Cooking without fire
Solar oven enterprise empowers women in developing nations
By Alexa Cosmo Kocinski
Making dinner in Martha Port’s kitchen is much like making dinner in any other American home. Turn a knob and light a burner, flip a dial and the oven heats up, push a button and the microwave hums to life.
But Port, a former insurance underwriter from Minneapolis, knows that the basic task of making a meal is much harder for women in developing nations who must forage for fuel daily and cook over smoky fires that blacken the walls of their homes and the inside of their lungs. And she’s committed to doing something about it.
In 1988, Port and her husband Mike were struck by information in the United Nations report that estimated more than 2 billion people in the world couldn’t afford the fuel necessary to prepare food or boil water, a step necessary to kill deadly bacteria.
“That’s a huge number of people who struggle just to cook a meal,” Port said. “All we do is flick a switch.”
The report also talked about solar cookers—portable ovens that run on sun energy—and the potential they had to improve the lives and health of people in developing countries. But the ovens in use then were hard to assemble, not very durable and not very efficient. The Ports thought they could do better.
Just months later, the Ports founded the Solar Oven Society, a nonprofit corporation that develops and distributes solar ovens to people in more than 31 countries.
In the beginning, there was an idea
The Ports never had a lot of money, but that didn’t stop them from pursuing their idea. The UN report was a calling; they had to do something. Mike Port worked for a food bank and was passionate about the idea of feeding people. Martha was passionate about the technology that could make it happen.
In 1989, she quit her job. The Ports re-mortgaged their house and lived off Martha’s 401K and their savings for more than two years. During that time, they worked to design and build solar cookers. They knew they needed to make ovens that were easy to use, lightweight, and highly durable.
John Roche, a retired 3M research and design engineer, came to their aid. Earlier in his career, Roche had developed a clear, high-tech film to collect sunlight. Added to the ovens, it vastly improved their heating properties.
Martha Port spent much of her time devising small tools so people in remote areas could assemble the ovens themselves. After improving upon several prototypes, they settled on the SOS Sport—a small oven that uses only solar energy to heat an insulated cavity hot enough to cook food and purify water.
Soon the ovens were ready for mass production. The Ports and several volunteers built a small assembly plant in a rundown warehouse in Minneapolis. The first ovens were shipped in 2002.
Meals in solar ovens cook in two to four hours. Temperatures inside the ovens range from 200-270 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the angle of the sun, food content, and length of time exposed to the sun. With the installation of optional reflectors, oven temperatures can reach up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Water pasteurization, which kills water-borne bacteria and food parasites, occurs at a minimum of 150 degrees Fahrenheit sustained for 10 minutes. Food starts cooking at 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Ports have traveled extensively, demonstrating and delivering their product to villages and families in countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti and Kenya. The recipients, they said, are overjoyed and grateful.
“The ovens don’t just help with meal preparation,” Port said, “they save money and resources and free women from the time-consuming burden of scavenging for fuel.”
Solar vs. fuel
Port has no trouble listing the many benefits of solar cookers. “Cooking with wood, the most common source of cooking fuel, contributes to deforestation, rendering land more vulnerable to floods and droughts, which can cause agricultural failure and famine,” she said.
“Searching for fuel daily is also time consuming; it can take up to seven hours a day in some places. Because women and girls are primarily responsible for cooking, they have little time to attend school, play or develop their talents. Solar ovens free up time for these other activities,” Port said.
Solar ovens can also improve health, she said. Many families cook indoors. Smoke from the fires blackens walls of poorly ventilated homes and causes health problems. According to United Nations data, breathing smoke from wood, charcoal or dung cooking fires in equivalent to smoking 10 packages of cigarettes per day. Wood and coal fires also pollute the environment.
Another benefit of solar cooking is that food cooks without water, retaining more of its nutritional value, and it doesn’t scorch, so less food is wasted.
Financing a dream
For many families the $85.00 cost for a solar oven in developing countries may seem prohibitive. However, many of those families are already spending up to half of their income purchasing fuel, Port pointed out. SOS is working with village banking enterprises to loan women the money to purchase the ovens.
SOS also receives contributions from individuals and corporations that help subsidize the cost of shipping and distributing the ovens to families that cannot afford them. SOS has received contributions from DOW Chemical Company and the Coco-Cola Company. The Minnesota Department of Environmental Assistance has provided manufacturing assistance.
SOS is now selling solar cookers in Canada and the United States. “Money from those sales will be used to pay for ovens donated to families who can’t afford them,” Port said.
Since 2002, SOS has distributed thousands of ovens. While the Ports aren’t likely to get rich off their efforts, the hard work and sacrifice has been worth it: they are creating demand for a technology they believe will ultimately save lives.
For her humanitarian efforts to promote women’s economic self-sufficiency, Port will receive the Unsung Hero Award from Women Venture at their ninth annual conference on Nov. 5.
“It’s an honor to be a representative for the women of the world awaiting this technology,” Port said.
Martha Port, Unsung Hero Award
aid developing nations
Founder Lauded as Unsung Hero
Oven Society hopes to make a difference
Oven Society Harnessing
creation's energy to feed the hungry
Nonprofit group’s solar ovens save labor, money for women worldwide
Martha Port is quietly changing the world for women. At the nonprofit Solar Oven Society (SOS) in Minneapolis, Port is part of an effort to spread solar cooking throughout developing countries—to spare women the daylong burden of searching for wooden sticks to cook family meals.
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