Building hope and solar ovens

Building hope and solar ovens

There’s more than good food cooking in the Costa Rican sun — the sun’s energy is being tapped to make positive change in local, developing communities. Projects initially designed to teach solar oven construction and solar-powered cooking are blossoming into sustainable development initiatives promoting good nutrition, conservation of natural resources, literacy, education, and women’s rights.

I traveled to Costa Rica last year as a community development volunteer with World Vision Canada and Fondacion Sol de Vida (Sun of Life Foundation). Sol de Vida was created in 1989 by several homemakers who attended a Universidad Nacional of Costa Rica workshop on how to build and use “solar ovens” –- small, mobile cooking units that operate entirely off the power of the sun. These women decided to teach other women how and why to build solar ovens. Sol de Vida now offers the Solar Oven Project in developing communities throughout northwestern Costa Rica each year. World Vision Canada, an international development and relief agency, supports Sol de Vida’s Solar Oven Projects by sending groups of volunteers to help construct the ovens.

Together with three other Canadian volunteers, I worked in Guanacaste, a province in the north of Costa Rica where the consistent and intense sunshine is ideal for cooking with solar energy. We worked with 15 local women, helping to build each of them a solar oven for their family. Solar Oven Projects run 5 days a week for approximately 4 weeks — the time required to completely build 15 solar ovens.

Solar cooking NGOs such as Solar Cookers International, Solar Energy International, and the Central American Solar Energy Project, explain that solar oven designs include box cookers, panel cookers, and parabolic cookers. We built box cookers: an enclosed inner box covered with clear glass or plastic, a reflector, and insulation. Due to its simple design and construction, the solar box cooker is the most common solar oven in developing communities. The reflectors of the solar box cooker concentrate the sun’s rays through the glass top, and dark insulation inside the box absorbs the sunlight and generates heat. Once the oven thermometer reaches 225-250 degrees Fahrenheit, food is placed inside.

Currently in Guanacaste, a local family uses approximately 6-8 kilos of wood per day cooking by traditional methods. Decreasing the consumption of firewood is crucial to diminish current problems with air contamination, the destruction of trees, and respiratory disease. As described by the recent United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, “Solar energy is a low-cost and healthy alternative in a world where electricity is often either unaffordable or unavailable…It virtually eliminates smoke-induced ailments such as respiratory infections, chronic bronchitis and eye conditions common to women spending hours over a wood burning fire.”

The solar oven that each woman constructs also represents an important personal achievement. The Solar Oven Project includes afternoon classes on good nutrition, health care, self-esteem, childcare, community leadership, and prevention of family violence. These classes provide an opportunity for the women to challenge traditional social roles that prevent them from exploring their potential, sharing their ideas, expanding their skills and knowledge, and breaking away from domestic violence.

In a recent article about Sol de Vida, Dulce Cruz notes that the Solar Oven Project enables literacy development, self-education, and gratification. The women read instructions and use math to plan and measure during the oven building process. They also take notes and record recipes at daily meetings and afternoon classes. Such activities encourage the use and development of literacy skills and stimulate a desire for education among the women.

In fact, increased literacy and education inspired one group of former project participants to open a small store to exhibit their ovens, prepare and sell food, and share what they have learned about solar power and nutrition. Others were inspired to create: La Casa del Sol, a research center promoting different applications of solar energy; Fiestas del Sol, annual, week-long festivals to demonstrate the food, function and benefits of the solar oven; and, Sol Juvenil, an outreach project for children and adolescents.

The self-education and independence seeded by participation in the project flourishes in a context of friendship. The shared building project creates a feeling of trust among the women — women that are typically isolated and spend most of their time at home. The fact is gender roles in Costa Rica continue to be strict and traditional, and women are limited to certain roles. Husbands of project participants are sometimes threatened by their wife’s daily absence from the home; some refuse to eat food from the oven simply because it was built by a woman.

For most of the women, the Solar Oven Project is their first opportunity to speak with other women about situations of family violence and to discover that they have legal rights. Dulce Cruz relays the story of Barbara, a 54 year old Solar Oven Project participant: Barbara was beaten by her husband each time she attended a weekly project meeting, and had resigned herself to accepting this treatment. When Barbara learned, through Sol de Vida, that her husband’s behavior was against the law, she had him arrested the very next time he tried to beat her.

This sense of empowerment is echoed by Fatima Montealgre, one of the original founders of Sol de Vida, and one of the women with whom I worked. Fatima was quoted by the United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development saying, “Since I brought the (solar) kitchen home, I stopped being my husband’s slave. I have grown and liberated myself. I learned about the environment and know that I am contributing to it. Most importantly, I learned that when a woman wants to do something, she can.”

Overall, the Solar Oven Project has a simple agenda, but its impact is widespread: increased quality of life by reduced commitment of time and money to obtaining firewood; enhanced nutrition and diet by healthier cooking and reduced fat consumption; preservation of natural resources and ecosystems by reduced deforestation; reduced incidence of respiratory and eye disease associated with open fire cooking; the empowerment, motivation, and validation of local women.

Fortunately, this community development model is taking root. William F. Lankford, President of the Central American Solar Energy Project, notes that autonomous national legal NGOs have been established in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala to promote solar cooking. These NGOs also promote related programs such as adult literacy, school scholarships, commercialization of soy bean products, grade school ecology classes, organic agriculture, medicinal herbs, consultation services, and the promotion and sale of other solar devices.

In retrospect, the women in Costa Rica showed me that sustainable development is achievable because individual efforts to create positive change are never wasted — they contribute to “something greater”. In the case of Sol de Vida, that “something greater” to which the Solar Oven Project contributes is hope.


[This article was written in 2003 and published by the Human Rights Tribune (Spring 2003, Vol.9, No.3). It was published with the full title: “REPORTS FROM THE FIELD: Building hope and solar ovens in Costa Rica – Reflections by a community development volunteer“]

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