Bhutanese exiles have sought refuge in Nepal since 1990. Today, more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees live in seven camps in southeastern Nepal. Cooking fuel shortages have led to rising deforestation in the areas around the camps. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has provided cooking kerosene to the refugees, helping to discourage the collection of firewood. But as kerosene prices rose, its delivery became uncertain. Each year, kerosene claimed a larger portion of UNHCR’s shrinking budget. Alternatives to cooking with kerosene had to be found. Over the past several years, Vajra Foundation Nepal has worked tirelessly to promote an alternative: solar energy.
In 1996, biologist Maarten Olthof launched a few small-scale solar box cooker projects in Nepalese villages. After initial enthusiasm among the local users, the cookers were neglected.
Looking for advice, Olthof attended the third international conference on solar cookers, held the following year in Coimbatore, India. Ramkaji Paudel, a Nepalese citizen, accompanied him. With advice from former Solar Cookers International Executive Director Bev Blum, as well as other conference participants, Olthof and Paudel drafted a plan to teach solar cooking to Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal and formed the Vajra Foundation Holland in the Netherlands.
In 1998 VFH received funds from the Dutch Refugee Foundation for a pilot refugee project. Vajra Foundation Nepal was established to monitor the activities locally, and several Nepalese engineers were selected to teach the refugees to build solar box cookers. Two hundred thirty-four box-type solar cookers and 14 parabolic-type solar cookers were distributed in Beldangi-I, one of the seven Bhutanese refugee camps in southeastern Nepal. To receive a solar cooker, refugees had to pay a symbolic fee and sign a use and maintenance agreement.
By 1999 Vajra Foundation had determined that the box-type solar cookers they were promoting were not holding up well — hinges were rusting, reflectors and glazing were breaking. Other solar cookers were tried, including cardboard CooKits and solar cookers made of earthen materials, but they were also vulnerable to damage and not as efficient as hoped. In the end, EG-Solar’s SK14 parabolic-type solar cookers proved to be a good combination of durability and efficiency, and a good match for traditional Bhutanese foods.
Parabolic cookers are generally more expensive, but their efficiency allows for sharing among families, which lowers the per-family cost somewhat. Though the reflectors were imported from Germany, the stands were manufactured locally, also helping to keep costs down.
The cookers proved popular, and demand quickly outgrew supply. Families that didn’t use their cookers, or didn’t maintain them according to signed user agreements, had to return their cookers to Vajra Foundation to be redistributed.
While exploring ways to expand the project, VFN worked on an awareness creation campaign that included regular solar cooker demonstrations and lunches for refugees, government officials, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) including UNHCR, Lutheran World Federation, Oxfam, and the Nepal Red Cross Society. Continued solar cooker use was encouraged through participation in cooking groups, as well as contests.
To keep food warm after sundown, when evening meals are commonly eaten, VFN introduced insulated “hay boxes” in which pots of food can be stored. These devices not only keep food warm for up to eight hours, but can also be used to continue the cooking process after pots have been removed from the heat source. [See Retained-heat cooking.
From 2001 to 2003 several hundred solar cookers, hay boxes and black painted pots were distributed, covering the main sectors of Beldangi-I camp. EG-Solar provided some of the cooker materials free of charge.
To reduce variations caused by the manual nature of the cooker construction process, two Dutch mechanical engineering students developed an assembly system using molds for production of the cooker stand, ultimately reducing production time as well.
Napalese locals began to take more interest in the project, as did UNHCR officials, and Vajra Foundation won awards in both Nepal and the Netherlands. This recognition paved the way for a future donation from the Dutch Refugee Foundation. During this period improvements were made in the training procedures for new solar cooks and refugee supervisors.
