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Solar cooker dissemination and cultural variables

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Here is a sampling of perspectives that may be of interest to solar cooking promoters and could serve as a reminder to seek local partners when possible. 

A good information source is Solar Cookers International’s own Spreading Solar Cooking manual. These items on the manual’s assessment check list can be affected by cultural variability:

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

Food preferences and customs vary by culture and promoters should 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 cookers and panel cookers may be the most practical and 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 a particular family's needs?
  • What pots are used? Will they work for solar cooking and will they fit in the chosen cooker(s)?
  • 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, in Hausa communities in West Africa, there are often a significant number of people involved in small businesses that roast chickens. These chicken roasters could be a great market for solar box cookers.

Gender, culture and cookers

When introducing solar cooking to a culture, it is critically important to be sensitive to the disparity in decision-making power between men and women. In many cultures, women often do most of the cooking, while men make the financial decisions for the family. As a result of their separation from the cooking, men may be reluctant to spend money to improve the conditions of their cooking facilities.

Just because solar cooking is introduced to a culture does not necessarily mean it will be immediately accepted and adopted. Cases have been reported where 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 solar cookers. Some men in the community 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 tangible economic gains.

Another reported 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. It has been reported that in some places, women have taken to 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. For others, the cleanliness, lack of smoke, and image of modern living brought on by using a solar cooker are reasons that are attractive to women in the developing world, even as others cling to the old and traditional ways.

On the other hand, there have been instances of male acceptance of solar cooking where men praise their wives’ move to solar cooking because of the lack of smoke and soot. Some men have said that with solar cooking, their wives do not smell like smoke, look better (no red eyes from smoke and soot), feel better (reduced coughing), and have more time for the family.

In fact, in some projects, especially in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, a surprising cultural change was noticed: men began cooking their own meals, citing that solar cooking was a clean and modern alternative to traditional cook stoves. This change in sentiment may have also been partly due to the fact that the circumstances which led people to become refugees also disrupted families, leaving some men with no female relatives available to cook for them. By removing the least desirable aspects of cooking: reduced heat, polution, and reliance on finite fuel sources, solar cookers can lead men and women to share cooking chores more equally, acting as a catalyst of enormous cultural change.

Belief systems and cookers

  1. Anecdotal evidence exists that some cultures reject square solar box cookers because they believe that circular shapes are the symbol of perfection.
  2. 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.
  3. There has been some reluctance to accept using solar cookers in Madagascar, as solar cooking is not the tradition, and hence, not sanctified by the Ancients. A new program is planned to invite an Ancient to participate, and to have a sorcerier to sanctify the proceedings.
  4. It has been reported that during solar cooking demonstrations in Haiti, people grew fearful when the food started to cook, convinced that black magic must have bee involved. There are similar cases in parts of Africa where cooking food without fire is perceived as the work of the devil.
  5. In the United States, the influential solar cooking leader Barbara Kerr was visited by an engineering professional who 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 cooker at his feet, and maintained that the cooker could not work even after he had eaten the solar cooked food.

In all four of the above cases, solar cookers were outside the experience and belief systems of the people being introduced to it. In such cases, it is normal and understandable for people to attempt to explain solar cooking in such a way that fits with their understanding of the science. 

There are certain cases where solar cooking can fit well with estblished belief systems. For example, in the Jewish traditional laws (Hallacha) pertaining to the Sabbath, there are several restrictions such as not lighting a fire, using a fire only under strict restrictions, and not cooking on a fire (with certain exemptions, like continued warming from the previous day) and in modern times these restrictions were extended to electricity. Solar cooking offers a viable alternative to a traditional cooking fire that complies with the Hallacha laws. 80% of Israeli housholds already use solar water heating, in accordance with the local law, so there is precident in the Jewish community for harnessing the sun in functional ways. There are even some ancient discussions written in the Jewish holy scriptures that discuss 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 is debate surrounding modern interpretations on these texts, especially in Israel where the majority of population keeps to tradition.

Geo-thermal heating and cooking have also been discussed in the Jewish community for use on the Sabbath. While solar heating has received a generally postive repsonse, geo-thermal heating has recieved a negative one, comparing it to man made fire, and declaring it as undesired on the Sabbath. 

When religion must be considered when introducing solar cooking, highlighting its historical uses in the given culture may aid in its acceptance.

Culture supports solar cooking

The religious view of solar cooking is not the only motivator for its acceptance in certain cultures though. For many, its practical benefits and advantages are reason enough to adopt solar cooking. For example, some African farmers celebrate their ability to carry light weight solar cookers into their distant fields, providing them with the capability to cook food while they work and giving them a hot meal with little extra effort. In East Africa, women's groups make extra money by using solar cooking to meet a important, but niche, cultural aspect that many in Western countries take for granted—baking birthday cakes. Baking cakes is virtually impossible on a three-stone fire, but is relatively simple in a solar box cooker.

