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Issue 253
March/April 2009
Economics of Place

Frontline

Solar Subsidies
by
Photograph: courtesy Justin Hellings/Blue Ventures

Photograph: courtesy Justin Hellings/Blue Ventures

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Solar Subsidies

THE SOUTH-WEST OF Madagascar is one of the driest regions of the country. It is characterised by spiny forests and strange baobab trees – unique ecosystems which, like the rest of Madagascar, are under threat from deforestation. Around three-quarters of all cut wood is turned into charcoal and used for cooking, costing some families up to a quarter of their monthly income. In rural areas the majority of people use traditional methods of cooking where three stones are used to support a pot with a fire between the stones, the wood coming straight from nearby forests. This is a highly inefficient method as only 13% of the energy created actually contributes to the cooking process.

The village of Andavadoaka is a coastal community which relies on marine resources for survival. Each day, men and women from the village go out fishing on their small wooden sailing canoes. It sounds like a low-impact lifestyle, but it’s estimated that this small village alone is responsible for the deforestation of around 500 hectares from the local forest each year. Deforestation here is leading to irreversible damage including a dramatic decline in animal and plant diversity. However, further deforestation is not an inevitability. Since 2007, there has been an alternative to traditional cooking methods in the form of solar- and fuel-efficient stoves subsidised by a UK-based carbon offsetting scheme.

The stoves are funded by donations to Blue Ventures Carbon Offsetting (BVCO), and are provided by Association pour le Développement de L’Energie Solaire (ADES). ADES aims to provide alternatives to wood and charcoal cooking, halt deforestation, preserve the environment and fight poverty. Three different types of stove are available. Two rely on the sun for their energy source – something that this hot, dry region has no lack of. The box oven uses solar radiation and can reach up to 150 °C – high enough for most meals a Malagasy family is likely to cook. The parabolic cooker can reach higher temperatures than the oven. The third type of stove is offered to complement the solar cookers and is for use at night or when there is no sun. These ‘yo-yo’ stoves still require wood, but they are much more efficient and reduce fuel consumption by around 50% to 60%.

All three stoves have a number of benefits. Firstly, and most obviously, they reduce the need for wood and charcoal. This has the dual benefit of reducing carbon emissions of this already low-carbon community and of lowering the likelihood of further deforestation. If families don’t need as much wood as before, they’re also saving money, as most coastal villagers don’t cut down the trees themselves but buy the wood from the communities that do. The stoves have the additional advantage of being a lot healthier for the families, as traditional methods of cooking are extremely hazardous. In poorly ventilated homes, cooking smoke creates indoor air pollution which can lead to respiratory disease. Recent research indicates that this indoor air pollution is responsible for about 1.6 million fatalities in developing countries each year.

Selling the idea of the stoves hasn’t been difficult and people understand the benefits, especially when it’s also put in financial terms. The challenge has been encouraging the behavioural change that using a solar stove requires. “BVCO’s main tool in assisting people to change their practices has been to organise cooking demonstrations,” says Justin Hellings, ex-co-ordinator in Andavadoaka. “These demonstrations are always popular, often attracting really large crowds”. The demonstrations have focused on cooking staple foods with plenty of staff around to advise people on how to use their stoves and to dispel any concerns. “We hope to get the message across that there is a cheaper, safer, cleaner and more sustainable way to make a meal.”

The project has now widened out to over twenty-four villages in this region and already around 10% of families in the area own one of the stoves. ADES and BVCO hope that, with further investment and promotion, the majority of the population of this region will be using solar cookers to prepare their food in the future.

Carbon offsetting can really work – it just depends on the scheme you choose to support.

Offset – or Onset – at www.bvco.org.uk

Ruth Rosselson is a freelance writer based in Manchester and specialising in low-impact lifestyles, healthy living, travel and environmental issues.

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