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Rural Kenyan Women On Vanguard Of African Solar Revolution

An African woman uses her new 'cookit' solar cooker.
by Lillian Omariba
Kajiado, Kenya (AFP) Jun 16, 2006
Elizabeth Leshom may not know it, but she is among a legion of African women at the vanguard of what many hope will be a "solar revolution" that could empower them and help save the environment.

The 25-year-old Kenyan is part of a rapidly growing programme across east and central Africa that aims to replace or at least reduce traditional wood-fired cooking with efficient energy from the sun.

Here in Kajiado, a dusty rural township about 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Nairobi, she is part of a group learning how to use, then make, market and sell so-called "cookits" under the tutelage of a US-based development agency.

"I've used a cookit for three months and it's really good, smokeless and less expensive," Leshom says, marvelling at the savings of both money and time as well as new income the small contraption has brought her.

"I now use less firewood and only one sack of charcoal a month instead of two," she told AFP. "And, I can leave my food to cook unattended and continue with other activities.

"I also earn a monthly salary of 5,000 shillings (72 dollars, 57 euros) from the project for teaching other women in the village," Leshom says proudly.

A cheaper version of factory-made solar cookers, which use parabolic mirrors, "cookits" are made from waxed cardboard cartons, laminated with reflective shiny foil and reinforced with a colored cloth binding.

They cost between 390 and 550 shillings Kenyan shillings (5.60 to 7.90 dollars, 4.40 to 6.20 euros) and over the course of two years can make significant improvements in the lives of impoverished rural families, promoters say.

In 24 months, cookits will save huge amounts of firewood, money and long hours spent buying or collecting it, purify thousands of gallons of drinking water and prepare hundreds of meals, according Solar Cookers International (SCI), the US group behind the innovation.

The California-based SCI, is championing the use of cookits as a pollution-free alternative to combustible fuel in eight countries around Africa to not only reduce deforestation but give rural women economic opportunities long-lacking in their communities.

"Enjoy clean cooking, No hassle, No smoke, No sweat, Just tasty food," says the slogan that has become a popular refrain around towns in Kenya where it is being marketed in a campaign similar to those for modern appliances in urban areas.

SCI was founded in 1987 to promote the use of solar power in developing nations, beginning with the fundamental activity of food preparation. It started the program here among refugees from Sudan and Somalia at the Kakuma camp in nothern Kenya in the 1990s.

In 2002, it decided to begin a full-on development project to spread the use of the cookits, according to its east Africa regional director Margaret Owino.

From 153 applications to launch a pilot manufacturing scheme, a women's group in the western Kenyan town of Nyakach was selected and the "Sunny Solutions" project was born, she said.

"We trained 23 women how to make and use the cookits and ... then held demonstrations in Kajiado last August," Owino said. "We're now training rural women across the country."

One of the early beneficiaries was Elizabeth Oranga, a 40-year-old widow in Nyakach, who has been assembling the kits for the past three years and now has four shops where rural women can purchase and learn how to use them.

She quit her maize business to join Sunny Solutions and now earns the equivalent of 28 US cents (22 euro cents) for each cookit she makes, 1.80 dollars (1.40 euros) for each sold and another 4.20 dollars (3.30 euros) for every training session she holds.

"Sometimes, I sat at the market and sold only four kilos (8.8 pounds) of maize for 60 shillings a day," she says. "It wasn't enough. From Sunny, I have bought household, a goat, a cow and am able to provide for my children."

The fold-out device works best when a black pot surrounded by a heat trap is placed into it with the reflective foil capturing sunlight and raising temperatures to up to 135 degrees C (275 degrees F).

Food begins to cook at between 82 to 91 degrees C (180 and 196 degrees F) and depending on what it is takes between one and eight hours to prepare.

Despite their limitations -- it needs to be outdoors and won't work after dark or on cloudy or rainy days -- cookits have taken rural Kenya by storm, according to SCI.

More than 10,000 Kenyans have now been trained and many more are eager to learn, says field assistant Faustine Lutta.

And, last September at a Pan-African Women Invent and Innovate (PAWII), exhibition in Ghana, Sunny Solutions won the top women inventors and innovators award.

In addition to Kenya, it is now being introduced to Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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