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With Solar Oven, Kenyan Women Bake Their Way to Better Life

  • Reuters

FILE - A solar oven is displayed at a World Conservation Congress in Barcelona. A smaller modified version is now in use in Kenyan communities.

FILE - A solar oven is displayed at a World Conservation Congress in Barcelona. A smaller modified version is now in use in Kenyan communities.

In this rural village in Kilifi County, on Kenya's east coast, a group of women run a thriving bakery. On a good day, they make dozens of large cakes and over 100 cupcakes.

And they don't even have a kitchen oven.

Instead, the members of the Imani Women Group bake their cakes using only a wooden box and the sun. They earn enough money to help support their families and send their children to school.

Constructed out of timber, leather and foil, the box can bake cakes in about two hours without electricity or charcoal.

It works by trapping the heat of the sun, essentially turning the box into a mobile oven.

For the 22 members of the women's group - whose name "Imani" is the Swahili word for "faith" - the simple wooden box has become a source of empowerment and income, securing livelihoods and transforming families.

The group started its baking business in 2014, as part of an initiative by German development group Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung (German World Population Fund) to boost women entrepreneurs in the village.

Magic box

Group members approached a local carpenter, who built them a box oven for 15,000 shillings (around $150).

About the size of a large suitcase, the box is lined with black leather and fitted with a top layer of foil. The foil reflects the sun's rays into the box, where the heat is absorbed by the thick leather lining. A glass lid creates an airtight seal that keeps in the heat.

While baking, the women keep moving the box to ensure it faces the sun. On a bright day, they can produce up to 150 cupcakes, which they sell for 10 shillings (10 cents) each, and 30 bigger cakes that go for 200 shillings ($2) each.

The chairwoman of the Imani group, Hadija Betinga, describes the bakery as green, cost-effective and convenient.

"Had we been using firewood or charcoal for baking, the story would have been different as operating costs would be high," she said. "And we would be polluting the environment."

According to the 2005 Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey, taken every 10 years, limited access to electricity means about seven of every 10 rural households in Kilifi County rely on kerosene for lighting, and wood or charcoal for cooking.

Over-dependence on wood is a problem in a country that already consumes about 6,850 metric tons of charcoal daily, which translates into an estimated 2.5 million tons of unsustainably harvested wood each year, according to a 2013 survey by the World Agroforestry Center.

Cash and education

Sustainable cake-making is proving lucrative. On a sunny day each group member can earn up to 300 shillings, money that many have used to start other businesses.

And by selling clothing or rearing poultry, the women can supplement their incomes when the weather is too cloudy to bake.

Taking advantage of Msumarini village's lush coconut plantations, the group also uses its solar oven to process natural coconut oil, which it sells at 500 shillings per half liter.

A mix of grated coconut and water is placed in the box and left for two days to melt. The mixture separates into water and a layer of floating oil, which the women skim off to package and sell.

With the proceeds from their businesses, most of the group's members are able to help their spouses support their families, and give their daughters what most of them never had: an education.

"Most school-going girls around here get pregnant and drop out, but with the little income we get we are able to keep our children in school," said 38-year-old baker Anzanzi Kifwete.

The group is already changing long-held prejudices in the community, members said.

"Initially our husbands would never let us go to the group meetings, dismissing them as just a chance to gossip," said chairwoman Betinga. "But they have now seen the benefits and they remind us daily not to be late for the meetings."

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