Solar power to the people
Sacramento’s Solar Cookers International uses the sun to improve quality of life, one village at a time
Four years ago, the people of Nyakach, a village in western Kenya near Lake Victoria, faced a fuel-wood crisis shared by 2.5 billion other people in the world. They spent a quarter of their incomes on wood or walked many hours a day to collect ever-diminishing wood sources to cook food, destroying their environment.
Today, thanks to Sacramento’s Solar Cookers International, more than 1,000 families in Nyakach are using the sun to cook their food, a transformation that could take place in a million other villages worldwide.
The Sunny Solutions project in Nyakach is SCI’s first program with non-refugees; it is designed to teach the simple technology of solar cooking and water pasteurization within a stable community. The program is now successfully run by the local people of Nyakach. To meet the local people whose lives have been changed by SCI, or to order the Sunny Solutions DVD, visit www.solarcookers.org.
What follows is a conversation with Dr. Robert Metcalf, a CSUS biological sciences professor, founding member of SCI and the world’s leading expert on water pasteurization in developing countries.
Can you describe how the work of SCI has improved the lives of people in Nyakach?
Sunny Solutions offers local women a unique opportunity to become small-business entrepreneurs while continuing to spread solar technology to others. This newly acquired skill gives solar-cooker representatives a great sense of accomplishment and importance in their community. With the time and money saved by using solar cookers, women are able to focus on other productive activities, such as starting additional small businesses to enhance their food production and income. The health of women and children is also improving, as they no longer must cook for hours each day over wood-burning fires, which damage the eyes and lungs and causes 1.5 million deaths worldwide.
Why is it so important to spread the word about SCI’s work?
SCI is a small nonprofit organization functioning on a limited budget. We’ve developed the resources to address fundamental problems in developing countries, but our work is still largely unknown. SCI has the good science—the CooKit, the world’s simplest and most-effective solar cooker, innovative water-testing methods and simple solar water pasteurization.
SCI’s teaching methods have spearheaded solar-cooking projects and could serve as the model in countries around the world, but we need to reach powerhouse organizations and policymakers who work in developing countries to reach the billions of people who could benefit from the sun’s energy.
Can you tell me more about the need for water pasteurization in developing countries and the water-testing methods you’ve developed?
UNICEF estimates that there are 1.1 billion people without access to safe drinking water. With simple water testing and pasteurization methods, millions of deaths and billions of episodes of diarrhea are preventable. In Nyakach, I worked with community leaders and SCI’s solar-cooker representatives to show them how easily they could test their drinking water, taken from shallow wells and open sources, for the presence of the bacterium E. coli from feces. With two simple tests, the community was able to see clear results that showed their drinking sources were contaminated with levels of E. coli designated as “very high risk for disease” by the World Health Organization. Visit www.imageevent.com /bobmetcalf to see the simple technology that allowed villages to monitor their own water quality.
Back home with several of my students at CSUS, I applied the principles of milk pasteurization to water and established that heating water to 65° C (149° F) in a solar cooker pasteurizes it, making it safe to drink.
Together with a couple of SCI volunteers, I developed the Water Pasteurization Indicator, which is a reusable, closed plastic tube partially filled with wax that melts and drops to the bottom of the tube at water’s pasteurization temperature. Back in Nyakach, almost all families who use solar cookers are also pasteurizing their water with the use of the WAPI, and reporting significant decreases in disease. I am now working with the Kenyan water and health agencies to help them adopt these revolutionary water-testing methods.
How can people reading this article help SCI?
First, I encourage everyone interested in the global environment to get a CooKit and experience its astonishing ability to cook food. Parents and kids can plan an afternoon together and cook right in their backyard with the sun. Teachers can use the CooKit to teach basic science and connect with fundamental problems facing children in developing countries. Members of churches can use the CooKit at gatherings this summer and share the information with church leaders who have relationships with leaders in developing countries. Those with connections to funding agencies and celebrities who help others in developing countries can introduce these people to SCI. Solar cooking, water testing and water pasteurization should be a part of the curriculum at Oprah Winfrey’s leadership academy in South Africa, for future women leaders. But how does a small Sacramento non-governmental organization get access to Oprah?