Gordon Magney was born in Tanzania to American parents in 1938. Magney developed a deep interest in Afghanistan while studying at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois (USA). The Magneys moved to Afghanistan in 1969, and spent many years working on adult literacy issues in Kabul, even writing a set of Dari language primers that are still used today. In 1972 they organized food aid in response to a famine in the Ghor province of central Afghanistan, and also began a vocational training program for orphans. Known as SERVE (Serving Emergency Relief and Vocational Enterprises), these programs continued through 1974 when the situation improved.
Magney re-established SERVE in 1980 to provide emergency relief to Afghans who fled the Soviet invasion and were living in refugee camps in Pakistan. In a 1983 survey conducted by SERVE and United Nations experts, refugees revealed that their most urgent need was assistance in obtaining cooking fuel. Magney felt that solar cookers would be a boon in this region with nearly 300 sunny days each year. In a small pilot project, 50 families were given solar cooking training and loaned solar box cookers similar to models in India. By the end of the nine-month project, 80% of the families used solar cookers whenever possible. The cookers were modified based on project feedback, and a workshop was created to build solar cookers. The cookers cost $60-70 to produce, but were sold to refugees at a subsidized price of about $18.
Over time, many of the refugees returned to Afghanistan with their solar cookers. Friends and relatives saw these cookers and demand began to rise, due in part to the danger, during firewood collection, posed by landmines that were left from the war years. As an example of the level of demand, a shipment of 780 solar box cookers in a Kabul market sold out in five days. SERVE continued to provide solar cooker training and equipment in the region through the end of the 1990s, when subsidies dried up. Like all NGOs, SERVE had to leave Afghanistan at the very end of Taliban rule in 2001. By then, the Magneys and SERVE had distributed more than 20,000 solar cookers in Pakistan and Afghanistan. SERVE returned within a few months after the Taliban's departure from Kabul. SERVE remains active in Afghanistan today.
The Magneys returned to Afghanistan after Taliban rule ended, and again began promoting solar cookers. This time, they opted to import a solar box cooker called the SOS Sport, because it was cheaper, lighter and more attractive than earlier SERVE models. The SOS Sport proved to be a popular cooker in Afghanistan, and the initial delivery of 400 units sold out quickly at a subsidized price of $15, made possible by the Global Hope Network.
In the past few years, the Magneys began to advocate the use of parabolic solar cookers which could be built in Afghanistan, creating employment and providing more families with a way to cook and boil water using Afghanistan’s abundant sunshine. Grace still resides in Kabul and is still active in the solar cooking advocacy work that she and Gordon began so many years ago.
In addition to his work in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Magney was also active in the worldwide solar cooking community. He and his wife attended several conferences and held leadership roles in working groups.
According to SERVE, Magney was buried in Kabul “in the country and among the peoples he loved.”
- See Grace Magney.