When physicist Paul Arveson retired, he looked for a place where his previous scientific training and his Christian faith could be harnessed for some humanitarian purpose. He also wanted to find a mission that was not already being done by many others.
He found one: solar cooking!
In 2010, Paul joined a small local organization that had already had done some amazing work in solar cooking. Solar Household Energy, Inc. (SHE) was founded in the 1990’s to develop an efficient solar cooker and distribute it to poor people. They designed the “HotPot,” a black steel pot surrounded by glass bowl and lid to provide a “greenhouse” around the pot. It has a foldable sheet aluminum reflector. This design has proved to be durable and easy to use. Initially, SHE manufactured over 15,000 HotPots and distributed them in projects in Mexico.
Panel-type solar cookers like the HotPot eliminate the need for fuels on any sunny day, hence they also eliminate the need to gather firewood, chop the wood and start a fire. They have no smoke emissions, so they eliminate a major cause of respiratory disease. They take a couple of hours to boil water or cook a pot of food, but there is no need to stir the pot — they operate like a slow cooker in American kitchens. Hence in sunny locations (like northern Africa and the Middle East) they are the safest, cleanest, cheapest and easiest way to cook food.
One of the sunniest regions in the world is the Sahara Desert. In countries like Chad, sunlight is plentiful, but water is scarce; so is firewood. Women need to forage widely to gather wood for cooking fuel. This places them at risk for sexual violence and other risks while alone.
In 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) contracted with SHE to conduct a pilot project in the use of solar cookers at the “Gaga” refugee camp in Chad. Fifty “HotPot” solar cookers were distributed to a representative sample of households in the camp. SHE hired a manager from another NGO, Patrick Fourrier, to implement this pilot project. Fourrier worked on site with the organization Africare, which was already active in Gaga camp and served as UNHCR’s partner in implementing environmental projects. Funding was provided by the COMO Foundation (Singapore) and the Dorothy Ann Foundation (USA).
Africare’s report stated that two months after HotPot distribution, recipients solar cooked about half of their meals; their firewood provisions lasted twice as long (from 6 to 12 days), and fewer women were forced to travel outside the camp to forage for firewood. Average firewood savings were estimated at 16 kg per family per week, or over 64 kg per month. Following the success of the pilot project, in 2012 Africare ordered an additional 200 HotPots.
In 2013, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) had become the successor to Africare in managing the Chad camps. In 2016, UNHCR announced that they were no longer able to supply firewood for the camps. Hence the need for solar cookers thus became even more urgent.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., research and development work continued. An effort was undertaken by SHE to develop a lower-cost, but durable solar cooker to permit more users to have one. Roger Haines developed a solar cooker reflector made of metallized polyethylene foam, along with a polycarbonate cover for a black cooking pot and sealed glass lid.
Using a plan developed by SHE Executive Director Sophie Brock, the Haines Solar Cookers were shipped to Chad and tested alongside the HotPot in a “reality check” experiment in 2016. The Haines solar cooker was determined to be somewhat more powerful than the HotPot, at about 1/10 of the cost. Following this test, the leaders recommended expanded distribution of these cookers to all of the refugees in the Chad camps.
Sophie’s project plan included an evaluation of solar cooker users. In initial surveys of women who had previously received HotPot solar cookers, the women say they use their solar cooker 2 to 3 times per week to supplement their wood cookstoves. Several women demonstrated their enthusiasm and reiterated their desire to get a solar cooker. They are satisfied with them, or want to have one, and mainly recognize the value of the absence of smoke and the reduction of wood consumption. So, after more than five years, the HotPot solar cookers were found to be in good and clean condition, and in regular use.
Paul’s technical work has recently been focused on the establishment of an international standard for testing the performance of solar cookers. Working with an international team of experts, this has recently been completed with the development of ISO-19867, an international standard for clean cookstoves. This will allow any small cooking devices (solar or combustion) to be compared in terms of power, emissions, safety, durability and usability.
In 2013 there were 12 refugee camps in Chad with a total of 300,000 refugees, though the numbers vary constantly. Across northern Africa and the Middle East there are currently about 14 million refugees 1. Most of them — as well as the UNHCR and camp suppliers — could benefit from solar cooking.
Solar cooking is not a crowded field! We are seeking contacts among Lutherans who may have previous experience working with Lutheran World Federation in sunny regions. There are many remaining challenges in solar cooker design, distribution, project management and user training. If you are interested in working with us, please see our website at www.she-inc.org and contact us.
Paul Arveson’s first career was as a research physicist in the civilian Navy where he managed projects in acoustics, oceanography, signal processing, and analysis. His second career was as a technology consultant for various government contractors. For his third career beginning in 1998, Paul co-founded the Balanced Scorecard Institute, which provides consulting services to all kinds of organizations. Then for three years he served in the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He is a Fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation and is currently a member of the Board of Managers of the Washington Academy of Sciences. He is an elder in the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.
Sophie Brock Lyman is the Executive Director of Solar Household Energy. She works closely with SHE’s Board of Directors and oversees the efforts of SHE’s associates and volunteers. Sophie has been working in environmental and international development since 2005 with Greenpeace, USAID, and local NGOs in Democratic Republic of Congo, India, and Haiti, where she also introduced solar cookers. She began her association with SHE as a Research Associate in 2010 and later became Senior Program Manager before being promoted to Executive Director in October 2014. During her seven-year association with SHE, Sophie has assisted SHE in many capacities, including analyzing field project impact evaluations, researching large solar cooker projects in Asia, and leading a solar cooking advocacy effort aimed at the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. She is currently managing SHE’s field projects in Chad, Haiti, and Mexico, as well as SHE’s education, fundraising, and research activities.
- https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/sm.pop.refg.or ↩