Do you dislike slaving over a hot stove in summer?

Would you like to use less electricity, whether for environmental or financial reasons – or both?

If your answer is “yes”, read on…

One of my best purchases has been a solar stove or “Sunstove” via Sungravity.com.  After seeing a demonstration at a Girl Guide Leaders’ training camp I was sold on the idea and ordered one immediately.  It arrived in March and with regular use my enthusiasm has only grown.

Richard Wareham from the USA designed and sponsored the costs of the first Sunstoves in South Africa in the early 90s.  He linked up with Margaret Bennet, who was trying to develop a low-cost solar cooker which could be used in Southern Africa’s rural areas via the Girl Guide Association.  Together they have developed the present Sunstove, which is considered one of the best thermal cookers worldwide.  It is robust, durable and UV resistant. As it only weighs 5 kg it can easily be moved by one person and can be hung up on a hook when not in use.  The casing is made out of recycled plastic and the inner surfaces out of used lithographic printing plates, with the bottom one painted black for heat absorption.  Only the perspex lid is made from virgin material.  The fact that the cooker is made mainly with recycled materials is not only advantageous environmentally, but also keeps the cost down.

It was developed mainly for rural communities, where much of women’s and girls’ lives are spent gathering firewood.  Gathering firewood contributes to deforestation, soil erosion and the decreasing fertility of soil.  The time spent cooking is also reduced, as the food needs to be stirred only once – if at all.  Traditional foods such as mealie meal, samp and beans are very well suited to solar cooking. Solar cooking frees the women and girls to pursue other projects, eg. furthering their education, planting vegetable gardens or running a small business.  Surveys have shown a positive attitude towards the Sunstove in rural areas.  More than 18 000 units have been sold, which amounts to the organisation having a significant impact with regards empowering rural women and caring for the environment.

Cooking is best done in the middle of the day, ie. between 10h00 and 15h00, and can be done whenever the sunlight is strong enough to cast a shadow and shines for approximately half the time.  It needs to be done in black pots or baking pans, or black baking trays.  “Potjies” with legs do not work, but flat-bottomed cast iron black pots are ideal.  Sungravity.com used to supply thin-walled black pots, but they are unfortunately unavailable at present as the Bulowayan factory has ground to a halt.  The ever resourceful Margaret Bennet had heavy duty foil made which is black on the one side and is used to cover baking trays, pots and lids and is almost endlessly reusable. She now supplies this with each Sunstove. 

When cooking, you will need to point the stove in the direction of the sun: you can either set it where you estimate the direction of the sun shall be at midday or point it straight to the sun and turn it every two to three hours.  It is big enough to cook for six persons. Dishes that do well are slow-cooking grains such as rice and mealie meal.  I have cooked delicious stews and chicken dishes in it, with the meat becoming succulent and tender.  Waterblommetjiebredie worked well on a sunny winter day.  One can even bake bread and cakes in it, as the temperature can reach up to 172˚C. 

For my daughter’s 21st birthday I was commissioned to make 120 meringues and I produced much better ones in the Sunstove than the electric oven!   Seeing is believing. See the photo of meringues baking to the right. The only things that have not worked very well are pastries, as they require a higher temperature.  Pasta does not cook well on its own, but can be included in other dishes.  Less water is required for cooking, and care must be taken not to overcook vegetables such as broccoli.  When the sun is gone, the Sunstove can be used as a “hot box” by placing a twice-folded blanket over the lid.  

There are other advantages.  Food cannot burn.  See photo of  sundried tomatoes solar stove style. I have overcooked food on very hot days by not taking it out soon enough, it cannot turn black.  The pots are easy to clean as food does not cake to the sides.  Although you do need to have some preparation time in the morning or early afternoon, less time is actually spent cooking as you seldom need to stir the food.  Solar cooking cannot cause fires: that and its cost effectiveness should make it a preferable cooking method in informal settlement areas.  As it is a box in which other things can be packed, it does not take up much space and can be taken with when camping or caravanning.

There are a few disadvantages that apply specifically to our area.  Using the Sunstove is dependent on the whims of our fickle Cape weather.  The lid flaps up and down in a strong Southeaster, and can blow off altogether in strong wind.  In fact, if only a small pot of food is in it, the wind can blow the whole cooker along, and it will need to be weighed down with black-painted rocks.  The best place to cook would be in a sheltered sunny spot.

Although we have the occasional baboon in Fish Hoek, I have yet to see one of these wily animals use oven gloves. No doubt a burnt paw will discourage them from investigating the food being cooked on a Solarstove.

Cooking does tend to take a little longer, and temperature control is not as exact as with a conventional stove.  One soon gets the hang of it!

The amazing thing is that a Sunstove only costs R295, postage excluded.  It is distributed at little more than cost price so that most South Africans can afford one, and any funds generated are ploughed back into production.  Sungravity.com is a non-profit organisation run on a shoestring budget, thus marketing is done only via word of mouth and volunteer demonstrations.

Sunstoves are light enough to be sent by parcel mail.  As they are stackable, four can be sent in one parcel to reduce costs.  They can be ordered from Margaret Bennet from www.sungravity.com.  She can be e-mailed at sunstove@iafrica.com.

More information on the Sunstove can be found on the Internet: google “Sunstove“ or have a look at the following websites:

 http://www.scienceinafrica/co.za/3cookerhtm

http://www.sungravity.com/solar_cooking_overview.html

http://up.ac.za/academic/phys/sunstove/why.html

Happy solar cooking!

Eva van Belle