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Liberating Women from the Curse of the Three-Stone Fire

Posted By Alice C. Linsley, Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Paul Arveson has been a member of ASA since 1974. He has a background in research physics and computer system management. Since 2008 Paul has served as a Director on the board of a local nonprofit called Solar Household Energy, Inc. Louise Meyer is co-founder of this organization and has been an international advocate and trainer for solar cooking projects in many countries.

By Paul Arveson

In some African wedding ceremonies, a woman is not considered married until she goes out in the desert and collects three large stones to make a hearth.  She is literally married to her three-stone fire for the rest of her life.  This is a cooking method that is still used by billions, and is the cause of health problems due to indoor smoke, deforestation, CO2, black carbon emissions, and simply the poverty exacerbated by fuel costs1. Women and children bear the brunt of the health effects, and they typically spend many hours per week gathering firewood for cooking, which has risks of its own.


This is a photo of a Haitian woman in her kitchen, where she will stir the pot, holding a child, as they breathe the smoke of the indoor cooking fire for hours a day.  What's wrong with this picture?  You can see that outside the sun is shining brightly.  Many regions of the world are rich in one resource: a solar irradiance of about 1 kilowatt per square meter that is going unused.

Researchers at organizations like Solar Household Energy, Inc. have designed efficient solar cookers that can replace fuel-based cookstoves on sunny days.  Solar cookers simply use reflectors to concentrate sunlight enough to cook a large pot of food in a couple of hours.  However, the labor time is minimal because food does not need to be stirred – like a crock pot in an American kitchen.  This frees up time to care for children, tend a garden or do other profitable activities.  There is less need for gathering, chopping and carrying firewood (except for use on cloudy days).  There is no smoke inside the house (respiratory diseases are a major cause of illness and death according to WHO1).  The solar cooker can complement a fuel-efficient stove to further reduce the labor, emissions and costs involved with fuels.

Despite the simplicity, health benefits, labor saving, fuel saving, forest saving, and other benefits of solar cookers, this technology has gone largely unrecognized and there are no significant programs to promote or distribute solar cookers by USAID, the UN, the Gates Foundation or any other major funding source.  There are plenty of projects to distribute food and clean water, but little effort has been focused on how to cook the food, or pasteurize the water.  That is why I decided to focus my efforts on this concept2.


This photo shows a solar box cooker.  A small number of these were distributed in Haiti by Solar Household Energy, Inc. in a partnership with The Nature Conservancy.

Research is needed for matching product designs to the requirements of specific regions, and this research is complex and interdisciplinary.  We need the help of anthropologists, economists, climate scientists and physicists, as well as ample feedback from the end users of various stove designs, to optimize them for long-term acceptance and use.   Despite the huge potential benefits of solar cookers and fuel-efficient stoves, so far there has been limited awareness and demand for these innovative products. 

A Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC) has been established to encourage governments and other potential sponsors to recognize the opportunities these products offer to help solve many economic and environmental problems3.  The GACC has recently initiated work toward a set of testing protocols for all types of cookstoves, including solar cookers.  I am a participant in the development of this standard, and I would be delighted to engage other interested women scientists in this effort. 


Paul Arveson, Physicist

Louise Meyer, Solar Cooking Consultant

Solar Household Energy, Inc.

Washington, DC





3.      Igniting Change: A Strategy for Universal Adoption of Clean Cookstoves and Fuels, Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves,

Tags:  Paul Arveson 

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