News / Africa

South African Firm Aims to Supply Millions with Solar Cookers

The SunFire solar cooker allows heat from the sun to be reflected and concentrated on a central point on the dish, where food can be cooked (SunFire)The SunFire solar cooker allows heat from the sun to be reflected and concentrated on a central point on the dish, where food can be cooked (SunFire)
x
The SunFire solar cooker allows heat from the sun to be reflected and concentrated on a central point on the dish, where food can be cooked (SunFire)
The SunFire solar cooker allows heat from the sun to be reflected and concentrated on a central point on the dish, where food can be cooked (SunFire)
Darren Taylor
This is Part Four of a five-part series on Renewable Energy for Africa 
Continue to Parts:     1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5

Eleven years ago, Crosby Menzies walked away from his marketing job for The Wall Street Journal’s London office. “Financially, I was doing fine but my heart just wasn’t in my work,” he recalled. 

Solar energy champion Crosby Menzies watches a Zambian woman cooking on one of his unique cookers that are powered by the sun (Photo: Sunfire)Solar energy champion Crosby Menzies watches a Zambian woman cooking on one of his unique cookers that are powered by the sun (Photo: Sunfire)
x
Solar energy champion Crosby Menzies watches a Zambian woman cooking on one of his unique cookers that are powered by the sun (Photo: Sunfire)
Solar energy champion Crosby Menzies watches a Zambian woman cooking on one of his unique cookers that are powered by the sun (Photo: Sunfire)
Sparking his sudden decision, Menzies said, was a passion for sustainable development. “I’ve always been interested in protecting the environment and helping people live better lives. I felt I couldn’t do this by sitting behind a computer all day, every day.”
 
Menzies left England and returned to the country of his birth, South Africa. There, he studied permaculture – a form of agriculture that allows people to establish sustainable organic gardens and farms – with a view to helping schools in impoverished areas of Africa to grow their own food.
 
But a visit to Zambia sent Menzies’ life spinning yet again in a completely different direction.
 
He recalled, “I saw some women cooking food on some very rudimentary solar cookers. A light went on in my head and I thought to myself, instead of teaching people to grow healthy food, maybe I can teach them to cook healthy food.…”

Millions of people across Africa struggle every day to collect and chop wood for fires to cook their food (Photo: Sunfire)Millions of people across Africa struggle every day to collect and chop wood for fires to cook their food (Photo: Sunfire)
x
Millions of people across Africa struggle every day to collect and chop wood for fires to cook their food (Photo: Sunfire)
Millions of people across Africa struggle every day to collect and chop wood for fires to cook their food (Photo: Sunfire)
Menzies added, “A solar cooker seemed to me to be the solution to a problem that millions of poor Africans have, and that is their daily struggle to cook their food, given that most of them don’t have electricity.”
 
But, in trying to fulfill his vision, he faced a problem of his own: He didn’t know anything about solar energy technology.
 
Parabolic dishes
 
Menzies, however, wasn’t about to let his lack of knowledge stifle his will to succeed. He read all he could about solar cookers that were already being manufactured around the world. He traveled the globe, learning about the latest international solar energy technologies. For almost a decade he experimented with various designs, until he came up with his own model.
 
“It uses a parabolic [curved] dish that looks like a satellite dish. In fact it works on the same principal as a satellite dish receiving signals from space,” he said.

​But, instead of distributing signals from outer space to a television set, his foil-coated aluminum dishes distribute heat from the sun to a center point on the dish, over which food can be cooked – in much the same way as a magnifying glass can be used to concentrate heat from the sun on a piece of paper, eventually causing it to burst into flame.
 
“It’s exactly like moving fire from the sun and putting it onto your pot,” Menzies said.

A boy tends a kettle boiling one on of the parabolic cookers (Photo: Sunfire)A boy tends a kettle boiling one on of the parabolic cookers (Photo: Sunfire)
x
A boy tends a kettle boiling one on of the parabolic cookers (Photo: Sunfire)
A boy tends a kettle boiling one on of the parabolic cookers (Photo: Sunfire)
His parabolic dish cookers are mounted on tripods for stability that also permit the cooker to be moved 360 degrees, allowing users to track the sun.
 
