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Posted September 20, 2002                                                                                                                                                       Cost, Custom Obstacles to Sun Cooking in Haiti                                                                                                                                                                                                By Frances Kerry, Reuters Write

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters), Sept. 20 - The sun beats down on an orphanage at the end of a pot-holed and muddy track in a grim suburb of Haiti's teeming capital.

The heat is oppressive but the orphanage cook is smiling as he lifts the lid of his unconventional-looking oven -- it stands in the open air and is crowned by a large silver-colored bowl like a satellite dish -- to reveal rows of bread rolls.

Pierre Maxo bakes in a solar oven and enthuses about the savings in fuel since the Good Shepherd orphanage, which houses more than 200 children, acquired the cooker two years ago.

"Everyone should have one of these. There's no spending on gas or charcoal or wood, it's very economical," beams Maxo, a 24-year-old who grew up in the orphanage in Carrefour and stayed on to work.

Listening to his pitch makes one wonder why countries like Haiti don't embrace solar cooking more enthusiastically, both to save fuel and the environment. In Haiti, people cook mostly with charcoal and wood and the Caribbean country's grinding poverty is compounded by widespread deforestation. As in other developing countries, resistance to what might appear to be a magic bullet seems to lie in factors ranging from initial costs, entrenched customs and the fact some sun ovens can be slow and not very efficient.

Not to mention a crush of other development priorities: according to World Bank figures, four-fifths of Haiti's rural population live below the poverty line, malnutrition affects half the children under 5 and half of Haitian adults are illiterate.

The "Villager" sun oven that Maxo uses, made by Elburn, Illinois-based company Sun Ovens International, can bake bread for around 150 children a day when the sun shines. But it is affordable only for institutions or groups with about $11,000 to spend on it. The oven at the orphanage was donated by Rotary clubs in Ohio.

The oven is fast and efficient but cannot meet all the cooking needs of the orphanage. Maxo said he used it for baking but then turned to propane gas to cook staples such as rice, although he noted the orphanage was still saving on fuel.

"If I had my own family, I would have a small solar cooker," Maxo said, slipping visitors warm new-baked bread.

The oven he uses is one of only a handful of big solar cookers in Haiti, a Caribbean nation of some 8 million people. Paul Munsen, president of Sun Ovens International, said his company had so far shipped 14 of the big Villager ovens to Haiti, mostly to orphanages.

NOT ENOUGH FOR SOME NEEDS

Recently, a group from a Haitian nonprofit group called the Center de Recherche d'Action pour le Developpement visited the Carrefour orphanage to see the oven, wondering if it would work for their plan to open a cooperative bakery for villagers in the central Artibonite region.

But the group quickly realized $11,000 would be too much to pay and even then, one oven would serve only a fraction of the people in the area.

"Such ovens would be good for orphanages or schools but not for our bakers," said Eveline Pierre-Louis, one of the visitors. "The price is very very high."

Pierre-Louis noted, however, that sun ovens don't all have to be gleaming giants.

She herself uses a cardboard sun oven costing a few dollars, to cook rice, jams and jellies. "But I don't use it all the time. You have to be there and it takes more time than a normal stove."

In the crowded Salomon open air market in Port-au-Prince, women squat on the ground selling rice, bananas, carrots, limes and spices. In one corner, where everything from the soil to the vendors' clothes is blackened, you buy charcoal.

Limene Jean, 63, carrying a small bag, said charcoal was simply the way she cooked, even if it did cost 20 gourdes, the equivalent of 65 cents, a day to fuel the stove for a household of several adults and five children.

"It's not possible to cook every day, it gets too expensive," she said.

The economic argument is one workers at the Free Methodist church in Port-au-Prince use as they try to attract householders to their solar cooking seminars and then hold their interest with charts showing potential household savings, as well as a respectful husbandry of Earth's resources.

The courses have been going for several years and have trained more than 2,000 people, said one of the program directors, J.R. Crouse. "Solar energy is a free resource and it's under-exploited," he said.

Anyone expecting high tech at the seminars, which costs about $15 to attend, would be disappointed. The main item distributed is a sheet of cardboard.

Trainees learn to fashion it into a shape like a topless box with one side missing and glue reflective aluminum foil to the inside.

Tuck a cooking pot containing rice or vegetables into an oven bag -- a plastic bag that will retain the heat but not melt in it -- and position it in the box area. Place it all facing the sun and wait.

The waiting can be endless: as much as three times longer than for a conventional charcoal cooker. And there are other hitches even to this sun cooking at its simplest.

In places like Port-au-Prince, a crowded and garbage-ravaged city of some 2 million people that sprawls up hillsides, many people live so densely packed that they have little outside space to place their sun cooker.

Also, organizers are looking for an alternative to the oven bags that hold pots as they cook. They break too easily and are not commonly found in Haitian stores.

Half way between the big cookers and the cardboard ovens are sturdy family cookers that solar cuisine enthusiasts like Lowell Yoder, a businessman from Holland, Ohio, helps distribute with funds raised through Rotary clubs.

"Haiti is one of the best places to use solar cookers, with so much wood gone and charcoal so expensive," said Yoder, whose Friends of Haiti Organization sends the family cookers to Haiti and sells them at a reduced price, about $50, to people who have shown commitment to solar cooking.

Munsen said Sun Ovens International planned to open an assembly plant in Haiti soon that will aim to create some local jobs and also lower the cost of the small cookers to make them more accessible to families.

With sun cooking projects, training and follow-up are crucial, said Ramon Coyle, a database coordinator with Solar Cookers International, a nonprofit organization whose aim is to promote solar cooking anywhere it can be useful.

Much of the resistance to solar cooking in Haiti and other developing countries is based on custom -- people feel happiest with what they know, and cooking at lower temperatures with a device that has to be positioned correctly takes a lot of getting used to, he said.

"Right now in countries such as Haiti solar cookers are just a drop in the ocean," said Coyle. "We wish there were more than there are and maybe one day there will be."

Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited. 

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