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Solar cooker dissemination and cultural variables

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[The original text for this article was written by Ramon Coyle in November, 2006.]

Introduction

A solar cooker promoter asked for comments on ways culture and customs affect the spread of solar cookers. I am not an anthropologist, but I have read hundreds of reports and thousands of letters from solar cooker promoters around the world. So I wrote something up. Then I was asked to re-edit my comments for publication on the internet.

Among all who may read this article, I expect my primary audience to be people considering or already engaged in their first years of promoting solar cooking internationally. Most will probably be from the richer countries of North America and Europe. The cultures of these promoters is something to consider.

Having lived mainly in the United States, I perceive that the culture here does not particularly encourage patience or humility. The culture does seem to promote a high level of optimism and an insular rather than planetary outlook. The optimism may tempt US-based solar cooker promoters to launch grand schemes with short time frames and too little research, planning and resources.

Europeans seem more worldly in their outlook, but I am not sure they are any more patient or humble. Impatient westerners may want to avoid imposing their pace, expectations and timelines when they are visiting another culture.

Patience, humility and the ability to listen to new points of view are helpful, but solid knowledge of the local culture is important, too. In the early 1990s, Dr. Barbara Carpenter of Southern University advised Solar Cookers International to seek partnerships with organizations with roots in the local community, with knowledge of the local culture, and with the trust of the local people.

Solar Cookers International tries to shrink many cultural gaps both by consistently recruiting local women to be the teachers and promoters of solar cooking in Solar Cookers International’s field projects, and by working with in-country evaluators to assess our projects.

Here is a sampling of perspectives that may be of interest to solar cooking promoters and that may serve as a reminder to seek local partners for greater insight.

The first place I sample is Solar Cookers International’s own “Spreading Solar Cooking” manual (available at http://solarcooking.org/advocacy/fieldguide.pdf). Among the items on the manual’s assessment check list, these speak to cultural variables:

  • “Are there open, sunny spaces near homes, where a solar cooker and food can be safe from stealing, tampering or damage?
  • “Is cooking already usually done outside?
  • “Are main meals around noon and/or around sunset or soon after?”
  • “Do gender roles allow/encourage women to participate in community groups and allow women some decision-making in family financial matters?”

Food preferences and customs vary by culture, and the manual asks promoters to consider whether high-heat frying consumes a significant portion of household fuel. In cultures where most foods are fried, parabolic cookers may be the most suitable, while in cultures where frying is less important, lower cost box and panel cookers may be the most economical choice.

Here are a few other variables promoters should consider: How many people do most women cook for in the community? What size or style of cooker suits this family size? What pots are used? Will they work with solar cooking and will they fit in the cookers? What time of day do women buy the day’s food? Is there enough time after purchasing the food to solar cook it? Will they have time to solar cook both lunch and dinner? Knowing local food customs can help promoters find niches where solar cookers can have dramatic pay-offs. For example, I have been told that in Hausa communities in West Africa, there are usually a significant number of people involved in small businesses roasting chickens. These chicken roasters could be a great market for solar box cookers.

Gender, culture and cookers

One important factor is the disparity in decision-making power between men and women in many cultures. In most cultures, women do most of the cooking, but in many cultures men make the decisions about spending money. Since the men don’t cook, they may be reluctant to spend money to improve the working conditions of the cook. On the other hand, we’ve heard of a man in Kenya who bought his wife a solar cooker, but she refused to use it.

I’ve also been told that in some cases women fear to try a new cooking method because they worry their husbands will beat them if meals do not taste the way the men are used to.

A study from Central America by Dr. Dulce Cruz discussed a project in which women organized into groups to build and learn to use cookers. Some men were threatened by the fact that their wives were getting out of the house, meeting with other women, and learning new skills—and they beat their wives to discourage them.

There have been reports in Africa of opposition to solar cookers because men were afraid that the cookers would provide women time to be idle.

In those families that rely on gathered firewood instead of purchased wood or charcoal, women and girls usually do most of the fuel collecting. Under some economic analyses, the time spent gathering the wood would be considered a “cost” of cooking. However, in many places, time spent by women and girls doing work is not assigned a recognized value. Therefore, “saving” their time through solar cooking does not have a recognized value. In many cases, it is not exclusively a gender issue. Work that does not bring cash income may be less valued than work that does produce cash.

