Solar Cookers World Network

Towards sustainable relief-assistance

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This report is submitted by: Ralph Lindeboom and René Goverde (,

Assigned by Vajra Foundation Nepal under the supervision of Dr. M. Hekkert and Dr. W.G.J.H.M. van Sark as a part of their study on the topics of Energy & Materials, Science & Policy at Utrecht University in March 2005.

Executive summary

Since the early nineties the international community has, by means of the UNHCR, been providing basic relief assistance to Bhutanese refugees accommodated in Nepal. Apart from huts, food, drugs and education, these refugees are also being provided of kerosene to cook on, in order to prevent deforestation as a result of the chopping of firewood. Supplying kerosene to the refugees nowadays is much less a feasible solution than it has been in the past as the availability of kerosene has been unreliable and its price has risen enormously over the last five years (in 1999 13 NRs/l, in 2005 34 NRs/l). Since 1998 has Dutch/Nepali foundation Vajra been providing parabolic solar cookers to refugee groups in one of the seven refugee camps. This project is very popular under the refugees, which raises the question whether the UNHCR would not better give the refugees some less kerosene and more solar cookers.

To find the answer to that question, has the usage of the currently used (SK-14) solar cooker been compared to two alternatives, in which all cooking is done on respectively firewood and kerosene. For the SK-14 it has been assumed that in the time it can not be used due to whether conditions, kerosene would be used as a back-up.

The alternatives have been compared on the topics of primary energy usage, CO2 emission, deforestation, costs and users’ attitude. When doing so, the whole lifecycle of the alternatives and accompanying devices has been examined. In table 1, the outcomes of these sub analyses are being presented. Values are expressed per meal to make comparison possible.

The SK-14 can reduce about half the environmental impact (in primary energy use and CO2 emission compared to the kerosene stove. In fact, most of the energy use of the solar cooker can be attributed to the back-up need: the usage of kerosene when the solar cooker cannot be used due to bad weather conditions.

Cooking on a solar cooker turns out to be financially attractive as well: costs per meal have been estimated to be 4.4 €ct, while cooking on kerosene costs 7.6 €ct. For the firewood scenario, no costs for the UNHCR have been assumed: the refugees would cut or buy for themselves. If these costs would not be neglected, costs for the firewood alternative will be 5.3 €ct per meal. The payback time of investing in a solar cooker has in the current situation been estimated at 1.3 years, compared to the current situation of kerosene provision.

A Multi Criteria Analysis based on weighted summation has shown that given the 5 criteria considered and the data from the table, the solar cooker can be considered the best alternative of the three. Only when the most unlikely of six weight sets is being picked, the solar cooker finishes second best. So, it can be concluded that supplying the refugees of a SK-14 with some kerosene as back-up is a more than reasonable alternative to the current ways of aid relief.

Screening for possible improvements

No project is perfect, and there are always ways to improve a project and to increase its benefits. Having that knowledge, we have screened the Vajra project for possible improvements.

First it has been examined whether two alternate solar cooking devices might suit the project better than the currently used SK-14: the F1400 parabolic cooker and a standard-type solar kitchen. The F1400 is a new type of solar cooker, that turns out to have similar environmental benefits as the SK-14. In terms of costs (break-even at 3.3 years instead of 1.8 years for the SK-14) and performance it is however no good option. An adjusted F1400 design could make up these differences, especialy when production would be possible in Nepal or India. A big drawback of installing a solar kitchen in the camp is the resulting inflexibility. A solar kitchen is very hard to transfer, and as a result, there is a much bigger risk of not being able to breakeven if the refugees would repatriate before the pay back period of 4.3 years. A solar kitchen furthermore is not likely to be a success, as in a questionnaire the refugees valued the ability to cook for themselves very high.

The currently used cooker, although comparatively already a good cooker, can also be improved. It now uses relatively much iron in the frame: environmental impact could be further reduced by decreasing this amount. Switching to stainless or galvanized steel can only decrease the environmental pressure and costs if much less material is used. The reflector plates are relatively expensive, both in terms of costs and environmental impact. Switching to aluminium laminate might be a good option, as this material already proved to cause less environmental pressure. Again it would be very beneficial if opportunities for production in the Nepali, Indian or even the Chinese industry could be found.

For the production both gains could be obtained by implementing quality control mechanisms for the cookers and rewarding the workshop employees when working more efficiently. To decrease the defect in the cookers due to transport, using packaging material seems an easy solution, but possibly equal benefits can be acquired by transporting only a set amount of cookers per shipment, as this takes away the main source of the problem. Providing the refugees with environmentally sound technology obviously helps saving the environment, but creating environmental awareness amongst them could even prove to be a more sustainable solution. Starting to stimulate standard cooking fuel saving measures like using the hay box for finishing off the rice cooking, using less water and soaking lentils could already decrease cooking time significantly. Because the refugees are already organized (in monthly meeting users groups), such awareness can be trained very easy when in the monthly meetings not only the solar cooker would be discussed, but general environmental issues as well.

Attention for project management is needed every once in a while. Strengthening the institutional realities by creating a solar cooking archive, building evaluation mechanisms and addressing more and different human resources to the project will in the long run pay off in sustaining project benefits. The focus should be on sustaining the projects benefits, just as the solar cooking technology is focussed on sustaining the environment.

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