Barbara Knudson Solar Cooking

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Progress at the Kakuma Refugee Camp

Photographs by Robert Metcalf, Barbara Knudson, S Bev Bluhm

Barbara Knudson, Ph.D. S Mark Aalfs

©1998 Barbara Knudson, Ph.D. and Mark Aalfs

Above: Gathering fuelwood requires many hours per week, while damaging stressed ecosystems.

nn a remote corner of Kenya at the Kakuma refugee camp, housewives struggling to meet the needs of their families are conducting a remarkable experiment. In a hot and dry region where firewood for cooking is virtually unavailable, they are learning to use the energy of the sun to prepare food for their families.

Solar Cooking

In the last three years, Solar Cookers International (SCI) has introduced over 70,000 people in East Africa to solar cooking. These pilot projects utilize the CooKit, which is a simple and inexpensive cooker made of cardboard and aluminum foil. In a time of diminishing resources while literally half the world's people use fuelwood to cook their food, imagine the possibilities and benefits of widespread solar cooking.

So how did refugee women in Kenya come to apply basic solar principles and experiment with a simple cardboard solar cooker? In a word, need. These refugee women, with very little food and not enough fuel for cooking, were understandably open to alternatives. SCI, working to find people with the most need, offered a powerful solution to these Kenyan women: a new way to cook, using the sun.

Solar Cookers International (SCI)

Established in 1987, SCI is a small non-profit, US-based organization advocating solar cooking worldwide. Originally, the focus of SCI was educational, promoting the potential of solar cooking. During this first phase, the organization developed and disseminated teaching materials to individuals, groups, and schools, enabling people to build and use solar cooking devices.

In the second phase, SCI focused on networking with solar cooking enthusiasts around the world, in a collaborative and global attempt to promote solar cooking. Their most dramatic work, however, has been during the third phase. During this time, field projects have been initiated in Africa to test both the new simple solar cooker and the feasibility of broader use of solar cookers in sunny, fuel-scarce areas.

Solar Cookers

Solar cookers can be traced back to the Swiss scientist de Saussure's wood and glass "bread box" solar cooker in the 1750s. Since then, they have evolved into a variety of focusing, box-type, and hybrid ovens. Solar cookers have effectively cooked food and purified water for decades. Today, a wide range of devices for solar cooking exists, from simple to complex, small to large, and affordable to expensive. For the most part, cookers are either dish-type focusing cookers, box type "collecting" cookers, or hybrids.

The physical principles are quite basic. Solar cookers first focus sunlight onto dark-colored food containers.

Sunlight is then converted into heat on the dark surfaces. The heat is often "trapped" by a transparent material such as glass or plastic, resulting in temperature levels sufficient for cooking food.

CooKit Solar Cooker

The CooKit solar cooker (see diagram) is made from a piece of flat corrugated cardboard approximately 3x4' with reflective foil on one side. The cardboard is scored and folded to make a dish shape. It encloses a black cooking vessel within a heat resistant plastic cooking bag. The reflective panels of the CooKit focus the sunlight on the pot, while the plastic bag traps heat within, increasing the cooking temperature of the food. During field experience, the bag has proven to be the most fragile piece of equipment, needing replacement after about ten uses. It is being replaced by a durable plastic strip, used around the sides of the cooking pot. The CooKit is aimed towards the sun, the cook can go about other business, and when she returns, voila, the food is cooked and ready to eat.

Kakuma Refugee Camp

The Kakuma refugee camp is located in northern Kenya, almost directly on the equator. Some 300 miles southeast lies metropolitan Nairobi, a modern and fast paced city. The camp lies in the bottom of Africa's Great Rift Valley, one of the world's wonders, a place almost moonscape in appearance. Refugee camps are located in settings unsuitable for human habitation. This is obviously the case in overpopulated nations, because people would already have been living there. Kakuma is the temporary home for 40,000 refugees, mostly from neighboring Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. These people are living under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

The camp receives less than 10 inches of rainfall per year in relatively predictable seasons, and is sunny the majority of days. Vegetation is sparse, largely along dry streambeds. As the land itself is stony and sandy, no agriculture is possible. For eons, the area supported only a sparse population of hunters and gatherers. These people traveled with the seasons in search of forage for camels and goats, achieving a sustainable but austere balance in this precarious environment.

Minimal Supplies

On arrival, refugees are issued poles to use in building a mud shelter with a blue tarp roof. They are also given minimal household supplies: a blanket, a plastic mat, a nested set of plates and cups in a cooking pot, and a small supply of staple foods. They are given flour, beans, corn meal, cooking oil, sugar and salt—all in amounts calculated to provide 1900 calories per person per day, enough for bare survival. Thereafter, a distribution of food occurs every two weeks.

