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Solar Oven Society hopes to make a difference
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A solar oven, using 3M's solar-collecting film in the lid, is being produced by the Solar Oven Society and shipped to some 25 developing countries. (MPR Photo/Mary Losure)
Lots of people want to change the world. The Solar Oven Society in Minneapolis wants to do that with a simple tool: a dark, heat-trapping box with a clear lid. For developing countries, it offers the promise of cooking with sunlight instead of wood.

Minneapolis, Minn. — For all of his working life, John Roche was a research engineer with a passion for solar technology. At 3M, he developed high-tech films to collect sunlight. When he retired, he thought about where in the world solar energy could be used most effectively. The answer seemed clear.

"The Fiji Islands are almost out of wood. Africa, Asia, South and Central America, all of these have critical problems with fuel wood," says Roche. "And they're all in areas where there are enormous sun resources, which is such a natural balance here. You've got a need and a supply in the very area (where) it's critical."

Then John Roche the engineer crossed paths with Mike and Martha Port. The Ports had been praying to God to tell them what to do with their lives when they came across a newspaper article they believed was His answer. It described people who were introducing solar cookers to Guatemala.

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Image John Roche

"The article went on to talk about the over two billion people that don't have enough fuel to cook their food with," Mike Port recalls. "It talked about the effects of breathing the smoke for the ladies, the 10-20 packs of cigarettes equivalent that they breathe each day. It talked about the deforestation problems -- 52 percent of the trees that are cut globally go for cooking fires."

The Ports founded the Solar Oven Society, and John Roche developed an improved solar cooker using 3M's solar-collecting film in the lid. Other 3M retirees designed an assembly plant that uses simple tools and can be reproduced in developing countries.

Today, the Solar Oven Society is a barebones warehouse and office on the east side of Minneapolis. The coffee pot is always on for the volunteers, many of them retirees, who drop by.

"I have come here for more than four months, and I was always skeptical if this worked," says Limenih, a native of Ethiopia. "I came in the winter, and until I ate the rice out of it, and the chicken, and it even baked our bread. I tasted it, then I started believing."

Limenih belongs to an organization of Ethiopian immigrants who are trying to transfer U.S. technology to Ethiopia. He dreams that the widespread use of solar ovens could help alleviate droughts.

In Eithopia, so many trees have been cut down that the climate has changed and droughts are more frequent, a problem he has seen first-hand.

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Image Assembly line

"In the place where I grew, there were three rivers within a range of one mile, roughly," Limenih says. "It was so forested that we couldn't take the cattle out, unless we find somebody older than we are. Now when I went back, after so many years, those rivers are dried up, those forests are not there, there are no wildlife. And I was really scared." Limenih's organization recently sent the first few solar cookers home.

Since its first production run last fall, the Solar Oven Society has sent about 700 cookers to some 25 developing countries. But there are formidable obstacles to their widespread use. They cost $50 apiece, so in poor countries they must be donated rather than sold to poor families.

Food takes several hours to cook, and a cooking failure can mean people go hungry. In the 1970s, efforts to introduce solar ovens failed, largely because of cultural barriers and poor design.

But Solar Oven Society co-founder Mike Port believes those obstacles can be overcome now.

"I like to remind people that it took the paper clip 17 years to be accepted," says Port. "If you think back about the computer, I think it was in the early 1940s, they filled up big rooms and they didn't really accomplish a whole lot. And so I tell people, we've got a 286 here."

The 286, Intel's early computer chip, led the way for the millions of personal computers around the globe. At the Solar Oven Society, they're putting their faith in a simple cooker, and hoping for a similar revolution.

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