"How can people earn money by making and selling solar cookers, when some solar cookers are so easy to make that almost anyone can do it?”
It may seem, if potential customers are to build their own cookers instead of buying a similar model from a cooker production company, that company will probably have some problems making sales. However, it is important to distinguish between theory and practice. If solar cookers were being copied and produced by individuals who had seen cookers being sold and used by others--this would greatly speed up the spread of solar cooking. However, in practice, there are few reports from developing countries about people spontaneously copying the solar cookers of their neighbors. If there was a small production co-op to make solar cookers, or a small business, the producers would be able to purchase materials in higher volume, and lower the unit cost per cooker, compared to the prices a person who was planning to build one or two cookers might pay. The production organization, because of its experience, should be able to produce better cookers more cheaply.
Globally, the situation is changing quickly. The market for more finished and durable solar cookers continues to grow in developed countries. Several established manufacturers sell many cookers each year with sustainable profits. In the past, various nonprofit organizations have subsidized the production of inexpensive solar cookers, such as the CooKit, through programs aimed at developing countries. Often these programs allow low-income program participants to earn a small wage. Typically, these programs have been successful in encouraging the continued use of the solar cookers, and empowering these people's lives. So the concept of income generation can have different goals, depending on the situation. A number of solar restaurants and bakeries have successfully been in operation around the world. It is also important to consider the costs of doing the selling. However, there is something more fundamental to consider. It is hard to sell something that is unknown, unproven, and unfamiliar to people who have to watch every penny they spend.
Solar cooker manufacturers in China and India have had the support of their governments, who see the growing environmental and health problems more acutely than in western countries, and have achieved success with their businesses. India started on the road to solar cooking in the 1970s and by the 1980s had a national program to boost solar cooking by subsidizing the sale of cookers.
There are also business possibilities for niche markets. In areas where people cook over open fires, it is often difficult to bake. So baked goods are considered a special treat, one that customers are willing to pay for. Small businesses have begun baking these treats with solar ovens. The profits are small, but they significantly supplement subsistence incomes.
In parts of India there is a large mango crop that is harvested each year. Historically, for a couple months a year, the harvest has created a huge surplus of mangos. More than could be effectively distributed before spoilage would occur. But since employing solar drying equipment, excess stock is dried and sold year round, creating valuable additional income for their businesses.
A carpenter in Kenya earns income from making solar cookers. He has done this on his own, without support from any larger institution, spreading awareness or encouraging people to buy solar cookers. He builds and sells about twelve wooden solar box cookers per year. He cannot support himself on solar cookers alone--they were just one aspect of his carpentry business. So, in thinking about solar cookers and income generation, it may not pay to think of the solar cooker income as being one's only or main income stream, but simply being an additional income. Also solar cookers can be just part of the inventory of a new retail business to help maintain consistent sales.
A group at the University of Chile did extensive work with solar cookers in one small town in the deserts of northern Chile, the town of Villaseca. When they finished their very intensive promotion project, most of the town’s people were confirmed users of solar box cookers. After they were thoroughly familiar with how to make solar cookers, how to use solar cookers, and the striking advantages of solar cookers that they could see for themselves, the people in the community took two further steps. They formed the Association of Solar Artisans of Villaseca and started producing box cookers to sell in neighboring towns, where people had heard or witnessed Villa Seca's success. And, they started Delicias del Sol restaurant based on using solar cookers. As of 2012, the Villaseca solar restaurant has become a significant tourist attraction in that part of Chile. Note that the Solar Project Gambia has also started a restaurant call Elena's Solar Food Restaurant.
There is potential for income generation with solar cookers, however, it is not automatic, and profitability will likely take time. Awareness of the potential of solar cooking is growing and new business opportunities will continue to be created as solar cooking becomes more widely accepted.
Recent news and developments
- January 2013: Solar Circle uses barter system to distribute 3000 solar cookers in Tanzania - The NGO Solar Circle has learned many things from their solar cooking program in Masasi, southern Tanzania. People will use solar cookers if they are efficient and affordable, which is often a problem for subsistence farmers who are most in need of the cookers even when the cookers are heavily subsidized. However, they have also learned that people will work hard to earn a solar cooker. The group has created a bartering system with community leaders. The community chooses a service project and the beneficiaries organize and oversee the effort. Participants earn an solar oven for their involvement. So far, the program has distributed more than 3000 solar ovens, and built 40 houses for people who are sick, elderly, widowed, or disabled. Because the community chooses the project and beneficiary, there’s an eagerness to work together. Surrounding villages have heard of the cookers and the program, so spreading the word has been easy. They cannot keep up with demand. The barter program relies on external help with finances, but community service represents the same effort that of money earned in outside employment. Solar Circle values that effort, and raises what money it can from friends to expand the program.
- December 2012: Solar cooking has created a business opportunity for a group of women in Zambia - The Solar Health and Education Project (SHEP) has initiated a project at a community-based nursery school in Livingstone, Zambia for unschooled mothers. Previously, their only source of income had been illegally making charcoal. During the course of the program, they learned how to make and use the CooKit solar cooker as an income generating activity. Thier next step was to create a registered group called Solar Ventures (SV). They have been holding SHEP-funded workshops at clinics, schools, agricultural shows (where they won 1st place for the most interesting booth in 2011), and government-sponsored functions on energy and conservation. They were invited to Lusaka to run a three-day workshop for a UK based NGO. Their life is certainly different now since their introduction to solar cooking.