How are solar cookers saving lives in Chad and Darfur?

A Sudanese refugee in the Iridimi camp stands by a craggy tree. The dearth of firewood at camp drives women and girls into the bush to find fuel.
AP Photo/Ben Curtis

­In one Darfur refugee camp in Chad, thousands of women have learned a whole new way to cook. Instead of relying on the usual wood-fueled fires, families are eating meals cooked by sunlight. Solar cooking could be saving their lives.

More than 17,000 people live in the Iridimi refugee camp in western Chad. Chad lies just to the east of Sudan, next to the Darfur region, where civil war has forced millions of people from their homes. Back in 2003, all hell broke loose in Darfur when government forces cracked down on Darfur rebels seeking social change to improve the lives of black African Sudanese. What followed was an extraordinarily violent conflict, with government forces and Arab Janjaweed militias fighting non-Arab rebels and slaughtering civilians. As of 2008, at least 200,000 people have been killed, and 2.5 million people are displaced [source: Polgreen]. Hundreds of thousands of them are living in temporary camps in Chad.


In the Iridimi camp, as with many other camps, the occupants are mostly women and children, as a large number of Darfur men have been killed. The women are tasked with caring for their own families and for orphans, and that means feeding everyone in their care with supplies distributed by aid organizati­ons. Each month, the World Food Program gives each family a month's worth of food and firewood. The food typically lasts the month. The firewood doesn't.

According to people actively involved in the working­s of the Iridimi camp, the firewood lasts less than a week. Women and girls have to collect more wood so they can prepare meals, but there is hardly any vegetation in the camp. As time goes on, they have to venture farther and farther from the camp to find firewood. This leaves them exposed to violence. Women and girls are routinely raped, beaten and murdered by not only the Janjaweed but also by Chad locals afraid the Darfur refugees are going to use up all of their scarce resources.

In 2006, the nonprofits Jewish Watch International, KoZon Foundation and Solar Cookers International successfully launched a program to bring solar cookers to Darfur refugees, beginning with the Iridimi camp. The idea is to help keep women and girls a little bit safer from violence by reducing their need for firewood.

­In this article, we'll find out what solar cooking is about and what sorts of benefits it brings to the refugees. As it turns out, it does even more than increase security.


Solar Cooking for Survival

Solar cookers like this one in the Iridimi camp are simple yet effective.
Courtesy of Solar Cookers International

­­Solar cooking is exactly what it sounds like: using the sun's rays to heat food to high temperatures. A solar cooker, depending on the type, can reach anywhere from 180 degrees Fahrenheit to more than 400 degrees F (82-204 degrees Celsius), which is more than hot enough to k­ill microbes and make food and water safe to consume. It's actually hot enough to fry.

There are several different methods used to convert sunlight into heat for cooking (see How Solar Cooking Works for complete information). The box cooker uses a topless cardboard or wood box with either glass or plastic stretched across the top, and sometimes reflective panels (often cardboard coated with aluminum foil) positioned outside the plastic to direct more sunlight inside. There's a cooking pot in the box. When placed in the sun, light pours in through the transparent top and heats up the cardboard, which is black on the inside to absorb as much heat as possible. The cardboard heats up, and the heat is trapped inside by the plastic. This type of cooker can reach about 180 degrees F (82 degrees C).


A parabolic cooker uses curved, reflective panels to catch and concentrate sunlight on a small area where the panels come to a point at the bottom of the cooker. Suspended slightly above that point is a cooking pot. The concentrated sunlight generates tremendous heat beneath the pot -- up to 400 degrees F (204 degrees C).

The solar cookers in the Iridimi camp are a combination of these two types, called panel cookers. Curved reflectors direct sunlight to a flat, reflective cardboard bottom. The cooking pot is covered with plastic to trap heat inside. It only costs about $10, and thousands have been given to the women of Iridimi.

The benefits are tremendous for the Darfur refugees. First, since solar cooking came to Iridimi, firewood needs have decreased by about 75 percent [source: Rawlinson]. Women and girls have to make far fewer trips outside the camp, exposing them to fewer attacks.

­Greater bodily safety may be the most crucial benefit provided by solar cooking, but it's not the only one. Overall, cooking with sunlight is just making life better.


Solar Cooking for Life

Since solar cooking doesn't require constant monitoring, women are free to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities.
Courtesy of Solar Cookers International

Solar cooking has benefits beyond the central, security-oriented goal of the program. It's also better for health. Now, since women only need to cook the morning meal with firewood (because there's not enough sun yet), they spend far less time hunched over smoky fires. They're inhaling less smoke to damage their lungs.

­They also have a­ whole new set of opportunities to earn money in the solar-cooking industry within the camp. Nonprofits have trained the women to manufacture the solar cookers and to become cooking trainers themselves, for which they're paid a wage. With this new market, women have also started creating their own solar cooking products, like carrying bags for the cookers and warming baskets that keep food that was cooked during high-sun hours warm until it's time to eat the evening meal.


Other entrepreneurial opportunities have sprung up as well. Suddenly, women aren't spending all of their time cooking, since solar cookers don't need to be attended at all. Women have started creating arts and crafts that aid organizations bring back to the West to sell for them. They also have more time to care for their families.

Accompanying this improvement in quality of life is an improvement in environmental friendliness. The air is less smoky around the camp, and trees are being cut down at a slower rate. Some estimates claim that by 2010, western Chad will have no trees left if consumption continues at the current pace [source: Andres]. Widespread solar cooking could postpone that significantly.

While the United Nations had little success in its attempt back in the 1950s to bring solar cooking to poor, firewood-scarce areas, this current program seems to be working. Each of the more than 4,600 families in Iridimi is cooking food with sunlight. And nearby Toulom camp, home to 22,000 refugees, is up next. As of July 2007, 500 women per month are learning to solar cook in Toulom.

For more information on solar cooking, the Darfur crisis and related topics, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related ­HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Andres, Rachel. "Rays of hope for Darfur refugees." Guardian Weekly. May 6, 2008.
  • "New wave of Darfur refugees flees into Chad." CNN. Feb. 12, 2008.
  • Polgreen, Lydia. "Attacks pushing Darfur refugees into Chad." New York Times. Feb. 11, 2008.
  • Rawlinson, Linnie. "Solar lifeline saves Darfur women." Sept. 17, 2007.
  • Solar Cooker Project. Jewish World Watch.
  • Solar Cooker Project: Help the Women of Darfur. Jewish World Watch.