Just before my trip to India for the "Namaste" cook stove evaluation, I received a phone call from Prof. Rajagopal (Raj) of the University of Iowa asking if Climate Healers and FES could host some students from the university during their winter break in Rajasthan to work on the solar cook stove project. The students would be part of the Iowa Winterim program, an innovative one credit project course that gives students the opportunity to visit India and do some social work while experiencing a cultural immersion. I readily agreed and proposed that the students could help with the widespread deployment of the "Namaste" solar cook stove in the village as their project. I returned from my India trip knowing that there wasn't going to be any such large scale deployment.
I wrote up a report on the status of the cook stove deployment in August of 2010 and sent it to all the patrons at Climate Healers and to Raj, expecting that the proposed Winterim program with the Iowa students was probably going to get cancelled. I didn't hear back from Raj until early December when I received a short e-mail from him stating that 9 students and a faculty member will be arriving in New Delhi on Dec. 27 to help with the project. It was a wonderful surprise and a major turning point for Climate Healers.
The nine students and the professor from Iowa who came to Rajasthan were the perfect team to do an assessment of the cooking needs of the women in the villages and to redefine the solar cook stove project. They were three chemical engineers (Jackie, Ben and Ethan), three mechanical engineers (Matt, Eric and Brianne), one anthropologist (Billy), a journalist (Abbey) and an environmental engineer (Josh). They were typical kids from the American heartland, authentic, hard working, fun loving and simply amazing. Most of them had never gone far beyond Iowa in their lives, but they were the best Miglets that we could have asked for. The professor who accompanied them was Prof. UdayKumar, from the mechanical engineering department at the University, once again a perfect match for the project. The liberal arts majors worked on a crisp questionnaire to understand the needs of the women and the Miglets split up into three teams, each with a local interpreter and a woman student so that the teams could establish good rapport with the women in the villages. And it worked beautifully.
Here's how Abbey, the journalist, described her experience: "In a small village called Karech in Rajasthan, India, Rayakbai walks 3 kilometers uphill every day to collect firewood for her family. She says she has been doing this since she was 7 years old, just old enough to help her mother. But within the last five years, her work has become increasingly difficult. She remembers when the trees were prevalent in her village and walking to get firewood only took a small portion of her day. However now, most of the timber is gone and she has to walk farther to collect the wood her family needs, taking three to four hours to complete the task. When she returns home, she cooks two meals per day. The smoke burns her eyes while she cooks in her small, unventilated kitchen, but she has no choice because her family of five has to eat. …
Rayakbai had lived in the village her entire life. Her home was nicer than most, with stone walls and thick branches for a roof. As we walked in to talk with her, her sons brought a bed made of thick wooden legs and tightly woven rope for us. Sailesh motioned for me to sit and as I did, the rope sank lower and lower towards the ground. I winced. The last thing I would want to do is break one of the only belongings this family owned.
Outside, the January sun beat down at us at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but I shivered in the shadows of Rayakbai’s living room. Goats walked in and out of the room, bringing the smell of farm and manure in with them. We began to ask questions, like “What would your perfect stove be like?” and “What do the men do during the day?” Soon our group discovered that there would be many more constraints than we imagined if we were to design a proper solar cooker. The men drank during the hot afternoons, leaving the women with most of the work. If we gave them a woodless stove, the men would surely just give them more work to do despite the gained free time.
Their young children sat staring at our blonde hair with their large, brown eyes. When the women were alone, they smiled, with red lipstick on their mouths, laughing with us like old friends. When men surrounded them, they turned their backs to us and would not speak. Sailesh turned to me, noticing the makeup, and said, “See, they want to be like us. They don’t want to live like this.”
Being the journalist of the group, I took control of constructing a questionnaire to give to the women to better understand their cooking habits. My group wanted to ask questions that were direct and simple to interpret because the villagers in Karech spoke Hindi, mixed with some native dialect, so we would be using interpreters. As we got to talking to the women though, I realized I could communicate easily with them without even knowing the language. Their laughter, sorrow, and concerns were contagious, and bled through the words so I still understood what they were trying to say. Her smile shone through as she told us what she knew. She lifted up her skirt, showing a large bump behind her knee where she had fallen recently while she was collecting wood. Things needed to change, for her, and for the forest.
Raykabai’s 8-year-old daughter had just started to accompany her to the forest daily to pick up 44 pounds of firewood. They both carried separate loads on top of their heads down the rocky roads, with no shoes. Her feet were covered in dirt and blisters, her long toenails running rampant underneath her skinny legs.
The women needed something to change. They were losing their forest every day, and they knew it would not come back instantly. Through our questionnaire, we discovered they saw the connection between the plentiful forests bringing rain to help their fields. But they would not change unless it was easy. Their families had been there for nearly 200 years, the lifestyles rarely changing".
