Cooking food in a solar oven is practical in a sun-drenched country like Haiti.
Solar ovens also are a earth-friendly alternative to the traditional method of using charcoal for cooking fuel, which has had a devastating effect on that Caribbean country.
Haiti traditionally has been the poorest country in the Americas and as more and more trees have been cut down to make charcoal for fuel, hurricanes and mudslides have been able to erode away the most fertile topsoil. Haiti, where the average income is less than $2 per day, was further devastated when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck in January 2010.
The United Methodist Church’s Haiti Solar Oven Project had been sending solar ovens to Haiti since 1999 and after the earthquake, with an estimated half a million people still without adequate fuel, has continued working on its goal of sending at least 1,000 solar ovens a year to Haiti.
Dave and Renae Silbernagel of Moffit got involved in the project in 2007; Dave Silbernagel is on the board of directors of Haiti Solar Oven Partners, based in Brookings, S.D.
With solar ovens, people can make a better life, Dave Silbernagel said, “not just cooking for themselves, but selling bread at the markets. It’s an absolute need.”
“It was put on my heart to offer our facility here,” he said. “That’s where it started last fall. I (said) I can absolutely donate some space.”
The Silbernagels converted their 24-by-24-foot heated garage into a workshop to construct a portion of the solar ovens, the reflectors that concentrate the sun’s rays to make it possible to cook and bake.
“They used to make reflectors out of cardboard, but the downfall is the (wet) weather (there),” he said. ““We needed to figure out how to make them out of metal, and how to assemble them.”
With the help of Dennis Benz of Moffit, a retired machine operator, they designed, built and set up the shop and put it into production.
In March, they assembled a production line, where they put together the shell of plastic cardboard, foam insulation, polished aluminum and a black aluminum floor for maximum absorption: “It drives those rays almost like a microwave,” he said.
A special design allows the sun’s rays to penetrate but doesn’t let the heat back out, he said.
While the exterior of the solar oven maintains the same temperature as the surrounding air, the interior temperature can reach 360 to 370 degrees, hot enough to cook food and bake bread, Silbernagel said.
The reflectors measure about 2 feet by 43 inches, with the lower part of the oven at 3 feet by 1 foot. Three 9-inch black pots are included with the ovens when they are turned over to their new owners.
People in Haiti sign up for two-day seminars which demonstrate how to cook and bake with them. People who attend the seminars then get an oven for a nominal fee of $15 to cover the cost of food.
Constructing and shipping each oven costs about $125, Silbernagel said. The nominal fee is put into place so that people have an investment in using the oven, he said.
The new owners also get measuring cups, a cookbook, and a plastic tube that holds wax designed to melt at 160 degrees.
“Having safe drinking water in Haiti is also a big problem,” Silbernagel said. Water is purified at 160 degrees, so when the wax melts, people know that the water is safe to drink. When the tube is removed, the wax re-forms, so it can be used over and over, he said.
The Silbernagels and Benz have been hosting work teams who help assemble the reflectors. Silbernagel estimates that about 60 people have put in about 800 volunteer hours since they began.
Volunteers from Mandan United Methodist Church have been to Moffit four times, he said, along with volunteers from Linton, Lutheran Men in Mission, and the Hazelton-Braddock-Moffit faculty, among others.
While HSOP is a United Methodist effort, people of all faiths and other community members are invited to help out, he said. With a bit of practice, making one reflector takes about 20 minutes, he said. A group of nine or 10 people one recent evening kicked out 50 in a couple of hours, he said.
Their goal is to make 1,140 reflectors by the end of June and another 1,140 every six months, the number that fits into a shipping container.
With just 400 more to complete by mid-June, Silbernagel said he’s confident they’ll meet their goal.
Once assembled, the reflectors are trucked to Brookings by Perry Kimble of Linton, who volunteered vehicle, time and fuel, Silbernagel said.
There they are merged with the lower part of the ovens; when all 1,140 are assembled and tucked into the shipping container, they go via truck to Miami, and from there by barge or ship to Port-au-Prince in Haiti.
As the oven’s new owners learn how to use them, volunteers in Moffit will continue to work away at creating more. The Silbernagels’ workshop is open Monday through Thursday; Fridays and Saturdays are available for work groups of up to 16 people, he said. All groups are invited to help out, from Bible study groups to men’s and women’s groups, young adults, youth and more, he said.
Anyone who wants to help is asked to call in advance to set up a time. Silbernagel can be reached at 701-387-4500 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Silbernagel said he tested the solar ovens himself. Even in North Dakota at only 68 degrees, he was able to heat a batch of green chili to about 280 degrees in about an hour, he said.