Uganda opts for solar cookers to boost energy and conserve forests

Monday March 21 2011

The ultra sun cooker by a Ugandan businessman is designed to meet up to 70 per cent of the cooking needs of a typical family. Photo/REUTERS

The ultra sun cooker by a Ugandan businessman is designed to meet up to 70 per cent of the cooking needs of a typical family. Photo/REUTERS 

By JULIUS BARIGABA

Uganda is set to start manufacturing solar-powered cookers, to be marketed across East Africa, as the country seeks to boost its energy capacity and reduce over reliance on timber and charcoal.

The $180 ultra sun cooker could be the biggest let-off yet that governments and environmentalists have been seeking to arrest the trend of diminishing forests.

US-based Ugandan businessman Ronald Mutebi has set up a manufacturing plant that will make and distribute the solar ovens across East Africa from next month.

Initial pilots in four rural districts showed that the gadget has the potential for business as well as conservation.

In a recent interview with The EastAfrican Mr Mutebi revealed that he has more than 1,000 prospective buyers for his product.

“The odds are on my side, because where we are headed, I am going to be more and more relevant. The ultra sun cooker is designed to meet up to 70 per cent of the cooking needs of a typical family, entirely using the power of the sun,” he says.

Uganda’s dependence on forest resources for the domestic energy needs of most families continues to deplete the forest cover, a problem other East African countries are also battling with.

Only about five per cent of Uganda is connected to the national power grid, but there are scanty figures of how many of these use electricity for cooking.

A Ministry of Energy report on sustainable biomas energy production and utilisation in household and industry in Uganda, however, indicates that “fuel wood, charcoal, and crop residues (biomass energy) account for more than 90 per cent of the energy used in Uganda making it the most important energy resource in the country’s economy.”

The situation in Tanzania is no better where out of its population of 42 million people only six per cent use gas and electricity for cooking, thus exerting a lot of pressure on forest resources.  

And critically, there are hardly any viable solutions in sight to stem this.

These trends will soon reach untenable levels unless renewable energy options are devised, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation.

FAO’s data on depletion of forest cover in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania over the past two decades tells the story better.  

FAO says 15.2 per cent (2,988,000 hectares) of the country’s total land mass of 19,710,000 hectares is forested but between 1990 and 2010 the country lost an average 88,150 hectares or 1.86 per cent per annum. In total, 1,763,000 hectares have been depleted.

Over the same period, Tanzania lost some 19.4 per cent of its forest cover — an average of 403,350 hectares per annum, totalling to 8,067,000 of its 88,580,000 hectare total land mass, while Kenya lost 241,000 hectares of forest cover—an average rate of 12,050 hectares annually of its total forested is 3.52 million hectares.

Can the sun cooker reduce this trend? In practical terms, it should. It consumes solar, a free resource that is abundant in much of Africa.

For commercial use, a large single unit that can bake up to 600 loaves of bread per day costs $12,000.

A domestic unit will go for $180, according to Mr Mutebi. This, in absolute terms, means that a family of six, can now save 1.5 million tonnes of wood by substituting their domestic cooking with the sun cooker, studies show.

This business plan is jointly funded by Western Union and AED Marketplace with a $100,000 grant won in a competition of business ideas for sub Saharan Africa’s diaspora. Mr Mutebi’s TEK Consults is among the 14 winners for the 2010 grant.

Job creation capacity

The project funders concede that the grant is far too small to cover the potential demand, but it has the capacity to spur job creation with a multiplier effect to inspire other small and medium-size business ideas.

Because of this, the project implementers are given a leeway to look at other financing options, according to Karen Jordaan, Western Union Eastern and Southern Africa region director.

“The programme was designed to provide grant funding of $50,000 to $100,000 each to 10-20 small- and medium-size businesses, with all applicants being required to commit a minimum of one-to-one leverage ratio of applicant contributions to ADM grant funding. The positive benefit in Africa is that initial funding in some of these businesses has catalysed investment of ten times or more,” she said.

At commercial bank interest rates of 24-25 per cent, this business requires viable financing.

The project initiator says that the $100,000 might turn out to be much smaller than initially anticipated.

For instance, there are 1,000 applications for the gadgets so far, yet commercial production is yet to kick off. 

At present estimates, the developers anticipate to produce 1,000 units a month ”if I get the kind of funding that I need.”

“We are ready to hit the ground; there have been delays before to get tax exemption, land acquisition, but not this time. Our site at the government industrial park in Namanve is not ready but we’ll take off from another site,” said Mr Mutebi.  

The sun oven has a 15-20-year lifespan and heats up to 183° C.

Introduced in Haiti in the late 1980s and early 1990, the first units of the solar cooker remained functional only to be destroyed in last year’s devastating earthquake.

Besides cooking, the sun oven also dries foods for preservation. Experts say it dries foods much faster than the sun even when the oven chamber is closed.

Piloted in three regions of the country, the sun oven could drastically reduce dependence on firewood but also comes with guarantees for improved health conditions for the impoverished users. 

Health aspects such as ensuring safe drinking water and reduction of diseases related to inhaling of firewood smoke are automatic benefits from using the sun cooker.

“In pitching this project, we had in mind the very setup of a typical Ugandan rural setting. We knew we could deliver it for an affordable price, in which case it would then attract the population that currently uses firewood energy,” said Mr Mutebi, adding that each unit will cost $180, which is $100 less than the price in the US.

Several institutions have shown interest in the sun cooker.

These include Luzira women’s prison, Gaba convent, Kisiizi, Kiryandongo, Gulu and Iganga hospitals.

Institutions from Southern Sudan have also placed orders ahead of the commercial launch of the product, officials told The EastAfrican.