“With the parabolic dish, you need to change its angle or position every 20 minutes or so to ensure maximum performance. This is because the sun moves every 20 minutes by a considerable degree,” said Menzies. “Every 20 minutes or 30 minutes…  you just come along and you see where your focal point is, where the sun is, and you just move it under your pot or frying pan, just to make sure you’re concentrating all of that sunlight onto the pot.”
 
He said using the cooker is very similar to using a conventional electric or gas stove, and they’re particularly well suited to almost immediate boiling and frying. “They get hot pretty fast. You could for instance start cooking on the parabolic cooker in the morning and do the tea, coffee and eggs for your children before you send them to school,” he said.
 
Slow cooking
 
Armed with a design he was convinced was “top class,” the entrepreneur decided to establish a business.

Menzies [far left] shows one of his solar cookers to villagers in Zambia (Photo: Sunfire)Menzies [far left] shows one of his solar cookers to villagers in Zambia (Photo: Sunfire)
x
Menzies [far left] shows one of his solar cookers to villagers in Zambia (Photo: Sunfire)
Menzies [far left] shows one of his solar cookers to villagers in Zambia (Photo: Sunfire)
“When I told people I wanted to start a solar cooker company, I think they all sort of knew that my plan would fail,” Menzies laughed. “I was told right at the beginning that running a solar cooker company and making it feasible and financially stable was impossible. That was in fact my inspiration for starting the company.”

​Aptly, he called his firm SunFire. Eight years later, Menzies’ products are available in 40 countries in Africa. His company is the leading distributor of solar cookers on the continent.
 
The firm has also designed solar ovens and plans to begin production soon. These are suitable for slower forms of cooking, such as stewing and roasting. They’re box-shaped, have a wooden frame and a material casing. “They work on the principle of a greenhouse for plants,” Menzies explained.
 
Reflective foil on the top of the box channels sunlight into the chamber, heating it and turning it into a “slow cooking” oven, he said. “What’s great about our ovens is that they allow unattended cooking, unlike our parabolic cookers, which have to be attended all the time because of the high temperatures they reach.”

The SunFire parabolic cookers are very good at frying food (Photo: Sunfire)The SunFire parabolic cookers are very good at frying food (Photo: Sunfire)
x
The SunFire parabolic cookers are very good at frying food (Photo: Sunfire)
The SunFire parabolic cookers are very good at frying food (Photo: Sunfire)
Menzies said users often place his solar ovens in the sun in the morning and leave home to run errands. “You would actually prepare your lunch in the morning and put it in the solar oven. Come lunchtime, you come back and your lunch is already cooked. They do not get to a temperature that can burn your food, so there’s no danger that you’re going to come back and it’s totally crisp.”
 
As the SunFire solar ovens work at very low temperatures, they won’t cause fire if left unattended, said Menzies, and food stays warm for a long time without becoming dry and unappetizing.
 
Solar cooking benefits
 
SunFire also provides training to communities that use its solar cookers.
 
“Whole streets get together and cook together for a week under our supervision and they soon get the hang of solar cooking. Then once you’re done with that you’re able to make a difference from day one. From the minute that the cookers are installed, families are starting to save money and time,” said Menzies.
 
He’s convinced that cooking by means of the sun also saves lives and protects the environment.
 
“Every year thousands of Africans lose their lives in fires caused by cheap and unstable paraffin stoves being knocked over. Many people also die from respiratory diseases caused by indoor air pollution from smoke from fires and inhaling paraffin fumes. None of this happens with solar cookers,” said Menzies.
 
He said solar cooking also eliminates the need to cut down trees for firewood and reduces carbon emissions from coal and wood burning.
 
“Everything that’s cooked with a solar cooker essentially means that some sort of a fossil fuel, or carbon-based fuel, is not being burnt,” said Menzies.
 
Seeing and eating are believing
 
Despite the success of his cookers and ovens, Menzies acknowledged that he always has a hard time convincing people that they work.
 
“It doesn’t seem to matter if it is the president of South Africa or a herd boy in Lesotho, it’s astonishing – the response is the same. And we’ve done demonstrations in Germany; we’ve done demonstrations all over the world, and people are very incredulous that food can actually be cooked with the sun,” he said.

