Engineer Anna Dembele's smile broadens as she shows off the low-carbon cooking kits she makes. The association she belongs to now plans to promote use of the equipment across Mali, helping people cope with inflation and tackling deforestation in the bargain.
A 2010 report from Mali's agriculture ministry said that more than 500,000 hectares of forest are cleared for firewood and charcoal each year in the West African country. But new ways of cooking, using solar power and heat retention, could cut those losses.
Dembele demonstrates the kit on the paved floor of her compound. There's a basic solar cooker, which consists of a box lined with reflective foil, a metal pot and a heat-resistant plastic bag. There is also an insulated "thermos" basket in which food is put to continue simmering after being heated to boiling point, and a "rocket" stove, which supplements the solar cooker and enables more efficient use of firewood.
"It's not just because the solar cooker and the basket can save our forests that I like them," Dembele enthuses, sitting under a neem tree in her compound. "You can't imagine how they have released me from the long domestic task of cooking."
She explains how the basket frees her up to do other jobs while food cooks, as she doesn't need to sit and watch her rice cooking for fear it will burn, as with a conventional stove.
Dembele trains other women to make the alternative cooking kits, so her house on some days has become a workshop for the Association of Women Engineers of Mali (AFIMA). Last month, the group launched an extension of its project to promote greener cooking throughout the country.
"It will have a significant impact on carbon emissions from deforestation as it will save many trees. Those who use the solar cooker and the thermos basket will no longer rely exclusively on charcoal and firewood for their kitchen," says Dembele, before imparting instructions to a young colleague on how to use less firewood when preparing the family lunch.
CARBON FINANCE EYED
Mali's women engineers have been making solar cookers in the capital Bamako since 2001. In partnership with the Netherlands-based KoZon Foundation, they began introducing the integrated kits in the city's Yirimadio neighbourhood in 2009.
Back then, 30 families paid a small fee (the equivalent of $3) for two cookers, a cooking pot and a large insulated basket for heat-retention cooking. "The participants were selected on the basis of their enthusiasm for reducing the use of charcoal and firewood, and their desire to learn a new method of cooking," explains Aoua Niang, the association's interim president.
The women engineers collected data on fuel use before and during the project, following up for a year to assess charcoal and firewood consumption and savings.
Niang estimates that, on an annual basis, the project cut charcoal use by 30 percent (360 kg per family), saved each family about $80 dollars, and lowered greenhouse gas emissions by 3.2 tonnes per household.
The plan now is to expand it to all the country's eight regions. "Our dream is to covince all Malian families to use the alternative cookers," says Niang. "We're sure it will work because each time we tested them... people told us how they would like to own one."
The two partner organisations have been discussing how to register their scheme to earn carbon credits for sale on international markets.
"Definitely, the carbon market could finance the promotion of this integrated cooking method," Niang notes.
It might also help fund improved equipment. Mali may be a sunny country, but the kit's small solar cooker doesn't work so well if clouds block out the sun's rays, and it can't always meet the needs of big families.
The association is trying to work out how to offer parabolic solar cookers, which are larger and can capture more solar energy. They are produced by the government-backed Regional Centre for Solar Energy (CRES), but are expensive at around $270 each. "What we need to do is to find subsidised parabolic cookers for rural women," Niang says.
CUSTOM v. THRIFT
In Dembele's compound-cum-workshop, two young women joke as they stack traditional baskets near a pile of cotton fibre.
Kadi Samake, an unemployed woman who is now a trainee with the association, explains the simple process of making a cooking basket. "We buy baskets from farmers, and line them with cotton fibre and black fabric to create the thermos effect," she says.
Women appreciate the baskets most of all because they reduce time spent cooking on stoves, Samake adds. Rice, for example, only needs 15 minutes in the basket after the water boils.
But using the new cooking methods also represents a change from cultural tradition, a reason some people are resisting, the engineers said.
Daouda Coulibaly, a conservative merchant living in Bamako, for instance, doesn't want his wife to cook with the new equipment.
"The three-stone oven on which we cook is symbolic in the Bambara culture. It is the guarantee of the unity of the family, so we don't need to change that," he says, referring to animist rituals linked to traditional fires.
But Dembele doesn't believe this view is widespread in big cities where economic problems and high inflation are increasing financial pressure on households. As the cost of fuel rises, more and more people are open to alternative ways of cooking, she says.
"I used to spend about 500 CFA francs (around $1) buying charcoal or firewood daily, but since I have been cooking with the solar cooker and thermos basket, I spend about half of that," she explains.
Soumaila T. Diarra is a freelance journalist based in Bamako with an interest in environmental issues.