Interesting story on a Michigan State University project to help test and improve locally made solar cookers in Tanzania:

MSU students’ re-engineered ovens help impoverished in Tanzania

When Judy Martin worked as a teacher in Tanzania in the 1960s, living conditions for many people were harsh.

Impoverished women there walked long distances in search of firewood or spent precious money on inefficient charcoal for cooking.

They prepared family meals over open fires.

Martin returned to Tanzania in 2001 and found that the population had nearly quadrupled — making firewood even more scarce — but little else had changed.

A group of nine Michigan State University students and one professor recently spent their spring break in southern Tanzania, building ovens alongside the people who will use them.

Solar Circle is one of many such groups promoting the use of solar ovens in Third World nations wrestling with environmental issues, including deforestation.

A solar oven is basically a box equipped with a glass lid and a thermometer.

The cook flips up its shiny solar collectors around its edges to focus the sun’s heat on the food box, which provides clean, even heat for cooking meat, vegetables and even bread.

Solar ovens can be made small enough to carry on a bicycle or large enough to feed an entire school.

At first, Martin and her Solar Circle companions focused their efforts on buying American-made ovens and transporting them to Tanzania, focusing on the Masasi district in southern Tanzania.

‘We are so many’

But one day a Tanzanian woman attending a solar cooking demonstration perfectly summed up the problem with that: “How could you bring so few?” she asked. “We are so many.”

So Solar Circle began to focus and refine its mission. The goal was to build ovens using materials that can be obtained in Tanzania.

MSU students worked on designing ovens, creating computer models to predict how they would perform. They calculated appropriate angles for solar collector plates. They attempted to configure collectors made of used aluminum printing plates, which are readily available in Tanzania, but not as shiny as commercially made collector plates.

During spring break, they went to Tanzania to build and test prototypes.

Tanzanian made

Building them in Tanzania is economical, too. It costs $215 to buy one manufactured in the United States and send it there, Martin said, versus about $100 to produce and distribute them in Tanzania.

The ovens primarily are subsidized by Solar Circle, which sells them to Tanzanians for $20 each. The per capita income of Tanzania was $340 in 2004, the last year for which such information was available, according to the World Bank. The economy is heavily dependent on agriculture.