Interview with Luis Pazos and Robins Ocheng Odiyo, solar cooking in Kenya

Friday October 13th, 2017 - Smart Villages

Luis Pazos and Robins Ocheng Odiyo, Co-founders, SV Graduate Research Forum – solar cooking in Kenya

Location: Berkeley, California and Kilgiros/ Kericho, Kenya

“Some people are still coming up to me, not believing that you can cook without fire”

In Kenya, the famous staple ugali is made by steadily stirring cornflour into boiling water. The team behind SV Graduate Research Forum, headed on the ground by Robins Ocheng Odiyo in Kenya, have come up with an alternative recipe to make the dish with a solar cookstove. “With solar cooking, nothing gets hot enough to allow the ugali to burn,” explains Luis Pazos in California, who co-founded the project. “We add cold water and the cornflour instantly, leaving it in the solar cookstove where it will remain warm. It’s convenient, such as for those who have to work on the farms and come home and feed their children very quickly after school.”

Odiyo is tweaking traditional recipes on different prototypes of solar cookstoves with a helping hand from his wife, From boiling eggs to cooking sweet potatoes, the goal is to first prove that the method actually works. “People have to believe in the ‘idea’ of what we are trying to set out to do,” he explains. “When the foods are familiar, using them with a solar cookstove becomes a self-marketing tool. Some people are still coming up to me, not believing that you can cook without fire.” For Odiyo, the word-of-mouth method works better with a group-based approach, rather than open-air sessions explaining how to use a solar cookstove.

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There is a variety of cookstove models tested so far. One might be lined with aluminium foil on the bottom, designed at an angle which then means moving the pot to get the best sunlight; another will be a pot placed with foam in between two boxes to retain the heat. According to Odiyo, the best design to achieve high temperatures would be one whose shape and design would not need it to be repositioned to get the best of the sun.

The SV Graduate Research Forum team, based between California and Kenya, are working from a £3000 funding round from a Smart Villages programme. The original idea between a group of students at Cambridge University in the UK, says Pazos, was around bio-gas, but was ditched quickly since it would be too complicated and expensive to run. “The solar cooking project was a more adequate approach on a smaller budget,” says Pazos. With team member José Antonio Navarro Álvarez’s background as an electrical engineer, Pazos’ solar energy experience (dealing with elements such as the physics of how to control light in solar energy), and Odiyo’s day job as a social worker, the team was ready to go.

Odiyo’s work in local communities on HIV prevention programmes has produced another challenge when it comes to devoting more time to the solar cooker project – taking time off.

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Nonetheless, it explains his desire to help the lives of other Kenyans around him. He is a natural when it comes to talking to people; and solar cooking, he again emphasises, is not the easiest concept to sell, especially since people are used to their cookstoves being fired by burning charcoal or kerosene. “People initially cannot easily accept a new idea, such as using the sun which is all around them meaningfully, but with time, they get used to the idea. Using more sustainable materials will ensure a good substitute for charcoal and the wood people are used to.” Another major challenge for the moment is supplies, says Pazos. “We need material with the proper reflective coatings.” Odiyo says it is harder to find aluminium foil in the villages, and so a trip to Nairobi is on the cards to source reflective material at an affordable rate, to then start producing solar cookers.

The team currently work out of Kericho and Kilgoris in Kenya, where Odiyo both works at the local health centre, and lives. Kericho, nicknamed ‘the bath of God’, is the rainiest Kenyan city, explains Pazos, whilst Kilgiros has the traditional savannah climate. “If we can show that our solar cooker works in both places, then it will work anywhere in Kenya.” Odiyo has higher hopes for making impact in the future. “Once the solar cookers are established, there is a higher chance of leading to more employment creation opportunities for the community – in selling the stoves, or the foodstuff.” There have been signs of this already; Odiyo mentions one member of the community, who works in county government, who is interested in partnering with the team, “which could be another opportunity to travel to more villages”. Pazos agrees. “People were very excited and were happy to pay more than we projected. One person we met sent us to a house in the countryside where we met his neighbours who were also excited about it; he wanted to work for us as a distributor across the village, and buy in bulk.”

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The team plan to continue working despite the limiting lack of access to suppliers in Kenya. “The typical university startup creates enough investment to create a factory, top-down approach,” explains Pazos. “Here, the lean startup concept works better, especially in developing countries, with a minimal viable product. You use that profit to build your company. You need a good idea, which we have, but we need the suppliers. We were offered support from Nicholas Murero of the Masai Mara Serengeti ecosystem, a very big fish in Kenya, who was happy to start a government programme.”

Whilst solar cooking is a slow process, says Pazos, its inception comes at a critical step for Kenya, what with the rising price of charcoal and environmental damage. “The Kenyan government is concerned about deforestation. It’s a good time to get our project implemented – and we have consistent, reliable people on the ground, in Robins. Although, in general,” reflects Pazos, “this is hard to find.”

-Nabeelah Shabbir, @lahnabee