In January and February of 1998, in conjunction with the British charity Plant A Tree In Africa, the author visited a Ghanaian non-governmental development organisation called the Namalteng Intergrated Development Programme (NIDEP) in the rural area near Bolgatanga, Upper Eastern Region, Ghana, to investigate the possibilities of introducing fuel-saving cooking techniques to the local villages served by that organisation.
The area to the southeast of Bolgatanga, the regional capital of the Upper Eastern Region of Ghana, is the home of the Tallensi people. The Tallensi Traditional Area is mostly open savanna, characterised by a large tree every two or three hundred metres with the land almost totally in use for the subsistence farming of grains. The Tallensi people live in "compound houses" dotted around the savanna.
The region was forested just a few generations ago. Some of the older locals told the author that when they were children the forest was so thick in places that they "couldn't see the sky". Today wood for cooking and local construction is scarce and expensive.
The Namalteng Integrated Development Programme is a local non-governmental organisation, founded and run by Tallensi, that works to improve the situation of the people of the area. It concentrates on tree planting and educational projects.
The Fuel Saving Project
This document should be read in conjunction with Introducing fuel-saving cooking methods in southern Tamil Nadu. As the methods used and solution proposed in the Tallensi Traditional Area was very similar to those employed by the author in India, only the differences will be described here.
The area is populated by very poor subsistence farmers living in "compound houses" in large extended families. Each nuclear family in the compound house will farm about one or two acres, typically planted with cereals. The farming (wet) season runs for about four months of the year. During the dry season they have a pretty easy time, labour wise, with only the animals (mostly goats and chickens) to take care of and occasional house maintenance to occupy them. This four months on eight months off sounds pretty idyllic, but as the year continues they enter what is called the "lean season", when the food stores from the last harvest run low and they have to go down to one meal a day or less.
As in India, the diet of the local people is very limited. It consists largely of grains; rice, sorghum, millet, etc., or maybe yams, served with a thin spicy "soup" for a sauce. The meal might include some dried vegetables, typically beans or okra. The only fresh vegetables sometimes available are tomatoes (in season) and onions. Occasionally some meat will be served, usually chicken or guinea fowl or, on special occasions, goat. However, these will normally be spread thinly amongst many members of the extended family.
Cooking is done over an open fire with three stones used to support the pot. The fuel used is usually the dried stalks from guinea corn (like a thin bamboo stalk) as firewood is extremely scarce.
As in India, solar cookers were considered. They could fit into the villagers' life style as most people spend most of their time close to their houses, and meals are cooked both at midday and in the early evening. However, for obvious reasons, the locals cook in the shade of the inside walls of their compounds or inside their huts. Placing a solar cooker away from the compound houses would be difficult for them to accept and would invite problems with animals.
Building a solar cooker into the outside wall of a hut (with the opening inwards) was considered, however, being well within the tropics (~11ºN) it would not be possible to place the cooker anywhere where it would not be shaded from the sun at some time of the year or another.
Additionally, while materials like adobe and straw are freely available, the cost of metal sheets for base plates and reflectors would make the cookers unaffordable for most families.
For these reasons, and due to the relatively short stay of the author who had other demands on his time, introducing solar cookers was not considered a good option for this visit.
The Straw Stove
The fuel saving method that was introduced was the Hay Sack as described in Introducing fuel-saving cooking methods in southern Tamil Nadu. Locally it became known as the Straw Stove.
The Straw Stove was built and used almost identically to the Hay Sack with the following differences:
- only one jute sack was used for the body of the stove, as this was big enough to fit the local pots (see Building a Hay Sack for 1½ kgs of rice in the Tamil Nadu report),
- straw was used instead of hay due to availability,
- local "rope" made from strips of thin bark soaked in water was used instead of jute thread to tie together the straw mat,
- a piece of broken pottery was used as the pot stand instead of a metal ring.
Due to the fact that straw is less flexible than hay it was found necessary to make the mat placing the straw widthwise, rather than lengthwise, in order to be able to roll it up to get it into the sack. The mat was trimmed to the correct width using a cutlass (machette).
Cooking with the Straw Stove
The cooking technique used was the same as in India. During trials the following food was cooked:
- Rice. Local rice cooked well with 2 parts of water to 1 part of rice. 35 minutes of cooking in the Straw Stove was found to be best. As the locals have no tradition of drinking the cooking water, the minimum ratio of 2:1 saved water and pre-heating time and fuel. Additionally, if more water is used cooking time becomes important as if it is left in too long the rice will become soggy. With the minimum amount of water for proper cooking all of the water is absorbed and the rice then stops cooking. This means that the pot can be left in the Straw Stove for longer than 35 minutes and will not overcook, but will stay hot.
- Dried beans. The locals normally cook dried beans by boiling vigorously for 1 to 1½ hours. It was found that dried beans could be cooked in the Straw Stove by pre-heating (as per rice) then putting the pot into the stove for 1 hour, taking it out and bringing it back to the boil, and then putting it back into the stove for another 45 minutes.
- Yams. Yams cooked well in 30-35 minutes in the Straw Stove. Care should be taken not to leave them in for too long as they will overcook and start to disintegrate.
Demonstration and Training Session
Once model Straw Stoves had been built and cooking trials conducted, the author gave a demonstration and training session. This was attended by about two dozen local women, being representatives of over a dozen villages in the area, NIDEP having spread news of the session a week previously. Interest was keen, as demonstrated by the fact that many of the women walked for over two hours, carrying pots, sacks, and straw on their heads, to attend the session.
Rice was cooked in one of the model stoves while the concepts of the Straw Stove and building and cooking techniques were explained. The women then built some stoves themselves under the guidance of the author, and yams were cooked in one of these newly built stoves.
The Straw Stove was well received, with the women saying they would take the idea back to their villages and try various local recipes. Interestingly, the women regarded the cooking technique as largely a labour saving device, freeing them from the need to give constant attention to a fire. One woman said it would enable her to pop down to the village market while cooking rice for the family!
However, the women also appreciated the other advantages of the Straw Stove: that it would save fuel, and the time and labour spent collecting it, and reduce the health problems that accompany using open fires. Also much appreciated was the fact that the stove was essentially free, needing only materials and tools that they already had, and an hour or so of labour to build.