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Promoting solar cooking in Afghanistan

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In early 2009, Patricia McArdle was contacted by a large international agency about the possibility of providing large numbers of solar cookers for the population of Afghanistan. She set about contacting the experts in the field. Below is what she discovered during her investigation.

Introduction

I have consulted with several experienced solar cooker colleagues (list at the end of this message) regarding the widespread introduction of solar cookers into Afghanistan, which has an average of 300 solar cooking days/year. They expressed a general consensus that parabolic solar cookers would be the most appropriate of the three types of solar cookers to introduce at this time. The ability of parabolic cookers to generate high temperatures very quickly even at high altitudes and in very cold weather (as long as there is sunshine) all point to this as the technology that will most readily be adopted. The National Solidarity Program could be a useful vehicle for introducing solar cookers into villages.

For longer term stability and job creation, local craftsmen should be taught how to manufacture the solar cookers. Initially, large numbers could be imported from China or India (see below). A very quick impact project might be to introduce them first to the village tea shops where they could be used to boil water in a very public place. Male and female villagers would see them in use and would notice how much less wood is being burned by the owners of the chai hanas. Parabolic solar cookers can also be used for ironing clothes. The irons used in areas where there is no electricity are just that, pieces of iron with a flat bottom, a handle and a place to put hot coals. In India, laundry workers are heating their irons on parabolic cookers and saving a bundle on charcoal. A retired Pakistani Air Force colonel wrote recently about the desperate need in his own country for solar cooker and other simple solar technology--something to consider as we and the Pakistani government work out ways to win the hearts and minds of the people in the Swat Valley and elsewhere along border with Afghanistan. Grace Magney, a U.S. citizen with Global Hope Network has lived and worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan for many years. She and her late husband Gordon have taught solar cooking to thousands of Afghans. Grace has mailed me a copy of the training manual she has written on how to use a parabolic solar cooker. She is willing to help with the training of female Afghan trainers if it can be done in Kabul where she lives.

Tens of thousands of Afghan children are spending their days stripping the countryside bare of any remaining vegetation and carrying it back to their compounds for mom to cook with. These children should be in school. I have also been invited into rural Afghan compounds where I have seen the women squatting before smoking piles of brush which they must fan to cook their meals. Problems that would be mitigated by the widespread use of solar cookers:

  1. danger faced by young children who must roam far from their villages to harvest reeds and bushes (there are few wild trees left);
  2. erosion of topsoil when all ground cover is pulled out to be used for fuel;
  3. respiratory and eye damage for women who spend hours every day over smoking fires.

The key issues for consideration regarding the widespread introduction of parabolic solar cookers in Afghanistan are:

  1. Which type of parabolic solar cooker is the most appropriate, durable, least expensive and easiest to introduce?
  2. How to most effectively introduce this technology into villages and train local trainers?
  3. What additional equipment and maintenance will be required?
  4. Manufacture locally or import large numbers of cookers?
  5. Teaching integrated cooking along with the introduction of the parabolic solar cookers.

Choosing a cooker

Which type of parabolic solar cooker is the most appropriate, durable, least expensive and easiest to introduce: the SK-14 parabolic dish solar cooker or the Chinese Butterfly cooker, also known as the Papillon? Both work well and are being used in Afghanistan on a limited scale at this time.

