Topic Area: Solar Energy
Geographic Area: Kenya
Focal Question: Are solar cookers a viable, cost-effective alternative to traditional methods of cooking in Kenya?
(1) Solar Cookers International, "Breakthrough at Kenyan Refugee Camps."
(2) Kammen, Daniel M. "Cookstoves for the Developing World." Scientific American. volume 273, number 1, July 1995: 72-75.
Reviewer: Jill M. Maccaferri, Colby College '96
This case study investigated the introduction of a relatively newly-designed solar cooker to two refugee camps in Kenya- Kakuma and Dadaab. Instructional workshops and demonstrations were provided for women at both Kakuma and Dadaab. As a result of the educational sessions, many women throughout the camp became interested in obtaining and learning to operate a solar cooker of their own. The project has been considered a success and a guideline for the introduction of solar cookers to other tropical areas throughout the world.

The new-model cooker can be constructed from a cardboard box and aluminum foil. The box is opened, flattened, and then covered with a reflective material such as tin foil. The sides of the box are angled such that the sunlight is focused into the center area where a black cooking pot is placed. Experimentation has shown that cooking certain foods in plastic bags has better results as compared to cooking the food in the pot alone. The new cooker design is inexpensive, easy to construct from local materials, simple to use, and more portable than box models of cookstoves. The solar cooker requires little maintenance or repair as the surfaces need only to be wiped off after use and on occasion the foil may need to be replaced. These characteristics made the new model of solar cooker a success in the refugee camps of Kenya.

Women in the refugee camps were invited to attend a workshop where they could learn to use a solar cooker and obtain one of their own if they wished. In Kakuma, the solar cookers were given out for free along with a portion of food so that the women would not have to experiment with the cooker using their own food. In Dadaab refugees earned a cooker by working toward the betterment of the refugee camp. In most cases this included tree planting in and around the camp. The introduction of the cookers was regarded as a success in both camps as follow up investigations showed that the cookers were still widely being used. As of October 1995 over 1500 families had attended the workshops and received their own cooker.

The average Kenyan spends about 40% of earned income on fuel, 74% of which is used for cooking. It is estimated that the average family will save 60% of its fuelwood by using solar cookers. This can amount to great economic savings as well as reducing the pressure on dwindling fuelwood supplies. In terms of the families now living in the refugee camps, the solar cookers may provide an alternative to trading scarce food rations for fuelwood. In Kakuma, every two weeks each refugee is allotted one stick of firewood measuring two inches in diameter and roughly thirty inches in length. If this fuelwood is used up before the next ration of fuelwood is handed out, families must either scrounge within the camp for any bit of fuel they can find or they must trade a portion of their food to be able to cook the remaining amount food they have.

The solar cookers do take a substantially longer period of time to cook food as opposed to traditional methods of cooking. For instance, it takes approximately 50 minutes to boil two liters of water using a solar cooker. Because solar cookers often require several hours to cook food, it is necessary that the food begin cooking ahead of time. Obviously this meant a modification of lifestyle for Kenyan women. However, since solar cooking requires little stirring, food can be left to cook unattended while other daily tasks are performed.

Some evidence suggested that solar cookers actually free up time for many Kenyan women. Women spend roughly five hours a day searching for fuelwood to last for three days. By using the solar cooker and hence less fuelwood, women may have more free time which may be used for social betterment such as family planning, caring for children, or for improvements in agricultural practices. This potentially could become an important part of improving the lives of women in developing countries.

Since the new model of cooker has only recently been implemented in Kenya, it will take a period of adjustment and experimentation until the knowledge of how to cook such traditional meals as ugali becomes widespread. However, it has been reported that since the introduction of the new solar cookers to the refugee camps last year, Kenyan women have already begun to experiment and have since learned to cook several different types of food with remarkable results.

On cloudy or rainy days the solar cookers may not cook the food completely. This would mostly become a problem during the rainy seasons. Families may need to have a back-up cooking facility which then raises the question of possible additional costs of having two facilities. Solar cookers can certainly supplement conventional techniques while providing the owners with increased savings in fuelwood, but it seems unlikely that they will ever completely replace conventional methods of cooking.

The solar cookers were important tools of sustainability for several reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly, the stoves improved the conditions to which Kenyan women were exposed when they cooked. Under traditional methods of cooking with fuelwood, both women and children were exposed to extremely unhealthy levels of smoke from the cooking flame. This smoke has been linked to the high numbers of respiratory infections among women and children in developing countries. As the solar cooker has no flame, no smoke is produced thus greatly improving health and living conditions.

Domestic cooking accounts for 60% of wood burning in developing countries. The United Nations estimates that solar cooking will reduce the felling of trees around the camps by 40%. Obviously this can result in tremendous benefits for the environment such as a reduction in soil erosion. Further benefits that resulted from the solar cookers in the refugee camps were increased cleanliness and improved nutritional content of food as compared to food cooked using traditional methods of cooking.

The implementation of solar cookers in two refugee camps in Kenya has been regarded as a success. Since the introduction of the new model of cooker has taken place only recently and because the costs of the cookers in many cases were heavily subsidized, it is not yet known with absolute certainty whether or not the cookers will continue to be a success in the future once they are introduced to the market system. However, as of yet there have been few problems and the Kenyans seem to welcome the solar cookers into their lifestyle. Whether or not the solar cookers will be affordable remains to be seen. It is estimated that the new model of cooker would cost US$2-3 which may be a relatively large investment for certain Kenyans especially if a traditional cooking area is still required. However, the saving in fuelwood costs and time collecting fuelwood does appear to be great enough such that the solar cooker would pay for itself over time. Future investigations will look into this question to determine whether the new-model solar cooker will become an integrated part of the Kenyan lifestyle.

Return to Sustainable Development Case Studies