Recent Msc in Environmental Policy and Regulation graduate, Isabella Troconis, tells us about her dissertation research on the potential of solar cooking in the Goudoubo Refugee Camp in Burkina Faso. 

(Featured image: Demonstration of blazing tube use in Saag-Nionigo camp (c) UNHCR 2015)

Can you imagine taking an average of five hours to cook just one meal or walking 20 km a day to get access to energy? Most of us would consider it unconceivable. However, there are over one billion people worldwide today who don’t have access to electricity and three billion without access to clean cooking; with women’s lives being most affected by the latter.

Last summer during my field research in Burkina Faso, I met Tikna, a 94-year old refugee woman from Mali who has lived in the Goudoubo refugee camp for the past four years. Despite facing difficult living conditions, she was optimistic and proud of being a survivor of her country’s tumultuous history: Mali’s independence in 1960 and revolution in 2012 (see photo 1). Before coming to Goudoubo, Tikna had only cooked on a 3-rock cooking fire, so imagining herself cooking on a modern and clean cook stove was a true novelty.

Image 1: Tikna and I during interview in Goudoubo

When I asked her what object made her life easier in the camp, she pointed at her cookstove. Tikna told me that she no longer fears getting bitten by snakes thanks to her cookstove as it doesn’t require her to walk for hours in the forest to fetch for firewood. She is also relieved that her new cookstove allowed her to rest while cooking instead of using most of her energy to prepare her daily meal.

Background

Refugee camps were originally conceived as an emergency response but, in many contexts have turned into protracted situations. They are often ill-equipped and geographically isolated, failing to meet the basic needs of refugees. Like water and shelter, refugees’ energy needs are a long-term necessity for survival and development.

Moreover, refugees are particularly vulnerable when it comes to energy access: 80 percent of displaced populations lack access to electricity and spend over 33% of their total income on firewood and charcoal for cooking, heating and lighting. At the same time, they depend on humanitarian aid to access basic needs such as water, shelter and energy.

Energy for cooking is considered a gendered issue because women in Sub-Saharan Africa are mainly responsible for cooking and collecting energy fuels, which represents an opportunity cost for them in terms of time, drudgery, and safety.

The international community has included the goal of Sustainable Energy For All in the heart of the 2030 Development Agenda and is taking action to tackle the challenge of energy access to refugees by collaborating across sectors. An encouraging example is the Strategy For Safe Access To Fuel And Energy (SAFE) aimed at securing sustainable energy provision in refugee camps in Africa and Asia since 2013. However, refugees still face severe challenges to access fuels and technology to meet their basic energy needs.

Solar energy for cooking: a broken promise?

I was particularly interested in exploring the potential of solar energy technologies as they are widely praised as the most viable long-term solution for Africa. However, solar cookers have not enjoyed the same popularity in refugee camps as other solar energy solutions, such as the Pico lanterns, water pumps or solar home systems.

For my masters dissertation research, I chose a particular case study within the SAFE strategy programme: the Blazing Tube (BT) solar cookers (see image 2) in Goudoubo Refugee Camp in the Sahel between 2013-2016, which was not particularly successful (see photo 3). To do so, I went to Burkina Faso and interned with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), conducting field research for five weeks. By interviewing the end-users – in this case the Malian refugee women living in Goudoubo – I sought to understand the reasons that prevented them from adopting the BT in the long-term.

Image 2: Map of Burkina Faso with Refugee Camps. See Goudoubo in the North-East (source: UNHCR)

Image 3: Broken Blazing Tubes in Goudoubo

In 2013, the UNHCR introduced two solar cookers, the devos cooker and the BT. The first was immediately rejected by the refugees, while the BT enjoyed relatively high levels of acceptance in its first year. Most refugee recipients accepted the BT because it was free, although it’s adoption rate remained low: the average number of uses only ranges between 15 and 20 times. One year after the BT were distributed, only 2% of recipients in Goudoubo camp are still using them as a secondary option for cooking, with none choosing to use them as the primary option.