Three hundred SK14s and twice as many hay boxes were distributed in 2004. By the end of 2005 about 12,000 refugees were benefiting from the solar cookers. In eastern Nepal, UNHCR began to consider supporting the project to help offset the rising cost of kerosene and their own shrinking budget. Two Dutch students from Utrecht University surveyed 100 refugees about their solar cooker, kerosene and firewood usage, and found that solar cookers could save 3.14 kilograms of CO2 per meal compared to cooking with firewood, and 0.64 kilograms compared to kerosene. (Average firewood usage was 2.25 kilograms per meal.) Solar cookers could be used for approximately seven months each year in the camp, and their purchase cost could be recouped in kerosene savings in just over two years.
In 2006 both UNHCR and the Dutch Refugee Foundation asked Vajra Foundation to submit a proposal to expand the solar cooker program to the other six Bhutanese refugee camps in the area. Ultimately, the Dutch Postcode Lottery and the Dutch Refugee Foundation will provide nearly $1 million for the program, enough to disseminate 6,300 solar cookers and 12,000 hay boxes to families in the camps as well as provide extensive use and maintenance training. (Each cooker will be shared by two families.)
Project leaders Maarten Olthof from the Netherlands, and Dor Bahadur Bhandari and Ramkaji Paudel from Nepal, estimate that 100,000 refugees will benefit from the solar cookers by 2008. A new parabolic solar cooker from the German company Sun and Ice will be used to meet this large demand. The cooker — called the “LongLife Premium 14” — uses less material and simpler construction equipment than the SK14. Vajra Foundation considers five factors as having been essential to its successes:
- Unwavering belief that solar cookers can improve lives and environments: From the start Vajra Foundation has considered solar cookers to be an appropriate technology for the Bhutanese refugees. Whereas other solar cooking projects have folded after minor setbacks, Vajra Foundation has fully supported the project from day one. As stated in a Vajra Foundation report, “How can one expect local people to be in favor of solar cooking when the NGO introducing it does not support it fully?”
- Continuous drive to adapt and improve the technology: As the program has progressed, adjustments have been made to the solar cookers to better meet the needs of the users and assemblers. Local materials have been used when possible to help lower costs. Design modifications — like cooker frame adjustments — have been incorporated as needs were assessed. Perhaps most importantly, the hay box was introduced as a compatible technology, addressing the need for warm food after sundown as well as the need to share solar cookers between families. Vajra Foundation believes strongly in pairing hay boxes with solar cookers, stating, “They are two sides of the same coin: one cannot go without the other.”
- Willingness and ability to incorporate user feedback: Refugees have been involved in the project from the start, setting up user meetings, trainings, etc. Feedback from the users is incorporated into the project plans, helping to identify technological and programmatic areas for improvement.
- Strong teamwork between cooperating partners: The relationship between the Holland branch and the Nepal branch of the organization was critical. While VFH had access to funds and specialist knowledge, VFN knew how to best incorporate solar cooking into lives of Nepalese and Bhutanese refugees. While VFH solicited and organized volunteers, VFN hosted them with great care and was eager to learn from them. he chairmen of both foundations, Ramkaji Paudel and Maarten Olthof, were the backbone of the project. Jointly, the two visited partner agencies, refugee camps, workshops, etc., and solved issues that arose. Importantly, responsibilities were given to staff members, such as Dor Bahadur Bhandari, and to the refugees, who did the fieldwork and organized solar demonstrations and lunches that ultimately convinced authorities that the project was worth supporting.
- Monitoring, follow up, and evaluation: With proper monitoring, follow up, and evaluation, useful program adjustments are made continuously. Regular visits with the new solar cooks highlighted areas of need, as did feedback from user group meetings. Weather records were kept for purposes of determining actual solar cooker use versus potential solar cooker use. Funds were tracked and adjustments made to maximize their use.
- [Text above current as of November 2006]
Audio and video
- February 2008: Bhutanese refugees in Nepal have a new way to prepare meals, without firewood, kerosene or the risk of smoke inhalation - the solar cooker. - Ode Magazine
- November 2006: Ten years on, nearly 100,000 Bhutanese refugees going solar
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