MALI SOLAR COOKER PROJECT POST EVALUATION

by LASSINE NIARE

The ultimate challenge in any society is making people change even it is for the better.  There is a Bambara proverb in Mali, West Africa, that reflects this challenge:  The habit of doing is second nature.  To create any change amongst people, one has to be creative, motivated, and very understanding to accommodate people=s needs. 

In 1996-1997, I was fortunate to leave another winter behind in the states and travel to Mali, West Africa one year after my friend, Dave Berger, and I introduced 98 solar cookers in several areas of Mali (see Homepower 60,p.50).  I was able to talk with some of the individuals that were involved in the solar cooker project and I was able to evaluate to some degree the usefulness of the cookers amongst some of the people who had received them.  My limited amount of time and transportation constraints did not allow me to fully evaluate the use of cookers in the very outlining villages where some of the cookers were distributed.  My evaluation also was not conducted as a typical paper survey; this was due to problems of actually getting the surveys back we gave out, and the fact that Athe piece of paper@ after one year was missing in many cases.  Another problem with the follow-up paper survey was that individuals and organizations we contacted one year ago and who were supposed to conduct the follow-up evaluations did not do so for various reasons.     

Solar technology is still a very new concept in Africa, even though the use of it has been introduced by various means, the most common form being the use of photovoltaics.  In Mali, very few people can afford this type of solar energy use because of the expense involved. 

The solar cooker model Dave and I decided on was a simple design made out of materials that were affordable and widely available locally which reportedly functioned well in Ecuador and Kenya.  The cooker design was a plywood box with aluminum on the inside four walls for reflection, a piece of tin painted black at the bottom of the box, and two pieces of glass on top with a door on the front side.  A board was attached to the top with hinges and foil on the inside which served as a reflector of the sun rays into the box .

For the project to work effectively, local people had to be trained to build the cookers.  Dave provided much of the explanation to the carpenters and the metalsmith, while I translated into French and the local language, Bambara.  The local carpenters were smart enough to quickly understand and within two weeks we had our first cookers built.  Before we distributed the cookers to be used, training of users and the education of key personnel were completed.  We were assisted by the media (newspaper and radio) and different organizations on the local level.


The structure of the Malian family and the basic diet were two major hurdles our project faced.  This is why we tried to target small and educated families (10 people or less) to start with.  We involved some of the community leaders, administration officials, government environmental workers, and a volunteer organization to help with some of the decision making with regards to how the cookers should be distributed.

Upon my return to Mali, I was able to contact some of the same individuals who were a part of the process in distributing the cookers to Malian families and some of the families who had received the cookers for use.  We discussed:

How often the cookers were used

The problems with use

The durability of the cooker

What the cookers were used for

The use of the cookers were dependent on the season, even though the number of sun days is very high.  The seasonal effect has to do with the intensity of the sun, and the daily activities of the family focused on the women who were the primary users of the cookers.  I found out that the cookers were most often used between 11:00 in the morning and 4:00 in the afternoon when the sun was most intense and the women were home to prepare the early afternoon meal.  Due to the time and temperature needed to cook, the cooker use was limited to miscellaneous cooking rather than for full meal preparation. 

As with any project, success can only build on the problems discovered.  During visits to several of the families, I would find with disappointment the cooker to be sitting in some corner of a room.  In conversation with the individuals who received the cooker, I quickly learned that the cookers had some problems with functionality:

The ever presence of dust constantly settled between the two pieces of glass, and thus cleaning was very impractical on a daily basis.  As a result of the need for cleaning, glass, being an uncommon and expensive material, was not easily handled and breakage was a common problem.  This problem could possibly been avoided by sealing the glass with silicone, which we chose not to use because we only wanted utilize materials available in country.

Most families were not using the proper cooking pots or pans.  The cookware was either not properly painted black on the outside or was too heavy for proper heat convection. Users had been trained to use light weight aluminum pots painted black, but they simply chose to use what they had, perhaps as a result of their limited financial resources and our inability to follow up.

In a few cases, the cookers were not properly stored when not in use. 

The dry, hot, and windy Sahelian environment of Mali combined with a three month rainy season, were elements that truly tested the durability of the cooker construction.  Of the cookers I observed, the wood (local plywood), cardboard, and metal used in construction held up very well.  The aluminum foil used for reflection did not hold up in the environment in which it was used.  The foil would become ripped or dirty, thus losing its reflectivity over time.  The ever present harmattan winds created a problem with the lid staying propped open.  In many cases the hinges actually fell off the cooker frame. Again, perhaps repairs and adjustments could have been made with a more persistent follow-up.

Also, we chose the foil because it was in country, available, and not breakable. Perhaps some sort of imported reflective metal would have been more sustainable.  

The cookers were limited to uses that depended mainly on cooking time, type of food in the Malian diet, and the time of year.  I estimate that approximately 80% of the cookers being used were heating water.  Very few families truly used the cookers to cook a full meal. Besides heating water, I found that the cookers had been used for:  cooking rice, cassava, sweet potato, fish, bread, and even a birthday cake made by my Portland Malian friends, Ronna and Wague, who were visiting Mali also during the time I was there!

Through the cooker project, I have learned so much with regards to implementing a small scale project in a developing country:

Phases of the project must be continually tracked by the project originators within the country of the project.  It was very difficult to return after one year with limited means, and follow-up with individuals and families. In addition, it should be noted that we placed 15 cookers with the US Peace Corps for the express purpose of obtaining follow-up information, along with continuous tracking. They never replied to our numerous inquiries. Other local organizations did not provide follow-up information either.

The beneficiaries of the project should provide or participate materially in the project.  Without materially being involved, there is no incentive to keep up the level of interest or participation in the project. Again we hoped that the Peace Corps and local organizations would assist us here in exchange for the cookers, information, and training we supplied, but they did not.

Due to limited time and availability of resources to conduct the project, I believe it would have been more effective to focus the project within one area at time. This would have made both follow-up and implementation easier.

Use of in country materials for the purpose of attaining sustainability is an interesting premise as a guideline. However, a little imported silicon or even some more durable reflective material, even if imported, would have helped.

A faster cooking device such as a parabolic may have found more widespread use, given the fact that in areas where wood is still available, wood cooks much faster than the box design. People generally want new things to work faster and better than existing technology.

The cooker project provided me with such a great opportunity to work with people in my home country and to learn about the use of solar energy  projects in developing countries, and the management of project funds. I am glad that we helped begin the education process about solar energy for some of my people, and that we actually provided gainful employment for many of them. I would like to thank Dave Berger, Lloyd Marbet, the Oregon Conservancy Foundation board, and the people of Mali who helped us through the project.

In the end , I would like to thank Homepower for sharing our experiences with others. Hopefully, we can learn from each others mistakes and future projects will move from the realm of limited success to that of complete success. Perhaps future projects will include more follow-up evaluation work.