Nelson Mandela’s Microwave | DW-RADIO | DW | 29.08.2002
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Nelson Mandela’s Microwave

Thanks to support by Germany’s development agency GTZ, many households in South Africa are turning to the sun to prepare their food.


Chicken stew tastes better with a touch of sunshine.

In all developing countries, the traditional source of energy for cooking is firewood. But in many regions, and particularly in the dry areas of Africa, firewood is becoming increasingly rare.

People often need to travel long distances to find fuel. Trees and bushes are being cut down, putting increasing pressure on the environment.

But there is a cost-effective and highly efficient solution to the problem, at least for people living in parts of the world where there is intense sunshine: solar cookers. Germany’s Society for Technical Co-operation GTZ is helping to promote such cookers in South Africa.

They are helping the poor save time and money – and using the clean renewable energy of the sun also helps save the environment.

A stove in the sun

In the Hududi township, near Vryburg in South Africa’s Northwest Province, Anna Motsewabona opens a device that looks like a heavily-loaded suitcase. But, it’s actually an instrument to cook her food.

"I simply put it out to face the sun. Then, I have to keep tasting the food to see if it’s cooked or not," she says.

Motsewabona is one of a growing number of women who have changed to the new technology of solar cookers. Not only that, her new "stove" helps her save time. "I’m able to do my washing while the pots are cooking."

For most of her 70 years of life, Motswewabona cooked with wood, coal or paraffin. She now has electricity in her house. But even though electrification has improved people’s lives, many still find the costs of using it too high.

A change of lifestyle

Kochen mit Solarenergie

Solar Lunch

Many families have turned to solar cookers as a cheaper solution. The partnership behind this initiative involves Germany’s GTZ and the South African Department of Minerals and Energy.

GTZ project manager Eberhard Biermann says they’ve had to overcome some mental blocks with regards to the idea of cooking with sunlight. In Vryburg, the society invited local housewives to talk about this.

"We discussed the matter, if the sun is shining what is it doing for the family," Biermann told DW-RADIO’s Shepi Mati. "It can dry the washing, the sun can dry fruits, it can dry your body if you were in the water and all that." But cooking with the sun did not cross the womens’ minds. And, when Biermann asked if they could imagine it, they all laughed at him.

The process of winning acceptance for a new technology requires patience. Biermann says the most critical point is when people see how solar cookers can change their day-to-day lives.

"Only if they burned their fingers, if they saw the bubbles coming out of the pot when the soup was cooking. Only then did they slowly start to understand and believe," he says. "That is the process. You cannot force it, you must support it in the form of demonstrations and cook-ins."

An alternative choice

Seven types of solar stoves have been introduced in South Africa. With more than 800 sold so far, four models are clearly the most popular.

Richard Palmer, the managing director of Palmer Development Consulting, has conducted field testing of the cookers. He says one of the most popular brands is the T16. "This cooker would take cooking oil to about 185 degrees and you’d cook a meal for a family of six within an hour," Palmer says.

The components for the T16 stove are made in Germany. The panels are laser cut and folded. But the stove is actually made locally. The South African assembly plant is a company called Lightweight Technologies in Pretoria.

One of the retailers of the solar stoves is Pretoria-based Sunelectricity. Richard Maleka is the technical manager and has been selling solar cookers for more than five years. He is enthusiastic about the range of models he has on sale.

"The most popular one is the T-16, with its size and its compatibility," Maleka says. "It’s easy to just put in the boot of a car. And it’s not only for the rural people. I’m also a user of a T16 in my house."

The solar cooker has come to stay in the kitchens of Vryburg. It has not come to replace the electric stove, or paraffin heater. It simply gives people another choice. Perhaps the best indication of how South Africans are laying claim to this new technology is the story of the nicknames people are giving to the units.

"Once, we went to the field, and one lady said, look this is a Mandela microwave," says GTZ’s Biermann. "From that time on, we always say this is our Mandela’s microwave. I hope one day we meet him and we will tell him the story and he will laugh at it."

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