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November 12, 2010

Haiti is in the news again. Now it’s cholera. Millions of dollars have poured into the country and thousands of aid workers are building shelters, temporary infrastructure, caring for sick and wounded but it seems to be all they can do to fight a backslide. Some observers say that things are going nowhere fast and that systemic corruption leaves a country largely administered by foreigners.

Making matters worse is the fact that Haiti is energy poor and as we all know, energy makes the world go round.

The country is catastrophically deforested and, predictably, desertification is following swiftly. Tonnes of topsoil are being eroded and fertile areas are disappearing fast. Take a look at this satellite picture of the border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right).

[pic from wiki]

In 1923, over 60% of Haiti’s land was forested; by 2006, less than 2% was. Read this appeal from Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales on the subject of deforestation in Haiti.

The people of Haiti depend almost entirely on wood and charcoal for cooking, and much of it comes from outside sources.

“It should be noted that the Cash for Work programs in which many interviewees or their family members were employed pay USD 4‐5 per day; two to three marmites of charcoal are required per day at a total cost of USD 1.42—2.13 per day—thus, nearly 40 percent of the average post=earthquake daily income is being spent on charcoal.”

-Cooking Fuel Needs in Haiti: A Rapid Assessment by Women’s Refugee Commission & World Food Programme March 2010

People are cutting down mango trees to make charcoal to sell for food or simply to cook their rations.

Certainly before, but especially after the earthquake, many NGO’s have been working with Haitians and distributing solar cookers. Solar Cookers International and many others are doing great work bringing solar cookers to people who need them.

I have a beef, however. The solar cookers being introduced look like this:

Tinfoil and cardboard.

Even with the utmost TLC these things wear out comparatively quickly… 2 years at most (correct me if I’m wrong). They cost $25 per and can cook for an optimistic 3 people. Don’t get me wrong, these are the model of choice for disaster relief, being lightweight, very simple and flat-pack but we need to look beyond that to a sustainable future for Haiti.

Then there’s Sunoven, who are pro, but over engineered… sunlight is free! You don’t need to super insulate. Theirs costs $10,000 and will feed 150 people. It is durable and comes with lots of gear but in my opinion takes advantage of too little sunlight and over centralizes cooking.

Then there’s my Butterfly (described in the post below). Material costs are ~$100. I think I can get 100 of them to Haiti in a shipping container / workshop ( Á La Bicycle Empowerment Network) for $50,000. Maybe 40k maybe 30k. And that includes buying and outfitting a shipping container, shipping it and building the Butterflies in Canada. They’ll cook for 15 people apiece and last 20 years or more.

Numbers: assuming roughly 50% savings on fuel, read $1 per day per 5 people for 300 days per year.

The Butterfly will save $3 per day for 300 days per year for 20 years or $18,000 saved by a $500 cooker. That’s twice as cost effective as the Sunoven. Wildly optimistic, I know. Even more wildly optimistic: those are the expensive ones we ship from Canada… They’ll cost half again as much when it spreads at the grass roots and Haitians are working and building them autonomously in the end user neighbourhood.

This is where I want this blog to eventually go.

For now, my grandfather and I are in Mexico in the initial stages of setting up a commercial test of the Solar Fire technologies. We’re going to build boilers and food driers and preserve food for sale to health food stores and wholesalers in the US and Canada. We’re talking dried fruit, garlic&chili roasted peanuts, dried hominy, sun dried tomatoes, dried onions you name it we’re going to try it.

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