spread to Quixayá, a nearby community of internal refugees.
In 1998 William took a leave-without-pay from George Mason to teach physics at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua (UNAN) in Managua where he experimented with different variations of the oven. His students won the national science prize for innovative technology with their ovens that year.
The first truly participatory workshop was in El Triumfo, Nicaragua with four men chosen by their parish priest because they were good carpenters. Over ten weekends William taught oven construction and solar cooking techniques. Finally, the day arrived when the proud builders presented their beautiful completed ovens to their wives. Although the women were gracious their reaction was: "What was wrong with how I have been cooking for you all these years"? And very soon the ovens were collecting dust. From then on every effort has been made to insure that only the person having primary responsibility for cooking in the home is given the resources to build an oven. In Central America this all but insures that women will build their own ovens. The incentive to use ytheir solar ovens has made huge difference in the acceptance of solar cooking by Central American women. Through these experiences, the vision of a Central American Solar Energy Project began to take hold.
As the project grew in Nicaragua and Guatemala, Professor Lankford saw an opportunity to further expand the project across international borders and began a partnership with two women, Judy Blankenship and Vilma Soto who helped organize the first solar oven workshop in Santa Barabara, Costa Rica in 1989.
Several years later after the Costa Rican project had some experience, a team of women traveled to Honduras to conduct a solar oven construction workshop to train and help establish a foundation for a solar energy project in Orocuina, Choluteca. The idea was to position the project to receive substantial financial support from the European Community which was available for large regional projects. However, by the time CASEP achieved this, the Berlin Wall fell and European development aid flowed east rather than west. However, our long range plans have been largely realized using our own funds, although at much slower pace.
Over the years the project has continued to grow, first as a small seed and with the support and nurturing of the CASEP family, then growing into a much larger comprehensive project which addresses a full spectrum of community issues. By the mid 1990's, due to the hard work and vision of Bill Lankford, and the dedication of the in-country coordinators, the project had successfully spread to five contiguous countries in Central America. Unfortunately the small project in El Salvador, due to the difficult social and political environment, has not endured. Today, there are highly motivated teams working from resource and educational centers and their associated non-profit organizations in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua that continue to empower their communities by teaching oven construction, building community relationships, and expanding the skills and confidence of women.
In Central America we seek to enrich the lives of women and their families by providing women with a viable and appropriate alternative to cooking with firewood. We provide women with opportunities to learn new skills, develop projects that address the needs of their community, and become leaders.
Cooking with solar ovens saves families time, energy, and money typically devoted to obtaining firewood, and significantly decreases the incidents of respiratory and eye problems and burns caused by cooking over an open fire. The Central American Solar Energy Project works towards improved health, personal growth and sustainable communities while reducing deforestation and continuing to spread environmental consciousness throughout Central America.
Each of the four countries has a community resource center operated by a coordinator and staff. The project has evolved in different ways in each country, adapting to the particular needs and strengths of the communities, but all sharing a common Vision, History and Development Model. While the life of the project is in Central America, there is a small administrative office in Fairfax, Virginia.
The Mission of the Central American Solar Energy Project (CASEP) is:
- To empower women to take part in the development of projects which improve the health of their communities.
- To enrich the lives of women and their families by decreasing their commitment of time and money obtaining firewood.
- To preserve the endangered ecosystems by reducing deforestation.
- To reduce the incidence of eye damage, respiratory illnesses and other health hazards due to open fire cooking.
- To develop solar cooking technology that is consistent with the needs of women and families now cooking with firewood or natural gas,
- To provide opportunities to women to learn new skills and develop their leadership within the community and beyond.
- To provide long-term follow-up and organization that fosters the creation of diverse community projects.
- To encourage self-sufficiency and long-term sustainability of autonomous community groups in Central America.
Solar Oven Project Development
Through years of experience we have developed an effective process that creates sustainable community organizations, empowers women and promotes solar oven use. Although the programs in each country have adapted the project development model to suit their own needs, they share these fundamental steps:
- Planning and Research - Before an oven construction workshop is planned, the project Coordinator and staff must ensure that a new community is environmentally and socially appropriate for a solar oven project. This includes loaning an oven to a woman in a new community for a 6 month trial period to see if there is sufficient solar radiation and community interest for solar cookers in her area.
- Demonstration - The new community typically hosts a public solar oven exposition to feature the ovens, explain the project and organize a group of women who want to participate in an oven building workshop.
- Construction Workshop - A group of 10-15 women participate in a two to three week oven construction workshop in their own community. The women work together to build enough ovens for each woman to take one home. During a construction workshop, the work is coordinated by specially trained instructors, usually women, who develop activities around 3 principles: Cooking with the sun, technology and construction of the solar cooker and complementary themes such as health, nutrition, human rights, self esteem, environmental situation, and/or organizational development.
- Follow up - After the ovens are taken home, the real work of incorporating the new technology into the everyday routine of a woman's life begins. Women are chosen from the group to be representatives. Together with solar oven promoters these women visit each of the ovens regularly to help with oven maintenance and motivate the women to become accomplished solar cooks. This continued follow up has proven to be an essential part of the project's success. The visits help build a foundation of trust and support which gives women confidence to use their oven and take on more responsibilities within their communities. During this stage, the workshop participants form local women's groups and embark on other complementary projects of their own choosing. Read more about these complementary projects in the country specific pages.
- Autonomy - The goal in each of the countries is to form locally based independent organizations that can solicit a variety of funding agencies both nationally and internationally to support their work as a sustainable independent entity. With the financial and administrative support of CASEP, the national organizations are able to continue their work in the communities and find time to write grants and solicit funding for additional construction workshops and educational trainings.
News and recent developments
- May 2015: Long time solar cooking advocate, CASEP, is recognized by nature magazine: William Lankford, founder and president of CASEP, and Laura Brown, program coordinator, explain that after many years of coordinating solar cooking projects they have learned to focus their programs more on women's needs rather than the cooking technology. Read more...
- Solar Cooking in Central American Solar Energy Project (CASEP) - Global Solar Thermal Energy Council
Articles in the media
- May 2015: Sustainability: Clean cooking empowers women - Nature magazine
- August 2015: Sustainability: Solar ovens beaten by rain and tortillas - Nature magazine (It's a lesson learned. Now we can do it better.)
- Sol de Vida - Costa Rica
- Association of Women Defenders of Life - Honduras
- Casa del Sol - Costa Rica
- Solar Project for Nicaraguan Women
Central American Solar Energy Project
1400 East Market Street
Charlottesville, VA 22902
Tel.: (434) 971 1401