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

    Candidates' Comments Fly Like New Hampshire Snowflakes

    Four days ahead of the country's first-in-the-nation Republican and Democratic party primary elections, surveys show the parties' contests tightening

    Australian Commander: IS Changing Tactics

    Head of Australian forces in Middle East talks with VOA about training Iraqi troops, countering evolving Islamic State efforts and defeating extremism

    UN Calls for Global Ban on Female Genital Mutilation

    Recent UNICEF report finds at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries

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

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.