The solar cookers are now used by people who don’t have electricity in 40 countries across Africa (Photo: Sunfire)The solar cookers are now used by people who don’t have electricity in 40 countries across Africa (Photo: Sunfire)
x
The solar cookers are now used by people who don’t have electricity in 40 countries across Africa (Photo: Sunfire)
The solar cookers are now used by people who don’t have electricity in 40 countries across Africa (Photo: Sunfire)
Menzies added that he’d shown his products to environmentalists and scientists all over the world.

“Even they struggle to believe that a chicken is being cooked with only sunlight,” he said, laughing. “The usual response from people when they see food being cooked with our solar cookers is that they start looking for the electric cable attached to our cooker. I’ve also had people who think it’s a magic show, an illusion.”
 
But, as Menzies emphasized, “Seeing – and eating – is believing! And when people see our cookers working and they taste the food, then they believe that heat from the sun can cook food….”
 
He insisted that food cooked by means of solar heating is much healthier than meals prepared using electricity and gas. “Your food is delicious, very succulent. There’s a definite change in the way that food tastes when it’s cooked with sunlight…. It just tastes better. Every single person that we’ve ever put out a solar cooker [to] has come back to us and said, ‘Wow, the food is just absolutely amazing.’”
 
Cost factor
 
But, at a cost of more than $140 for a basic solar cooker, Africa’s poor cannot afford SunFire’s products.
 
“The major challenge facing us as we try to get our products to as many Africans as possible is on the finance side of things. The people who generally see the value in the solar cookers are quite often the poorest of the poor,” said Menzies.
 
To solve this problem, he founded an NGO called Solar Cookers for Africa. “We’ll soon be ready to start reaching poor communities and providing them with cookers through donations,” he said.

Water on the boil on one of the solar cookers (Photo: Sunfire)Water on the boil on one of the solar cookers (Photo: Sunfire)
x
Water on the boil on one of the solar cookers (Photo: Sunfire)
Water on the boil on one of the solar cookers (Photo: Sunfire)
Menzies is convinced that in the near future solar cookers will become ubiquitous in Africa. He draws his inspiration from the pervasiveness of cellphones all over the continent. Just a few years ago, he said, not many would have predicted the phenomenon.
 
“But go to the biggest and poorest slums of Africa. The people living there don’t have electricity or a decent house or clothes or cars. But they have sometimes a better cellphone than you do and they’re taking pictures of you as you come to visit their village!” Menzies said.

To some, his ambition may sound impossible to fulfill. But, given all he has so far achieved, with no formal education in designing quality solar cooking technologies, Menzies maintained that his objective is not at all far-fetched.
 
He said, “Every day, just to survive, people across Africa achieve much more than I do with far fewer resources. They inspire me.”

Listen to Taylor report on the SunFire Cooker
Listen to Taylor report on the Sunfire Cookeri
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

You May Like

Turbulent Transition Imperils Tunisia’s Arab Spring Gains

Critics say new anti-terrorism laws worsen Tunisia's situation while others put faith in country’s vibrant civil organizations, women’s movement More

Burundi’s Political Crisis May Become Humanitarian One

United Nations aid agencies issue warning as deadly violence sends tens of thousands fleeing More

Yemenis Adjust to Life Under Houthi Rule

Locals want warring parties to strike deal to stop bloodletting before deciding how country is governed More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threati
X
Greg Flakus
May 29, 2015 11:24 PM
Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threat

Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video New York's One World Trade Center Observatory Opens to Public

From New Jersey to Long Island, from Northern suburbs to the Atlantic Ocean, with all of New York City in-between.  That view became available to the public Friday as the One World Trade Center Observatory opened in New York -- atop the replacement for the buildings destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks.  VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fair

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Purple Door Coffeeshop: Changing Lives One Cup at a Time

For a quarter of his life, Kevin Persons lived on the street. Today, he is working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and working to transition off the streets and into a home. Paul Vargas reports for VOA.
Video

Video Modular Robot Getting Closer to Reality

A robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University has evolved into a multi-legged modular mechanical snake, able to move over rugged surfaces and explore the surroundings. Scientists say such machines could someday help in search and rescue operations. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Shanghai Hosts Big Consumer Electronics Show

Electronic gadgets are a huge success in China, judging by the first Asian Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Shanghai. Over the course of two days, more than 20,000 visitors watched, tested and played with useful and some less-useful electronic devices exhibited by about 200 manufacturers. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Forced to Return Home, Afghan Refugees Face Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.

VOA Blogs