Cooking with the Sun

Stephen DeAngelis

July 30, 2007

Africa is a large and geographically varied continent. When most people think about poverty there, however, they picture people living in a hardscrabble and unforgiving desert environment trying to eke out an existence and often failing. In such desert environments there are few trees and no electricity, but there is lots of sun. That certainly describes the conditions that can be found in Darfur region of Sudan. Daniel B. Wood, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, talks about efforts to help the people of Darfur by providing them with solar cookers [“Simple sun-cooker takes off as a way to help Darfuris,” 26 July 2007].

“When Harvard law student Jesse Gabriel organized a ‘Dinner for Darfur’ fundraiser in April, he was amazed that 17 student groups got together and raised $16,000 in one night. When nurse Harriet Lavin showed footage of Darfur at a song-and-prayer evening in Kenosha, Wis., she was struck by the ‘instant generosity’ of 70 rural residents who opened their pocketbooks to the tune of $2,500 for a cause they hadn’t known anything about. And when Los Angeles 11th-grader Shelby Layne raised $15,000 from three jewelry sales to help Darfur refugees, it ‘was successful beyond my wildest dreams,’ she says. The three activists are among thousands nationwide who have raised money for a project that addresses the rape, mutilation, and murder of Darfuri women – now among at least 2 million Sudanese displaced by the conflict. The aim: Supply families with solar cookers and teach women in refugee camps new cooking skills so they don’t have to burn wood. This reduces the need for women to hunt for firewood outside the camps, where the risk of attack and rape is greater.”

Wood’s article underscores the complexities of humanitarian crises. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the developed world who hasn’t heard about the crisis in Darfur, even if they don’t understand the underlying causes of it. The principal thing that remains lacking in Darfur is security. That is why so many people have criticized the developed world for standing on the sidelines while genocide has been taking place. Because there is no security, people have been shepherded into camps where they can be better provided for. Despite the best efforts of those running the camps, life for their residents is unpleasant and unsustainable. Those involved in development and relief know that the people of Darfur will never get back on their feet until they can get back to their homes. Until something is done to end the crisis, relief efforts (like those discussed in the article) are the best that can be done for the suffering masses.

The thing I like about the sun-cooker story is that it shows how interconnected challenges can be (i.e., the search for fuel and exposure to rape) as well as how a solution to one problem (cooking) can result in improvements in other areas (security). As Wood reports, in most complex emergencies rape is a weapon. This is true in Darfur as well. As a result, the need for the cookers is large and growing.

“Some 200,000 women and children live in refugee camps across the border from Sudan. More than 6,000 cookers have been distributed in the Iridimi refugee camp, a that has almost no vegetation but sunshine 330 days a year. Another 10,000 are expected to be supplied in the Touloum camp nearby over the next year. ‘The fact that the use of these cookers has grown so fast in Iridimi is a testament to the need for safety,’ says Rachel Andres, director of the solar cooker project for Jewish World Watch (JWW), a nonprofit coalition of synagogues in southern California, which is a cosponsor of the project.”

Simple solutions to problems are always the best and most sustainable. In this case, the solution is also good for the environment. Two solar-cookers can annually save up to a ton of wood. The cookers have other benefits as well.

“They free women from tending fires to do other tasks, and provide income for female refugees because the cookers are manufactured on-site. Envision foil-covered cardboard (about four feet by two feet) folded upward to direct sun’s rays on a black pot, placed in the center, and covered in a plastic bag.Solar_cooker  Millet, rice, eggs, and other ingredients are put in the pot, surrounded by the water-moistened plastic bag that provides softening condensation. … ‘The women were apprehensive at first, and couldn’t believe you could really cook with the sun,’ says Ms. Andres. When JWW began to help the project, KoZon [a Dutch organization] was testing the cookers with about 350 families. (A typical family consists of one woman as head of the household, two or three of her own children and one or two orphans, she says. Only 1 in 5 households has an adult male.) ‘They tried the food, realized it tasted good, and that you didn’t have to stand over a fire for hours,’ Andres says. The staples of such camps are millet, rice, and bean rations that are trucked in from long distances – and have to be cooked.”

It doesn’t get much simpler. One might wonder how a Jewish group got involved with Darfur. It started when the international community recognized that what was happening there was genocide. That declaration catalyzed a community all too familiar with such atrocities.

“After the JWW identified Darfur as a genocide, it began to support a small pilot project there led by KoZon. … Once the solar cooker project proved to be feasible, fundraising efforts spread to purchase the cookers, build manufacturing facilities on-site in neighboring Chad, and teach women to assemble them.”

If you want to contribute to this project, you can go to the Jewish Worldwide Watch website. You can also learn more about the solar-cooker project in general. Solar-cooker kits (which includes two cookers, two pots, two pot holders, and a year’s supply of plastic bags) costs $30. When the kits are received by Darfuri families, they also receive training in how to assemble and use the cookers.

I write a lot about Development-in-a-Box™, but Darfur is not yet a candidate because it remains deep in crisis and is far from thinking about sustainable development. What the relief and development communities don’t want to see are permanent refugee camps. They want to get displaced families back on their lands and back into their villages. At that point, the Development-in-Box approach can play a role. Nevertheless, characteristics of the Development-in-a-Box approach that can be applied are being used more and more by the relief community, including the adoption of standards [see my post on Standards and Aid] and communities of practice. Connectivity between relief groups is important for generating the greatest positive impact in places where it is sorely needed. Development-in-a-Box includes that kind of connectivity but, more importantly, it is about getting target countries and populations connected with the global economy. I look forward to the day when the Darfur region can start thinking about a more positive and connected future.