While it is wonderful that solar cookers can provide convenient lunches and celebratory desserts, the most important benefit of solar cooking lies in its ablility to offer a smoke free alternative to indoor cook stoves. Solar Cookers International has received hundreds of letters from people around the world who decry the coughing and pneumonia that are linked to indoor cooking smoke. When indoor stoves that rely on finite fuel are the only source of cooking power in a culture, it is often reserved for cooking food and other needs, like water purification, are left ignored. SCI has received many pleas from people in developing countries who describe the suffering, especially among children, from diseases carried in their drinking water and who seek information on water pasteurization.

Full realization of solar cooking's benefits--economic and health-related--only occurs if people successfully incorporate solar cooking into their lives on a long-term basis. An elder in a Somali community who 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.”

Cookers and changes

Despite the benefits of solar cooking, it is understandable that some cultures would be slow to adopt it. A study comparing several solar cooker projects in Ladakh, India, examined this phenomenon and found that acceptance of solar cooking cooresponded with existing incorporation of modern tecnology and customs. Simply put, a culture that already had moderate exposure to the developed world was more likely to embrace solar cooking and communities that were more remote and less affected by developed countries were less likely to do so. The researchers found that if traditional ways are already changing in a culture, the suggestion to incorporate solar cooking may be met with a more positive response. In many places in the world, the choice to keep using traditional cooking methods is becoming increasingly less viable due to decreasing supply and rising prices of traditional fuels.

During a solar cooker project in Central America, promoters intoduced wooden box cookers to a group of women. Initially, the women did not like them because the cookers sat on the ground and women had to sit, bend over, or crouch to use them. In response, the promoters started building the box cookers with legs, so that the oven would be at or near waist height, mimicing the experience of using a traditional oven. Acceptance improved greatly, reinforcing the importance of listening to the local people about their needs and preferences. However, in many cultures tables and even chairs are not used or missed.

Economics, culture, and cookers

In a previous project in western Kenya, Solar Cookers International sold low-cost cookers at subsidized prices to low-income rural women. SCI had been told that the women in that culture do not believe in going into debt so they refused to buy the cookers on credit. This proved to be a challange as many of the women could not afford to pay the full cost as a single payment. To overcome this barrier, the women paid small installments until they paid the full price at which time they took delivery of the cooker. From a western financial perspective, accepting the cooker after the first payment would make more sense as the women could pay the rest of the installments using the money they saved by not needing to purchase firewood anymore. The reluctance to go into debt of any kind makes the purchase of cookers more difficult, which slows down the dissemination process.

For people raised in industrialized-consumer cultures, one of the best advantages 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 is one of solar cooking greatest benefits. 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 limited experience with modern economics are less likely to have the concepts of investing, savings, and return on investment be integral in their society.

New markets for solar cookers in developed countries

Attention needs to be given to expanding the markets for solar cookers in developed countries. There is no reason to neglect this opportunity, both for direct gains to the environment in promoting use of renewable energy from the sun, and to meet demand from the increasing interest in solar cooking. Households in developed countries can generally afford to invest in solar cooking without the hesitation that might naturally occur in a household in a developing country with only scarce resources. The decision to try solar cooking is relatively a much smaller risk for an affluent family, as a negative outcome will not significantly affect prosperity of the household.

As of 2013, homebuyers in the US increasingly value energy efficient features when shopping for a new home. They may be even interested in installing a fairly expensive photovoltaic array for generating their own electricity. The reason often given for doing this is "It is the right thing to do", or it will help out when the power grid system is interrupted by weather damage or supply issues. The US government has offered modest tax relief for home photovoltaic systems, and it has made the difference for many wanting to install a system. This group of consumers would seem to make good customers for solar cookers. Tax credits for energy efficient appliances should extend to solar cookers.

Focus on design, beauty, luxury and convenience. Solar cooking can easily be re-imagined with these parameters in mind, and the resulting revised technologies, supported by modern consumer marketing methods, would likely win a much much greater market share. The perception must be that this is an appliance of value and desirability, which is often based on aesthetics. Consumers will be a blend of users happy to build their own modest cardboard cookers, and others will want the latest, best reviewed, and visually exciting high quality cooker. This later group may be tempted to stray from over-represented traditional market of slick stainless backyard barbecues.

Solar cookers designed for the North American and European markets will need to better accommodate lower sun angles as well. A number of the current available cookers were designed for the overhead sun conditions closer to the equator.

Unbiased uniform information on the performance aspects of solar cookers also needs to be established. It is becoming increasingly difficult for consumers and project organizers to evaluate the differences in performance, quality, and ease-of-use of solar cookers, as more products are being introduced to the world market all the time. It is unclear how this might happen on a global level at this point.

As Barbara Knudson concluded in her definitive paper, State of the Art of Solar Cooking written in 2004, "Participation of market forces is needed, as partner to the many voluntary organizations and individuals who are currently seeking ways to spread solar cooking more widely around the globe and at a faster pace." The cultures of developed countries will spread, and there will be a somewhat of a coming together at the middle with less developed nations. Hopefully this will help create new untapped markets.

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