A small supply of firewood is also provided, since no gathering of fuelwood is feasible in this near-desert setting. This fuelwood is transported to the camp from afar and at great expense to the UNHCR. In the refugees' experience, this supply lasts for less than half of the two-week period between distributions.

Refugees must purchase or barter for the additional fuel they need. Most commonly, wood is gathered at a distance by local tribal people, and processed inefficiently into charcoal. Fossil fuel derivatives such as kerosene are also used. The majority of refugees, without income or incentives, have little choice but to exchange some of their survival level food rations for fuel, since flour, dried beans, and corn meal are of no use in raw form.

Refugees settle into communities of related ethnic groups. Elementary services such as schools, clinics, and sports activities are provided. Small shopping kiosks, coffeehouses, and even simple restaurants have sprung up. Eventually, a kind of temporarily on-hold life is established by most.

Below: A CooKit cooks with the sun

Above: Avariety of local foods are solar cooked, including this pasta Solar Cooking Workshops

Into this scene, SCI sent a volunteer team to test the feasibility of using solar energy for cooking. The team chose groups of women who were neighbors in each of six zones within the camp. In two-day demonstration and training workshops, seventy-two women were trained and equipped to try solar cooking. Each woman was given a solar cooker (the CooKit), an aluminum pot painted black, two heat resistant plastic bags, and a small supply of food for demonstration and for trials at the workshops and in their homes.

When the solar cooking proved highly satisfactory, the most enthusiastic of the new solar cooks participated with the team in planning additional workshops to be conducted for their neighbors. Sixteen refugee women were trained in participatory educational methods and equipped with kits of training materials and foodstuffs to be cooked. Ultimately, their numbers grew from sixteen to thirty. A simple administrative structure was created, and the women trainers were paid a small stipend.


By the end of l995, 2000 families in the camp were trained and equipped for solar cooking. By the end of l997, nearly 6,000 families were taught skills and given equipment to enable them to use the power of the sun to cook their food rations. This was perhaps 80% of the original population, as the camp had, by this time, grown to nearly 45,000. As with any innovation, change does not come easily or quickly. Perhaps this is particularly true when old and valued ways are threatened. However, these women and their families are rational. Clearly, refugees have already been forced into dramatic changes regarding customs they hold dear.

While difficult to analyze, evaluation after one year suggests that more than half of those trained use the solar cooker weekly, while perhaps 20-25% use the solar cooker every day the sun shines. Solar cooking continues to increase as additional time is spent and experience with the new cookers grows. The amount of fuelwood saved is a matter of controversy. One can argue, however, that any saving of fuelwood in such a fragile environment is valuable and should be encouraged.


The women innovators cite a range of reasons for their acceptance of this new and simple to use, though very different technology. In addition to the obvious fuel saving, the new cookers save physical effort, as they need little watching and no stirring. Except for curious goats and other security concerns, the cookers can be left alone in any sunny spot.

Without flames and high heat, the pot is easier to clean both inside (from gentler cooking) and outside (no black soot from a fire). The absence of cook fires on the ground lessens the danger to small children, particularly toddlers. The food cooks in minimal to no water, resulting in less loss of nutrient value by boiling and

What You Can Do

First, find out more about solar cooking. Call, write, or fax SCI. See the Access section at the end of the article.

Try solar cooking. It works great, and the food tastes wonderful! Your kitchen will be cooler in the summer. If you have air conditioning, you'll reduce bills. You'll conserve our energy resources. It's a great project for kids of all ages. They'll learn the valuable physical principles of heat transfer and light, applicable to a wide variety of human experiences and endeavors.

Join Solar Cookers International. Contact SCI and become a part of this exciting solution.

Volunteer for a project. Through SCI or another organization, spread the word about solar cooking by joining a project.

draining away cooking water. Solar methods are particularly good for food items like beans which require long and slow cooking—and beans are nutritious staples of many refugee diets. Women and their children are free from pervasive smoke, which causes eye infections and respiratory diseases. Water can be pasteurized and made safe for human consumption in the solar cooker, though this is not necessary in Kakuma, which has a safe water supply. Perhaps most importantly, the food tastes good!


