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Sun harvesting: Woman's solar oven sparks change in Migori village

It's noon on a sunny Monday. We meet Carolyn Olang at her rural home in Rairi Village, Migori County. She is preparing lunch after a long day of work weeding her farm.

I am expecting to see smoke and fire coming out of her kitchen but that is not the case. In front of her is a contraption constructed out of timber, an old blanket, aluminium foil and glass. It is painted black and is about the size of a large suitcase. This odd-looking box is the source of heat that Carolyn is using to cook vegetables. 

"It's an innovation that I started using around March last year. It was after attending a certain training. I loved the idea, picked it up and brought it home with me, " Carolyn, the pioneer of a solar oven movement in her village, explains. 

"In the Nyanza region, the forest cover is about 2 per cent therefore accessing firewood was and is still difficult. You can have food but no fire to cook with. For those who were using charcoal, it was so expensive. We're in the village so cooking with electricity was not an economic option," Carolyn says. 

She explains that solar ovens direct sunlight into a cooking space, where the trapped heat gathers. The exact process varies by design but all solar ovens usually require highly reflective materials, for example, aluminium foil or glass, which she has used for her oven.

"They should both be set at particular angles to gather light from the sun. For stable cooking, solar ovens must retain heat. This is often accomplished by separating outside air from the air inside the oven. By doing so, your food will get cooked by trapped heat," Carolyn explains. 

Elly Otieno, an electrical engineer specialising in solar systems explains that the mirrors on top of solar ovens receive the sun's rays and reflect them on the dish being prepared. They act as solar reflectors. Accumulation of rays increases the temperature of the container and a thin, dark-coloured container will capture and transmit the heat to the food.

After trying out her oven, Carolyn trained a good number of women in Rairi village so that they could also shift from non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels like kerosene, natural gas like biogas, firewood and charcoal which are listed as major threats to the environment. 

So far more than 200 women and a good number of homesteads have benefitted from this initiative. It has reduced deforestation while improving the lives of women in Rairi village and its outskirts. 

"Cooking times depend on the model used and the temperature reached. The box oven, which I use, offers gentler cooking which is more respectful of nutrients. Cooking duration ranges from 2-3 hours on a bright sunny day and if you use a thermometer, the temperature can range from 120-180°C," Carolyn says. 

According to Pamela Auma, a woman who was also trained and is now using a solar oven, the method is less costly.   

"This device is made from materials that are freely and locally available like old blankets. Without it, we have to buy firewood, spending money which is not even there. Gas cookers require constant and frequent refills especially when you have a big family. I used firewood and gas cookers back then and I can give a testimony that I was spending a lot of money to get heat for cooking, " she says.

"When I'm using the solar oven, I don't encounter smoke. I'm old and remember this is the stage where the immunity goes down so exposure to smoke from firewood or other sources can cause serious health problems for example difficulty in breathing. I used to cough a lot when using firewood but look at me now, I'm just settled," Pamela says.

"Solar ovens emerge as a beacon of hope particularly in the context of climate change mitigation," says 53-year-old Sophia Akinyi. 

According to Carolyn, the foods that can be cooked using this solar device range from eggs, rice, pumpkin, beans, cowpeas, potatoes, and cake. However, she discourages using the oven to cook ugali. 

"You are supposed to maintain the maximum temperature inside the oven not disturbing the lid that covers food. You know when cooking ugali you are forced to turn it now and again," she says. 

According to Alice Atieno also, who has used a solar oven for 9 months, this is the way to go.

"The solar oven, being smoke-free, has improved my family's indoor air quality, " Alice says.

Carolyn is calling upon people who are still using gas, stoves, firewood and other non-renewable resources to switch to solar energy since it's safe.

"Limitations of solar ovens, I can say, is just one. It needs the sun to work. January is supposed to be a hot season but instead, we're having heavy rains. However, the advantages outweigh the limitations we're experiencing with this device, " Carolyn says.

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