Cooker Advantages Disadvantages
SK-14
  • Lightweight. Can easily be shipped flat and assembled on site.
  • Focal point is inside the dish so fire and reflection dangers are minimal.
  • The polished aluminum reflector will last for many years if properly cared for.
  • Lightweight. Can blow over in the wind. (This should not be a significant problem inside the high walls of a family compound.)
  • The entire device must be manually turned to track the sun (not built on a rotating pedestal like the butterfly).
  • The assembly kits contains many small pieces and screws (can be more difficult to assemble than the butterfly solar cooker).
  • Cook must reach into the dish area to stir food and place pot in holder, with little to no risk of burning, but more awkward.
  • More expensive.
Butterfly
  • Heavy and the reflective panels are low to the ground -- less likely to get blown over especially when anchored to the ground (not a problem inside a walled compound);
  • (Fiberglass has been tried as a backing, but it has been found to warp.)
  • Very few parts--easy assembly.
  • Most butterfly solar cookers are attached to a rotating metal rod on a stand, making them easy to turn to track the sun during cooking.
  • Can be made locally (although the proper shape of the dish is critical to concentrate the reflected sun in a small area on the bottom of the pot).
  • A few are currently being manufactured in Bamiyan.
  • Cook can stand behind the dish and out of the glare of the sun.
  • Heavy (more difficult and expensive to move/ship);
  • High focal point where the pot is placed (must be carefully monitored by the users).
  • If a cement base is used, the reflective tape must be replaced approximately once a year (depending on the severity and fluctuations of the climate)

Introducing the technology

How to most effectively introduce this technology into villages and training local trainers?

The local population must be involved in the decision to adopt this technology from the very beginning. They must be convinced through demonstrations that it will work and that it will be useful.

Village leaders need to be brought on board first.

If women are to be consulted and trained to use solar cookers, a female (Afghan, expat contractor or female soldier) must be designated and trained to work with them.

Although it may only take an hour or two to teach an American or European soldier how to use either type of parabolic solar cooker, getting the locals to accept and use the cookers will take intensive training and follow up. Solar cooker extension agents must be designated to return to the homes where they are being use.

The main obstacles to acceptance will be cultural resistance to this new and counterintuitive technology.

Trainers should be prepared to counteract falsehoods that may be circulated about solar cookers, such as: they attract lightning, they can blind you, the food will taste funny if it isn't cooked over a fire, it's black magic, etc.

Additional equipment and maintenance

What additional equipment and maintenance will be required?

All that is needed to use a parabolic solar cooker is a pot with a lid and a black painted bottom (preferably with non-toxic blackboard paint). Some people use sun glasses, but I have cooked with one and have not found it necessary.

Some cultures use pressure cookers which dramatically shorten the amount of time needed to cook each dish (but also require training).

Cleaning of the reflective panels on parabolic solar cookers should be done after every use. All that is needed is a soft cloth and clean water to remove dust and spilled food.

The reflectors should never be scrubbed or cleaned with soap or an abrasive material because that will dull the shine and reduce the temperature at which it cooks.

Covers for parabolic solar cookers that are left outside at night will dramatically extend their life span. They can be sewn locally.

Local manufacture vs import

Import

For quick impact on a large scale, this is the only way to go.

Jim Lindsay of Sun Fire Cooking in Somalia uses two factories in China for his butterfly solar cookers. He estimates that they could manufacture about 100 per day.

Michael Mueller of Global Hope Network (GHN) in Afghanistan imported 400 SOS Sport ovens from the US and did this pilot project in 2003 & 2004 in six provinces.

In 2005, fifty imported German-made SK-14s (made of polished aluminum) were distributed in Bamyan, Kabul and Nangarhar.

Local manufacture

In 2007 GHN purchased 100 Butterfly cookers built by Afghan workers under the supervision of a German NGO that runs a workshop in country where they train Afghan youth in metal work. These were distributed in Kabul and Bamyan. The only downside is that unlike the Butterfly cookers from China which are made from cast iron and will not ever change shape, the hammered metal parabolic cookers made in Afghanistan (according to GTZ) may not retain their shape in the long run--although GHN reports that so far they are working.

There is another wonderfully designed parabolic solar cooker, the Devos Cooker, designed by a Frenchman (Xavier Devos), which could easily be manufactured by carpenters in Afghanistan. Mr. Devos is willing to go anywhere to train people how to manufacture his design. I tried to get the embassy to fund his trip to Afghanistan in 2007, but the arrangement fell through when the officer working on it transferred back to the U.S. The Devos solar cooker would be an ideal design for the thousands of kabob shops in Afghanistan since it can be used for grilling as well as boiling and frying.