Barriers:

During my stay in the camp, I found most BT with missing parts outside of refugees’ tents and I never witnessed someone cooking with it. Based on the data collected by interviewing 25 refugee women, 2 refugee leaders and 12 experts, as well as carrying out two focus groups with refugee women, I identified the following barriers to long-term adoption of the solar cookers:

  • Misleading size: Although the BT is significantly bigger than the rest of the cookstoves in the camp, it does not mean it can cook bigger portions. UNHCR distributed the BT to households with over 5 members with the idea that women would be able to cook for all their household members more efficiently. However, the pots that fit in the BT are actually smaller and women needed at least two shifts (hence double the time and effort compared with other cookstoves) to prepare their meals.
  • Fuel expenses and reliability: While the Sahel has many sunny days, they also experience some cloudy weather. Thus, solar cookers did not prove to be reliable enough for refugee women to reduce their biomass fuels consumption, and consequently, their expenses. In contrast to women who received Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) cookstoves and reduced their biomass dependency by 50 percent, refugee women who owned solar cookers continued to depend on biomass fuels for cooking as much as they did before receiving the BT for free. More worrying is the fact that UNHCR stopped providing firewood for free to refugees as of the beginning of 2017, which has provoked an increase of households’ expenses in biomass fuels. Most refugee women reported spending over 30 percent of their income to meet their energy needs.
  • Climate Change considerations:  Most women’s worries about environmental issues only concerned deforestation. As a result, they acknowledge their firewood collection practices and their negative effects to the environment. During the focus groups, every refugee women shared the same perception that solar cookers were less environment-friendly than LPG stoves. According to them, solar cookers failed to reduce their dependency on firewood because they still needed firewood to keep the cooker warm. They were not familiar with Green House Gas emissions and their effects on global warming.
  • Food taste and preparation time: Women’s constant inability to cook wellfood items, such as beans, meat or maize, was a fundamental barrier. Refugee women reported feeling comfortable with solar cooker when cooking rice or sauce, otherwise they reported spending too much time preparing a meal.
  • Intra-household conflicts: refugee women spouses’ dislike the taste of food prepared with the BT which prompted marriage problems and even divorce threats. Thus, women preferred to dismiss the solar cooker to prevent an increase of tensions with their partners.
  • Fuels preferences: Malian women reported having a fuel preference for each of the food items that were part of their diet. For example, they would always keep charcoal at hand just for their tea and preferred firewood for the meat and beans. They only voiced their preference for solar energy for boiling water.

Policy implications:

My research sought to build a bridge between the solar cookers end-users and tech developers to provide meaningful feedback and more detailed social factors that can be used by solar cooker developers to improve the existing technology for the refugee camp context.

Despite all barriers identified by solar cooker owners, it is evident that they can be overcome by small design changes (i.e. size or work around taste changes) and increase of existing trainings. While women seemed open about giving solar cookers a second chance, it would be interesting to further explore their willingness to change their cooking habits.

Finally, UNHCR and its partners should consider carrying-out a baseline study and consult with certifying bodies, such as Solar Cookers International, to choose more wisely a cooker type that best fits the social, cultural and environmental needs of a specific refugee community as well as camp. Although refugee camps are perceived as short-term solutions to displacement, we must accept that they are slowly turning into permanent cities. Given the uncontested popularity of LPG in Goudoubo (100% of surveyed women chose the LPG stove as their top choice) but inescapable LPG scarcity in the country, an appropriate model of solar cookers can potentially fill the gap left by LPG or even better, solve Goudoubo’s fuel crisis.

I will share my findings and recommendations to the solar cooking community in Consolfood 2018.


Isabella Troconis (@isatroconis) graduated from an Msc in Environmental Policy and Regulation at the London School of Economics. Isabella has 5 years of experience in developing, implementing and evaluating renewable energy, entrepreneurship and humanitarian projects. Isabella has worked and collaborated with organizations, such as the Organization of American States, World Bank and United Nations as well as start-ups and NGOs in Europe, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. You can view Isabella’s LinkedIn profile here. 

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.