I have heard that one reason for rejecting solar cookers is that an indoor cooking fire is effective at reducing the number of insects that live in the roof of the family dwelling. I have heard that in some places women like working together in hot, smoky kitchens with a cooking fire because the heat and smoke keep the men away and allow the women a space of their own.

On the other hand, men’s attitudes can support the acceptance of solar cooking. I’ve seen examples of men praising their wives’ move to solar cooking because of the lack of smoke and soot. Some men have said that with solar cooking their wives smell better (not smoky), look better (no red eyes from smoke), feel better (reduced coughing) and have more time for the family.

In fact, in some of our projects, especially in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, we found a surprising cultural change. Men began cooking their own meals. This may have been due partly to the fact that the problems that led people to become refugees also disrupted families, so that some men had no female relatives available to cook for them. However, what the men said was that they liked solar cooking because it was clean and modern. By removing the worst negatives of cooking, solar cookers may foster enormous cultural changes if it leads to men and women sharing the cooking chores more equally.

The cleanliness, lack of smoke and image of modern living is one that attracts many women in the developing world to solar cookers, even as others may cling hard to the old and traditional ways.

Belief systems and cookers

The person whose questions stimulated the writing of this article offered an anecdote. She said she heard that some cultures reject square solar box cookers because they believe that circular shapes are the symbol of perfection.

I have heard that in parts of Nepal, people were reluctant to use solar cookers because they believed the god of the household hearth was an important spirit who would be offended if meals were not cooked on a fire on the hearth.

I heard of solar cooking demonstrations in Haiti in which the people grew fearful when the food started to cook. They thought black magic must be involved, so they ran away. I’ve heard similar cases in Africa where cooking food without fire was perceived as the work of the devil. In the United States, the influential solar cooking leader Barbara Kerr was visited by an engineering professional. The engineer spent much of the day trying to make his point that a cardboard solar box cooker could not possibly cook food. He continued his argument while his lunch was cooking in a box at his feet, and still maintained that the box could not cook even after he ate the hot, delicious lunch Barbara fed him.

In all three of the above cases, the fact of solar cooking is outside the experience and belief systems of the people who doubted or feared it. In such cases, it is normal for people to develop an explanation that does lie within their belief system.

Another example of belief systems and cookers could be demonstrated in the Jewish traditional laws (Hallacha) pertaining to the Sabbath. On this day, there are several restrictions such as not lighting a fire, using a fire only under strict restrictions, and not cooking on a fire (also with certain exemptions, like continued warming from Friday). In modern times these restrictions were extended to electricity. There are various ancient discussions written in the Jewish holy scriptures, about cooking or baking in the sun, including mentions of solar cooking in the Sinai Desert, during the exodus at biblical times. If taken at face value, these texts state that it is permitted to cook food in the sun on the Sabbath. There have been various debates in modern time about this, especially since in Israel, where the majority of population keeps to tradition, there are more than 80% of the housholds with solar water heating, in accordance with the local law. This was an additional reason for advocating the law of solar heating by the Jewish religious politicians. Under the same discussion, the subject of geo-thermal heating and cooking is brought up. Solar heating receives a positive attitude, while the geo-thermal heating recieves a negative one, comparing it to man made fire, and declaring it as undesired on the Sabbath.

It may be benefitial for the people of the three Monotheist religions, to be exposed to these ancient texts, promoting solar cooking as an extra spiritually clean and ancient traditional activity.

Culture supports solar cooking

Beliefs help spread solar cooking, too, in various ways. For example, people in Africa and elsewhere have commented that the sun’s power to cook food is more proof of the benevolence of deities.

Sometimes the motivation is more immediate. I have read letters from African farmers who celebrate their ability to carry light weight solar cookers into their distant fields, so that the food cooks while the people work, and a hot meal can be had with no delay. I have read about women’s groups in eastern Africa that make extra money by using solar cooking to meet a strongly felt local cultural need—for birthday cakes. Baking cakes is virtually impossible on a 3 stone fire, but easy in a solar box cooker. There is a ready demand, so the solar cooker easily fits into its niche.