GHN has made 50 Butterfly parabolic solar cookers in Bamyan using a cement base and reflective tape. This is labor intensive and slow, but it does create employment.

According to GHN, the Afghan Ministy Renewable Energy is promoting the locally made cement-based Butterfly solar cookers, but they are selling it at a higher price than GHN.

The Afghan Ministry of Agriculture has also expressed an interest to GHN in introducing solar cookers to help reduce deforestation. In 2005 I proposed to the director of the USDA-sponsored Afghan Conservation Corps that they introduce solar cookers at the same time they were getting villagers to replant their forests. He was not interested and told me the ACC would be providing the women with coal for cooking.

Catlin Powers of One Earth Designs is working with nomads in Tibet to design and produce a portable, bamboo, yak wool and mylar parabolic Butterfly solar cooker that can be folded up for travel and staked down in high winds.

During my year in Mazar-e-Sharif I saw many satellite dishes (made from flattened salad oil cans) on the roofs of family compounds. I don't know where they were made, but they were perfect parabolas that could pick up a TV signal. All that is needed to turn these into solar cookers is a reflective coating of aluminum paint, tape, mylar, aluminum foil or mirrors.

Teaching integrated cooking

Solar cookers should be introduced along with retained heat cookers (hay boxes) so that the villagers can cook several dishes at mid-day and keep them hot for consumption after dark. Efficient cook stoves should also be introduced to help villagers minimize smoke inhalation and maximize fuel conservation.

See main article: Integrated Cooking Method

Development Minister Zia

Last Monday I attended a seminar at the Aspen Institute with Afghan Rural Rehabilitation and Devevelopment Minister Zia. I encouraged him to consider the introduction of solar cooking and solar food processing in his country on a broad scale. I also stressed the importance of teaching rural farmers how to build and use solar food driers to preserve their surplus crops in a sanitary fashion for local storage or for packaging, shipping and sale. (GTZ has already introduced them in Kunduz through the German NGO PRT.) Sabur Achtari, Afghan engineer who heads Afghan Bedmoschk Solar Center in Wardak province has also built solar reflectors which are being used to process marmalade, bake bread, and dry (for packaging and sale) tomatoes, eggplants and apricots.

Zia seemed more interested in the distribution of refrigeration units for use by his country's subsistence farmers than in the promotion of simple solar food driers.

I believe such refrigeration units would not be practical or sustainable for rural Afghanistan at this time since:

  1. These people will never be able to afford much less provide a regular supply of diesel fuel to their remote locations.
  2. Who would perform the necessary routine maintenance and trouble-shooting on these refrigeration units?
  3. Once the farmers remove their produce from the refrigeration units, they will also need refrigerator trucks to get it to market before it spoils. How will they afford this?

Additional information on solar cookers in Afghanistan

Box cookers have been used (and even manufactured for sale) in Afghanistan for at least the past 15 years, although never on a large scale. The photo below was taken in Kabul about 15 years ago. Box cookers work well to cook several pots of food at once but they work like a crock pot and cook food much more slowly than a parabolic. They will work on a sunny day in the winter only if they are very well insulated on all six sides (including double paned glass) and can be tilted up to face the low winter sun. Two groups working in Afghanistan and Pakistan: SERVE (Serving Emergency Relief and Vocational Enterprise) and AREA (Agency for Rehabilitation and Energy Conservation in Afghanistan) distributed/sold several thousand solar box cookers in the 1990s.

Panel Cookers: The simple solar CooKits being manufactured and used in desert refugee camps in Chad and Sudan are a more appropriate solar cooker technology for distribution in stressed and fuel starved IDP camps. The CooKit is the model I made and demonstrated in 2005, in the Hindu Kush village where the men decided to save their cigarette foils so they could build their own solar cooker.

Contributors

Thanks to the following individuals who contributed to this message:

See also

Qatra qatra darya mesha. Drop by drop it becomes a river. -Afghan proverb

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