The project has met many difficulties, largely logistical in nature. Providing a continuous flow of supplies to this isolated area has been the most persistent problem. Partners on the ground in Kenya frequently failed to maintain the stock of cookers, pots, and plastic bags required to keep training on schedule. As can be expected, political and cultural issues also played a role, but the refugee women have superbly surmounted those. In the face of many difficulties, these women have performed flawlessly as promoters and trainers. SCI continues to work on problems, and has recently hired a staff person located in Kenya to provide logistical assistance to the African sites.

Above: The SCI team promotes learning by doing and prepares local leaders to be solar cooking trainers.

Three More Projects

With variations in ethnic group, environmental setting, climatic circumstances, and partner agencies, three additional projects are underway in Africa. They illustrate a basic principle: solar cooking must be adapted to specific settings to account for variations in food preferences, preparation, climate, weather, family dynamics, and other aspects of culture.

CooKit Plans

The CooKit is typically made of corrugated cardboard with shiny foil laminated to the top side. Draw the cooker to the dimensions indicated and cut around the perimeter. Fold on the lines. Insert tips B and C into slots D and E, respectively.

Use a dark pot around 10 inches in diameter enclosed in a heat resistant plastic bag. Place the pot as indicated by the circle.

Face the cooker towards the sun and tip up the front panel as appropriate for the altitude of the sun.

Slot is located 7.5" to the left of fold A, is 5" long, and is at a 30° angle.

Solar Cooking Benefits

Use of free, direct solar energy eliminates the time, expense, environmental degradation, and often danger of gathering firewood.

Use of direct solar energy eliminates a variety of costs associated with finding, collecting, transporting, handling and selling typical fuels.

Solar cookers reduce costs associated with dependence on nonrenewable fuels. Studies in India and Costa Rica find that solar cooking can result in fuel savings of 30 to 50 percent. The cost of replacing cut trees in India is approximately twice the market price of fuelwood.

Reduced fuel subsidies—With solar cookers in use, there is less need for governments to import and subsidize fossil fuels.

Diet—Diets can include nutritious foods requiring hours of cooking such as beans and maize.

Health—No smoke is produced, reducing lung and eye problems. Water-borne diseases kill 50,000 people daily. Solar cookers easily pasteurize milk and water, and can disinfect medical supplies.

Safety—Reduced risk of burns and fires.

Environment—Solar cooking is pollution free.

Energy efficiency—Solar cooking keeps kitchens cooler.

Work and effort saving—Solar cooking requires much less effort than cooking over a fire, freeing women for other activities. Cleaning utensils is easier. The reduced need for collecting firewood results in dramatic savings of women's and children's time and energy, and often results in increased safety.

Women's self esteem—While difficult to quantify, leadership opportunities provide new skills and new self-assurance for women who are actively solving a major community problem by cooking in an inexpensive and efficient manner. Visitors from many parts of the world come to Kakuma to see this project in action, with refugee women as stars of the show.

SCI projects in two other refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya and in a settled community in Zimbabwe use variants of the method described. However, all of these projects are based on the principles of active participation of the women themselves and of active and participatory learning methods. Women learn about solar cooking by doing it. In one-day workshops, they make their own lunch and take food home to their families for the evening meal. Training materials are entirely visual. No words are used, to surmount problems of language, and more importantly, illiteracy.


In a world threatened by hunger, deforestation, and growing populations spending larger proportions of small incomes on cooking fuel, solar cooking is a powerful solution. Where women and children walk ever farther to gather wood, sunlight can surely save precious human energy for other pursuits.

The mission of SCI is to spread solar cooking to benefit people and environments worldwide. The field projects demonstrate that women, trained and equipped, will readily accept and use this radically different technology, where climate permits and fuelwood is scarce or expensive.

Slow Progress

SCI is the global focal point for promotion of solar cooking technology. Estimates are that several million people worldwide cook with sunlight, the greatest numbers being in China and India. Even with these large numbers, SCI recognizes that in terms of impacting public policy at national and global levels, little progress has been made. One of the key factors has been the historical availability of firewood. In fact, half the world still cooks with wood. However, even the most casual observer can see that wood is rapidly disappearing. A striking fact is that the planet's human to wood biomass ratio is rapidly increasing. With each passing minute, there are 200 more people on earth and 50 acres less forest.

Each of the nearly six billion of us on earth would like to eat cooked food every day. Using the free power of the sun to accomplish this purpose, whenever and wherever possible, is an idea we must pursue. Kakuma housewives are doing just that, and are pleased to share their successful experiment with the world.


Solar Cookers International (SCI), 1919 21st Street, Sacramento, CA • 95814 916-455-4499 Fax: 916-455-4498 • e-mail: [email protected]

Also, visit the Solar Cooking Archive on the Web at:


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