Solar ovens let low-income Indians to cook with clean, free energy
An unexpected gift received while interning at a clean energy company got a new idea brewing in the mind of Vishaka Chandhere.
"It was a turning point in my life. Once I saw how solar cookers impact all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), I knew this could affect monumental change for millions of people and our environment and I wanted to be a part of it,” says Chandhere.
After learning more about the merits of solar-powered cookstoves – and having a positive experience in using hers – Chandhere decided to launch Orjabox, a start-up headquartered in Maharashtra, India, that helps women cook safely by teaching them how to capture heat energy from the Sun.
Cooking practices in India
Despite a massive government plan to roll out liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) across India as a cleaner fuel, increasing evidence shows that it does not align well with reality, in terms of availability, affordability, personal preferences and cultural norms.
India has the world’s largest concentration of people using traditional biomass with inefficient stoves for cooking: ~840 million citizens rely fully or partially on such fuels, according to a 2016 report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
Many of these households depend on finite and unpredictable sources of income, and must meet their energy needs (as all other household needs) within these financial constraints. As a result, they turn to energy sources they perceive to be ‘free’ such as firewood and dung.
On average, 85% of household fuelwood supply in India goes to cooking, says the Food and Agriculture Organization. In rural areas, up to 63% of households continue to use firewood, dung cakes and agricultural residue as the primary fuel for cooking, according to the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a not-for-profit policy research institution.
As cooking is mainly carried out by women, they play an important role in managing domestic energy needs. Women and children bear much of the burden of collecting firewood or other traditional fuels -- and are disproportionally affected by negative health impacts linked to its use.
In 2019, women and children accounted for a large share of nearly 600 000 deaths (in India alone) attributed to indoor air pollution linked to cooking with biomass, as per the Global Burden of Disease Study.
Overcoming negative perceptions of a new product
"Solar cookstoves are completely carbon-neutral unlike other so-called clean cooking devices. There are no emissions at all, except for the ones that have gone into the making of the solar box”, says Chandhere.
While some emissions arise during the production of solar cookers, their operation is carbon-free. But the promise of a smaller carbon footprint is not necessarily a key selling point in markets she is trying to reach. Instead, she focuses on other benefits.
In part, that means educating women about the reality that every cooking technology comes with certain limitations, and helping them see how solar cooking fits into their cooking options and their lifestyles. Most solar cookers achieve temperatures similar those of a slow cooker or Crockpot and are suitable for leaving food to simmer over long periods of time. Often, it is pointed out that they ‘free’ women from tending the fire to cook curries or other stew-like meals. Other solar cookers can reach very high heat and cook things that need to be boiled (such as rice) in minutes rather than hours.
"We are not saying that solar cooker will replace wood or LPG completely,” says Chandhere. “What we're saying is part of solar cooking will be helpful to you. Solar cookers give you a time management service.”
An example she gives is that women who need to go work in the fields can put their food in the solar cookers in the morning. When they return in the evening, the food is well on its way to being ready. In addition to cutting cooking time when they are tired, Chandhere says it also means they use far less wood or dung and avoid having to go collect or prepare these traditional sources.
But there are differences in how things cook and how they taste. For some foods, such as rotis (a flatbread staple of the North Indian diet), a smoky taste is desirable for most people. As a result, solar cooking has not enjoyed the same popularity as other cleaner cooking alternatives such as LPG.
To overcome the perception problems and build up her business, Chandhere has trained more than 1,500 women on the use and benefits of solar cooking, each of whom becomes a trainer to others in their communities.
If carefully promoted, Chandhere believes solar cooking can reduce the danger in unsafe cooking and, by freeing up their time, empower them to do other things. Over time, scaling up solar cooking will also prevent the felling of thousands of trees, thereby reducing deforestation that contributes to worsening heat stress and natural disasters.
Saving lives, one solar cookstove at a time
Globally, nearly 3 billion people still cook over wood, animal waste or charcoal fires, according to the World Health Organization. Many, including babies strapped to their mothers’ backs, inhale smoke and soot for hours every day. Or they rely on expensive, unsustainable fossil fuels.
To help poor people use cleaner fuels, including solar cookstoves, Chandhere has designed a pilot project called Orjaksham, which means 'energy enabled'.
"Our idea is that anyone who wants to have an emission free cooking should be able to have access to the cleanest stack of cooking, irrespective of whether you are rich or poor", says Chandhere.
"Wherever there is a scope to work on these lines, we are happy to work, even if the president wants to use solar cooker, we are happy to help with that.”
Thanks to her success in India, Chandhere now has plans to expand Orjabo into other parts of Asia including Pakistan and "wherever possible".