As we were conducting the survey, Uday got excited about going back to Iowa and working on the design of a stored energy solar cook stove with the Mechanical Engineering Design Project (MEDP) class during the Spring Semester of 2011. He said that he had been dreading that class as it usually involves students working on minor modifications of mechanical shafts and gears for local corporations like John Deere, but he would now suggest to the class that they design a stored energy solar cook stove that meets the villagers' needs as a joint class project. That class of 30 students worked on the project along with four students from the University of California, Berkeley and I've never met a more enthusiastic group of students in my life. They were truly inspired to work on the project and they had so many ideas, but they had to settle on implementing just one prototype due to resource and time constraints. Unfortunately, that prototype didn't perform as expected for various reasons, which Uday and a fresh batch of students are sorting through.
During the next semester, Climate Healers is issuing a challenge to schools and universities in the US and India to work on the design of a stored energy solar cook stove that Rayakbai would love to use. Four Miglets, Billy, Sita, Shaanika and Rama have been sending letters out to schools and universities soliciting their participation. For example, here's the letter that Billy has been sending out:
"Hello, I am Billy Davies, a senior at the University of Iowa and intern for Climate Healers, a non-profit organization that partners with student groups, universities, and NGOs and rural villages throughout the world in order to curb the effects of climate change by regenerating forests.
This year, Climate Healers has launched a challenge open to any engineering club, student organization, or university groups in which teams will work to create a design for a solar-powered cook stove that will be deployed in selected rural villages in India.
I wanted to share with you my story of how this great initiative got started and show you how this challenge is the start of a collaborative effort to undo the damage caused by deforestation and to improve the lives of millions and perhaps, billions:
Last winter, I had the privilege to be a part of an excursion to the city of Udaipur in Rajasthan, India with eight other University of Iowa students, our supervising professor, H.S. Udaykumar, and Climate Healers’s Executive Director, Sailesh Rao. Our research team of six engineers, one anthropologist (myself), one journalist, and one environmental scientist set out into the villages of Mewar and Karech to examine the effects of wood cutting and burning on the villagers, how the intensity of fuel wood use has increased over the last five years, and ultimately examine why previous efforts by Climate Healers to deploy a suitable solar cooker prototype in the field were unsuccessful.
Our time in India was short, but the experience is something that none of us will forget. Even in our short sojourn in the North, we saw that India is a place with a rich heritage and of great cultural and ecological diversity. We were also awed by the after effects of years of imperialism and environmental degradation that have left the country’s people and its ecosystems in distress.
Through face to face interviews of villagers and a lot of help from our friends at the Foundation for Ecological Security in Udaipur, our team was able to gather enough data to show the severity of deforestation in the villages and to establish constraints for a new solar cooker; one that would allow solar energy to replace wood as a source of fuel for cooking. Our study revealed that a new design must be:
…durable enough to survive inclement weather conditions.
…able to store solar energy, allowing the cooker to charge during the day and be used by women during normal cooking periods (late at night and early in the morning).
…able to be used inside households.
…easy to operate for the women who will use it.
After our team presented the research at the International Association for the Study of the Commons Biennial Conference in Hyderabad, Professor Udaykumar and his mechanical engineering design project class of thirty students began working to design a solar cook stove that meets the design constraints determined by the research team. At the end of the Spring 2011 semester, one prototype was built. However, there were numerous design ideas that, due to time constraints, were never pursued. It is clear that a lot more help is needed in order to come up with a solution. Because the problem of designing an effective prototype is so complex, it can only be addressed if the numerous design possibilities that exist are pursued. In short, one team is not nearly enough.
That is why Climate Healers is calling on professors, engineering clubs, student organizations, and university groups throughout the country to take up the challenge. The many and invaluable perspectives offered by different groups will allow for an acceptable solution for the villagers. After a suitable prototype is designed, further improvements may be made and the road to regenerating life will have begun. Please feel free to pass this along to any professors or student groups who you believe will want to hear about this challenge.
Designs will be judged by members of the non-profit organization, Engineering for Change, and once the top three designs are determined, the winning teams will have the opportunity to go to the villages in Rajasthan and build their solar cooker.
We would be honored if members of your faculty and student body would take up the challenge and become a part of this collaborative effort. Since its launch last Spring, more and more students are forming teams with the goal of designing a solar cooker for field use. We would be honored if you would join our collective mission. The climate crisis affects all of us, and efforts by world leaders have been unable to address the climate crisis. By employing an approach that involves dedicated groups and individuals, we can reverse the tide of the climate crisis and start undoing the damage.
Thank you very much for your time and for listening to my story…
The response has been very encouraging so far. Not only are several US universities working on the design during this fall semester, but the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, India, has posed this cook stove challenge as part of its annual Shaastra festival, in which around 500 colleges and universities participate each year. I'm certain that if there is a viable solution for Rayakbai and her millions of sisters around the world, the Miglets will find it.