At 6am, Josphat Nafula in Bumoni village Manafwa District puts a fistful of tsikhu (seasoned firewood) in her three stone traditional stove.
The wood catches fire; a cloud of smoke and ash rises, resting beneath the grass-thatched roof of her kitchen. Nafula launches into a coughing fit. Her daily routine has started.
A July 27 report by WHO on household air pollution and health estimates that around 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal and that more than 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributed to household air pollution arising from cooking with solid fuels. And that hours spent gathering wood robs families of time and energy needed for education and work.
The Manafwa natural resources officer who doubles as the district environment officer Sarah Bisikwa says in that part of the country due to the high demand for wood fuel, deforestation has taken its toll, soils have been degraded and soil habitats been destroyed.
Bisikwa says women who cook with firewood in this part of the country face many obstacles, such as poor health and malnutrition, lack of transportation, illiteracy, ingrained social attitudes about their roles and potential, and resistance to change from beneficiaries of the status quo.
“The area is highly-populated and like many other places in the district, is scantly wooded which poses a challenge of getting firewood the only source of energy for cooking,” says Bisikwa.
She says most residents are poor, mainly cultivators and that in some homes, like Nafula’s they rear a few goats, cows, chicken and pigs for sustenance.
And realising that lack of firewood is a serious challenge in the community, African Research Development initiatives (ARDI), a local NGO started a project to provide alternative source of energy for cooking called Cookit to save the environment from being destroyed.
A cookit is a cardboard foil shaped paper with silver inside meant to reflect maximum sunlight into a black cooking pot covered with a black cover. This process converts sunlight into thermal energy as the pot stores and allows heat to hit the pot thereby cooking anything in the pot.
Joseph Weyusya the executive director ARDI says although people, especially women, who cook are aware of alternative sources of fuel for cooking, this had not lessened the challenge of lack of firewood nor has it stopped the culture of cutting down trees for wood fuel.
“People are still cutting down trees for firewood and according to the residents, this is the traditional source of firewood passed on from generation to generation,” said Weyusya.
According to Weyusya, it has saved the little trees that are still standing and eased cooking.
“Traditional three stone stoves have been replaced and families can now cook food in less than 45 minutes,” Weyusya boasts.
“The cookit cooks food and preserves nutrients without burning or drying out. And larger families use two or more cookers,” says Weyusya.
Weyusya says Cookit has addressed fuel wood scarcities by saving more than four times its value in fuel wood each year. “And with careful use and storage, a Cookit can be used for two years, reducing fuel wood consumption and reducing pressure on forests for firewood and charcoal.
Nafula says in her home the Cookit cooking process is smokeless and has reduced respiratory and eye irritation, “My food now is smokeless and nutritious,” adds Nafula.
Dr Gideon Wamasebu, the district health officer Manafwa District, says food prepared on Cookit retain vitamins, nutrients and their natural flavours. There is no smoky taste; the foods cook slowly in their own juices.
“And nutritious, slow-cooking of traditional foods like beans, root crops, and some grains makes them the nutrients so much desired by the families,” said Dr Wamasebu.
Maureen Nekesa says the Cookit frequent reports indicate that the money saved on cooking fuel purchases is used for many essentials, such as food, school requirements for children, and medical care. “I don’t gather wood or dung, breathe smoke, and tend a fire because all these are associated with traditional cooking, Cookit is easy and safe for all people; the elderly, disabled and young,” says Nekesa.
Ndeko Nangai, a private businessman and a member of Eastern Private Sector Development Centre (EPSEDEC) said solar cooking using the Cookit represents a new opportunity for women to capitalise on an underserved market and better meet their own cooking energy needs
“Solar cooking saves time as there is less need to tend a fire or collect firewood and a person can cook while at work, at the market, or tending crops. And the young girls can attend school instead of searching for fuel wood,” says Nangai.
How the device works
According to Leerlooijer, a cookit is made of cardboard and foil shaped to reflect maximum sunlight onto a black cooking pot that converts sunlight into thermal (heat) energy.
A heat-resistant bag (or similar transparent cover) surrounds the pot, acting like a greenhouse by allowing sunlight to hit the pot and black saucepan and preventing heat from escaping. It weighs half a kilogram and folds to the size of a big book for easy transport.
A Cookit lets the UV light rays in and then converts them to longer infrared light rays that cannot escape and infrared radiation has the right energy to make the water, fat and protein molecules in food vibrate vigorously and heat up.
“It is not the sun’s heat that cooks the food, nor is it the outside ambient temperature, though this can somewhat affect the rate or time required to cook, but rather it is the sun’s rays that are converted to heat energy that cook the food; and this heat energy is then retained by the pot and the food by the means of a covering or lid,” says Leerlooijer.
She adds that an effective solar cookit will use the energy of the sun to heat a cooking vessel and efficiently retain the energy (heat) for maximum cooking effectiveness.
A cookit was introduced in Holland in 1994 by a volunteer group of engineers and solar cooks associated with Solar Cookers International. The group developed and produced the Cookit, based on a design by French scientist Roger Bernard. Joanne Leerlooijer from Adopteer een Geit (adopt a goat), an NGO in Holland through ARDI introduced Cookits to Uganda in 2015 to complement other cooking fuels including wood to replace traditional open fires between three stones.
Leerlooijer says it is elegant and deceptively simple looking, it is an affordable, effective and convenient solar cooker with a few hours of sunshine, the Cookit makes tasty meals for 5-6 people at gentle temperatures.
Additional reporting by agencies