But, these and many other individual examples obscure more important attractions of solar cookers across cultures. I have read hundreds of letters from many countries from people who decry the coughing and pneumonia that are linked to indoor cooking smoke, people who desire the smoke free alternative of solar cooking. I have read many pleas from many countries describing the suffering, especially among children, who waste away from diseases carried in their drinking water, and who seek information on solar water pasteurization.

Full realization of the benefits--economic and health-related--occurs only after people solar cook successfully and regularly for several seasons. An elder in a Somali community that had been using solar cookers on a regular and widespread basis for several years told a neutral monitor of the project the following:

“Forest is rain, forest is fuel energy, forest is crop…livestock…money. Forest, in general, is livelihoods. By reducing their destruction and reclaiming them…most of us have just started witnessing how valuable these [solar cookers] are.”

The good news here for promoters trying to reach whole villages, towns or districts seems to be that if you do everything right for the first four years, it will start to get a lot easier.

Cookers and changes

I know that I am reluctant to make changes and try new technologies without a compelling reason—even though I grew up in a culture that worships change and newness. It does not surprise me that many people are slow to make the changes in habits needed to succeed with solar cooking.

A study comparing several solar cooker projects in Ladakh, India, looked at this issue. Their study indicated that acceptance of solar cooking was greater in communities that were more exposed to encroachments of the modern world. Communities that were more remote and less affected by modern changes were less likely to adopt solar cooking. Apparently, if traditional ways are intact, people are more likely to continue their traditional cooking mode. If tradition is already crumbling, it may be easier to get people to make voluntary changes in cooking habits when they have good reasons to do so.

In many places in the world, traditional cooking methods are harder to maintain because of spreading shortages and rising prices of traditional fuels. These shortages may drive people to embrace alternatives like solar cooking.

Economics, culture and cookers

In our project in western Kenya, we sell very low-cost cookers at slightly subsidized prices to low-income rural women. We have been told that the women in that culture do not believe in going into debt. Therefore, they refuse to buy the cookers on credit. Instead, they pay small installments until they have paid the full price and then accept the cooker. From a western perspective, the women would seem to be better off if they would accept the cooker after the first payment. Then they could pay the rest of the installments by using the money the cooker saved them on firewood expenses. The reluctance to go into debt of any kind makes the purchase of cookers more difficult, slowing down the dissemination process.

One can easily imagine problems arising from an opposite attitude. If it fit the culture to make a down payment, take a cooker, and then postpone making the rest of the payments, solar cooking promoters would face serious problems.

For people raised in industrialized-consumer cultures, one of the best points about solar cookers is that they can pay for themselves in a few months by reducing spending on wood, charcoal or gas. The idea that an investment now will lead to recurring savings month after month in the future seems to make solar cooking obviously beneficial. However, in some cultures, ideas about investing and gaining small but permanently recurring savings are not developed the way they are in the West. Cultures that have little experience with money in general are not likely to have developed sophisticated traditions of thinking about “investing” “savings” and “return on investment.”

Still it is hard to find the city people who adopt solar cooking as a major activity. In order for solar cooking to become adopted and widespread in western cities culture, the "packaging" of the solar cookers needs to look more "standard" and have a strong appeal. It is yet to be seen what new types of products will be developed enabling solar cooking in city homes, and in city kitchens in particular.

One last item. A solar cooker project in Central America worked with wooden cookers of the box type. Women didn’t like them, because the cookers sat on the ground and women had to sit, stoop or crouch to put food in and out. In response, the promoters started building the box cookers with legs, so that the oven would be near waist height like the ovens the women were used to. Acceptance improved greatly. Again, listening to local people about their needs and preferences is vital.

When one thinks about the variability of human cultures, one will easily conclude that someone sitting at a desk in California probably has some cultural blind spots. Others who read this article may wish to add their insights. If you have a contribution to make, please send me an email at ramon@solarcookers.org I hope to update this article in 3 to 6 months with additional comments from others.

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