Back in 2010 I was working in Madagascar, showing villagers how to use inexpensive solar ovens and in order to learn about what they cooked and how they cooked it, I spent lots of time with the ladies of the village, in their kitchens. Everyone cooked on open, 3-stone fires that produced huge amounts of acrid smoke. I was appalled as most of the kitchens were inside the house, usually with only one tiny window for ventilation. What is worse is that the mother usually had at least two infants or small children with her in this harmful environment. Right there and then I decided to learn about improved cook stoves and I started a search for oganizations that could help me learn about this very important subject.
As I live in California, I was delighted to find the Aprovecho Research Center in Cottage Grove, Oregon, just a few hours up the highway. Aprovecho has been working for over 30 years to design and test new improved cook stoves. They have sent many missions to developing countries to work in the field, because a new cook stove must be tailored to local conditions. Many other stove programs in the past have failed because the stove was a "one size fits all" type and the stove practioners were not sensitive to local cultural practices. The good folks at Aprovecho are very keenly aware that the cultural aspects of technology transfer are at least as important as the technology itself. No human activity takes place in a vacuum, least of all, the ever-important job of cooking food for the family! In addition, Aprovecho has lead the field in developing small-scale, portable testing equipment that can determine whether a new stove really does reduce emmissions and fuel usage. Unfortunately, far too many stove developers still claim that their stove saves "50% of the wood and only puts out half the smoke". But, that's 50% of what? You will only really know if you put your stove "under the hood" of a testing device like Aprovecho's and have the emissions and efficiency rigorously measured.
Funding for an NGO like Aprovecho is always precarious, so Director, Dean Still decided to go into the production of efficient stoves as a way of raising money to support the research center. They now have a line of 5 different stoves, including a gasifier and several rocket stoves. This business is now quite successful and at a certain proportion of Aprovecho's funding is guaranteed. Aprovecho offers any serious stove developer the opportunity to stay and use the materials and testing facilities for a s long as they need. I stayed for 2 weeks in 2010 and built my first full size rocket stove there. I can honestly say that I would not be able design my own stoves and train others to build stoves without the invaluable help of the Aprovecho Research Center.
"Stove Camp" is an annual event, held at Aprovecho each July, where "stovers", like myself, get together to solve problems and exchange new ideas. I went to my first Stove Camp in 2010 and now it's a regular date on my calender. Stove practitioners come from all over the world to attend Stove Camp and this year we had participants from Burma, Nepal, France and India. It's a wonderful opportunity learn more and share the hard-won experience from the field.
Please check out the Aprovecho website at: http://www.aprovecho.org/lab/index.php.
Another year is drawing to a close and we look forward to 2016, which will be full of challenges and rewards, as always. We are grateful for your on-going support and we wish you well for 2016.
2015 was a very busy year for me personally and I was unable to visit Burma to continue our solar training program. However, now things are in taken care of at home, I am ready to embark on another year's activity of promoting solar technology and training people in its use. Here are a couple of the projects I plan to follow up on in 2016.
1) Solar Food Dyers: As in many tropical countries, Burma has vast harvests of fruits and vegetables, often much more than can be consumed at harvest time. But, on the other hand, there are also other times of the year when basic food supplies are in short supply. To address this issue, Solar Roots will conduct several trainings in building solar food dryers. This is proven technology, but it is not widespread. To be sure, many farmers in the developing world lay their products as tea, coffee and rice in the sun, in order to dry them, but this is not the best way to do the job. Exposing fruits and vegetables to direct sunlight actually damages the produce by destroying some of the vitamins and nutrients, to say nothing of changing the color! The best way is to heat air with a solar collector, then pass the hot air through the produce, laid out on shelves. That way, one can control the temperature and the produce is never exposed to direct sunlight. Not only will preserving food in this way add to the food supply in lean times, it will also create a high value marketable product for sale domestically, or even for export. There is keen interest in Burma in learning how to do this.
2) Solar Training in the Golden Triangle: In 2014 I had the great fortune to meet a remarkable man from the Golden Triangle - Pastor Noel. We met a solar training that I was giving in Pyin Oo Lwin and he invited me to give a similar training in his village near Tachilek. The Golden Triangle is a remote area of eastern Burma, close to the border with Laos and Thailand. It is an isolated and poor area that gets its name from the opium cultivation that farmers resort to in order to make ends meet. Although he lives remotely, Noel is the head of the Association of People with Disabilities in Burma. He is working hard to improve the lives of his fellow villagers and he sees the introduction of solar electricity as being key to this goal. Normally an in-depth solar training like this takes about 2 weeks and I will have to carry in all the necessary equipment, as I doubt whether the local market will be well stocked. But I may be pleasantly surprised, as the solar market in Burma has improved greatly in the last 3 years. The choice and quality of solar products go up very year and some brands of solar panels actually offer 10-year warranties!
We are looking forward to a very productive year in 2016, so please follow us by checking in to website at www.solarroots.org for regular updates. Thank you for your onging support of Solar Roots.
Since I have been unable for personal reasons, to visit Burma in 2015 and continue our training program, I felt that we shouldn’t hold the series of fundraisers that we usually put on in November. Instead, the Solar Roots Board of Directors and I decided to hold a Celebration of Burma event as a thank-you for all our supporters and donors. Well, it was quite an organizational challenge, taking at least 3 Board meetings to determine goals assign, tasks and assemble the equipment needed for such an event. But the Solar Roots Board was equal to the challenge. Everyone pitched in and we were able to pull off the event off in grand style. We were extremely fortunate to have the use of a beautiful back garden and performance space in the Berkeley hills and our sincere gratitude is owed to Kirsten for providing that for us. The event ran from 2 to 5 pm on Sunday September 6th and it was a glorious sunny day in the San Francisco Bay Area. Just as well, as one of our key demonstrations was of our solar powered irrigation pump! Our Board member, Chris set this up and showed that even a small pump with 150W of solar panels could move more than 4 gallons per minute, in full sun. In another demonstration, Board member Sanya displayed the power of our stoves by quickly boiling water, which was then used to serve Burmese tea. Our part-time employee, Ms Thida Win, visiting the US at this time, was on hand to show guests how the Burmese use Tha Na Ka, which is a paste made from a tree branch, to beautify their faces and protect their skin from the sun. We were fortunate to secure the services of Ms Suu Wei, who regaled the audience with haunting vocal melodies and accompanied herself on the Burmese harp. A real high point of the proceedings was the serving of several dishes of Burmese food provided by Rangoon Superstars Restaurant in Berkeley. Just before the concert, I gave a short update on the current political situation in the new Burma, which is not always reported in its entirety, in the popular Western press. Following that, I summarized where Solar Roots fits into that picture and I described our goals for the next 5 years, which includes the establishment of a Renewable Energy Training Center and the hiring of local Burmese employees, who will be able to give trainings in remote areas and eventually run the organization. All in all, it was a glorious day, much enjoyed by all those who attended and I would like to extend my heart-felt thanks to Kirsten and all the Solar Roots Board members, who worked so hard to make it a success.