Sunlight transforms communities

The solar cooker bike, which has a lifespan of about 10 years, has six reflective panels that concentrate sunlight on a focal point that can reach 200 to 300 degrees Celsius on a clear and sunny day.
(Image: Jenni Newman PR)

The solar cooker bike allows South African communities to utilise the country’s abundant sun energy, while reducing reliance on other expensive energy sources such as electricity, paraffin or wood for cooking and heating.
(Image: Crosby Menzies)

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Crosby Menzies
SunFire Solutions
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Wilma den Hartigh

A South African company has developed a mobile kitchen unit that is making it possible to cook in an environment-responsible and cost-effective way.

Known as a solar cooker bike, the unit consists of a solar cooker mounted on a trailer that is hooked up to a bicycle. The solar cooker bike allows South African communities to utilise the country’s abundant sun energy, while reducing reliance on other expensive energy sources such as electricity, paraffin or wood for cooking and heating.

The mobile kitchen was developed by solar cooking products company SunFire Solutions, in partnership with Nedbank and the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa).

The innovation is part of an energy efficiency project that could lead to a much bigger future rollout. Nedbank sponsored seven units which were distributed to residents of Dobsonville in Soweto, including five street vendors, as well as the Boikanyo Primary School and the Dorothy Nyembe Education Centre.

Nina Wellsted, environmental sustainability manager at Nedbank, said the programme is assisting schools and communities to save resources such as water and electricity, and to be able to generate healthy food and nutrition in a sustainable way.

Expanding the reach of solar technology

Crosby Menzies, environmentalist and founder of SunFire Solutions, says his mission is to ensure that solar technology becomes as ordinary and widely available as an everyday household appliance such as a kettle or iron.

“Anyone who is hungry and has access to sunlight can use these products,” Menzies says, adding that if more people can access solar technology, it would allow families to save on electricity and paraffin costs while helping to reduce harm to the environment.

“It is projects like these that allow SunFire to explore technologies which can have immense benefits for the two-billion people who are still reliant on firewood for their daily cooking energy source,” he says.

How it works

The solar cooker bike, which has a lifespan of about 10 years, has six reflective panels that concentrate sunlight on a focal point that can reach 200 to 300 degrees Celsius on a clear and sunny day.

“The dome functions like a big magnifying glass. This is a high quality form of energy,” Menzies explains.

The device can cook for up to 30 people at a time and boils a litre of water in four minutes, which is as fast as an electric kettle, but without harming the environment in the slightest.

“Two of the most inefficient appliances in the home have been found to be the electric kettle and oven,” he says, “and if you can remove this cost from household expenses using sun energy, people will have more money to spend on education, or transport.”

Transforming communities through sunlight

Menzies says solar technology holds significant socio-economic benefits for households which rely on paraffin or firewood for energy and heat. Low income households spend as much as 25% of their income on cooking and heating fuel.

Using sun energy gives children more time to attend school, do homework and receive a good education, as they don’t have to collect firewood and water for the home.

Decreasing the need for firewood collection will also reduce deforestation in many countries.

Solutions for unhealthy environments

Menzies explains that cooking outdoors using sun energy reduces health complications such as respiratory and eye diseases that can develop as a result of indoor air pollution.

The World Health Organisation reports that, in 23 countries, 10% of deaths are due to environmental factors such as unsafe water, including poor sanitation and hygiene; and indoor air pollution caused by solid fuel used for cooking.

Cooking in this way produces high levels of pollution in the home, including small soot particles that penetrate deep into the lungs. In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for small particles.

The data shows that simple household interventions, such as cleaner fuel and better cooking devices, could dramatically reduce death rates.

Future expansion

Menzies says the introduction of the solar cooker bike into other parts of South Africa holds great potential.

Claire Warner, Wessa education manager for the northern areas region, said the Dobsonville launch of the product is encouraging the use of solar power as a cleaner energy alternative.

“There is also huge educational value in this project, practically demonstrating to young people and adults how the power of the sun can be harnessed to do more than just heat water through solar panels.”