Story

How Solar Ovens Are Changing Lives in the Dominican Republic

August 31, 2016|

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Beans cooking over wood fire

Beans cook over a wood fire behind a house in Villa Magante. Magaly Lantigua, who runs the Episcopal church up the road, says some of the poorer people in the community will use wood to save money instead of relying on propane gas. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Solar Oven Partners workshop lecture

Reverenda Maria Bock, president of social action for the Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana Church, talks to members of the IED church in Villa Magante about the benefits of solar ovens. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Food cooks in solar oven

Ardell (Louisa) Graner, a United Methodist Church missionary, talks with women in the Villa Liberación community about how to use solar ovens sold and distributed by Solar Oven Partners. Pots of food cook a few feet away in the solar ovens. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Community members build ovens

Magdonia Reyes Salazar and Pastor Rafael Soto work together to build a solar oven frame behind their Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana church in Sosua. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Children watch a solar oven workshop outside the church property

Children watch the activity inside the Villa Liberación chapel of the Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana Church area. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Women prepare chicken to cook in solar ovens

Women in the Villa Liberación community prepare chicken to put in solar ovens. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Solar ovens cook atop a Sosua rooftop

Ten solar ovens sit atop the Igelsia Evangelica Dominicana church roof in Sosua. Temperatures on the ovens need to reach more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit before cooking can start. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Woman feels heat from solar oven after being opened

Magdonia Reyes Salazar, a member of the Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana in Sosua, jumps back in surprise after feeling the heat released from a solar oven. The inside of the oven is lined with black material to attract the sun and two plastic lids insulate it. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Women inspect cooked eggs taken out of solar ovens

Wanda Martinez peers behind Marleny Fermin Sueno's shoulder to examine a cooked egg brought out of the oven. The eggs were the first pot of food to be cooked in the ovens at a workshop in Villa Liberación. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Women look into a pot of cornbread

Arelis Brito Aybar stands up from her seat to better see a pot of cornbread brought out of a solar oven at the Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana chapel in Villa Magante. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Woman takes picture of food with smart phone.

Mercedes Tabares snaps a picture of chicken cooked inside a solar oven with her smart phone. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Woman brings pot of food to feed workshop attendees

Elena Lantigua walks between the sanctuary building and kitchen to bring a pot of food to members of her church in Villa Magante. Meals for the congregation are cooking in the 10 ovens around the corner. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Woman and son inspect pots of food made in solar ovens

Kathy Pérez and her son, Albert, open each of the pots to check the food made in them. Pérez, a member of the Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana church in Sosua, now visiting the chapel in Villa Liberación, doesn't know what's in the pot she inspects until another woman points out to her it's chocolate cake. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Woman tastes rice made in solar oven

Mercedes Tabares, a member of the Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana chapel in Villa Liberación, tastes rice made from a solar oven to make sure it is fully cooked and ready to eat. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Woman waits under shelter of her church until rain subsides

Fatima Luceano waits with other women under shelter in the Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana church courtyard in Gaspar Hernandez. The women wait for the rain to subside so they can continue their cooking. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Solar Oven Partners volunteer wipes rain drops off an oven

Pedro Peguero wipes off a reflector on one of the solar ovens at a worksite in Gaspar Hernandez after an afternoon shower. Peguero is a local volunteer with the Solar Oven Partners. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Women serve food from solar oven workshop

Wanda Martinez passes a plate of food down the line as women in the Villa Liberación community serve food made from solar ovens to people who attended the solar oven workshop. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Villa Megarnte community members line up for food

Villa Magante community members surround a table lined with food prepared in solar ovens. Women congregation members of the Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana chapel serve the children first. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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People listen to a solar oven presentation at a workshop

Ada Alberto Juma, Sobeida Marte and Martha Juma listen to a presentation from Rick Jost, director of Solar Oven Partners, and Gordon Graner, a United Methodist Church missionary, about how the solar ovens work and how they relate to Christianity. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Woman walks to her house after purchasing a solar oven

Marina Nuñes walks down the road from the Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana chapel in Villa Liberación with her new solar oven in tow. The ovens cost 1,000 pesos ($22). Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

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Local volunteer reads through recipe book included in solar oven purchase

Pedro Peguero, a local volunteer with Solar Oven Partners, reads through a recipe book provided with each solar oven purchase. The book offers recipes, cooking times, the science behind solar cooking, and information on how to pasteurize water. Image by Makenzie Huber. Dominican Republic, 2016.

VILLA LIBERACIÓN, Dominican Republic—“The rice is done!” someone proclaimed from the chapel courtyard.

A second later, another person yelled the same phrase in Spanish.

That’s when everyone came running.

Women jumped out of their plastic chairs in the shade. Children sprinted from across the courtyard to be the first to see the pot of rice taken out of a solar oven.

They crowded around the oven where the rice had cooked while sitting in the sun for a few hours. The demonstration was part of a solar oven workshop at the Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana chapel here.

Reyna Esthel was one of the women vying to taste the rice. She attended the workshop after she heard that using a solar oven could help save her money.

“Because of the expenses of gas, it’s cheaper to use the solar ovens and using natural energy from the sun,” Esthel said in Spanish through a translator.

A small number of communities in the Dominican Republic are buying solar ovens to cook their meals, avoiding cooking with gas stoves or wood that present financial and health problems.

Forty-one percent of people in the Dominican Republic are living under the national poverty line, according to a 2013 national labor force survey. Petroleum and products made from it, such as propane, are a top import to the island nation, and propane accounted for about $3.72 million in imports in 2014, says the United Nations. Purchasing gas for cooking takes a toll on most families in the country because of their limited incomes. Families who are even further into poverty use wood as a cheaper cooking material. Inhaling the smoke or standing over the fire can damage the lungs.

The solar movement was initiated by a U.S.-based nonprofit, Solar Oven Partners, which presented workshops on how to use the ovens like the one in Villa Liberación. Rick Jost, the organization’s director, hopes solar oven use will allow people in the Dominican Republic to save money to better their quality of life and reduce the risks of cooking with wood.

Families who use solar ovens increasingly save money by depending less on gas stoves.

The organization reported between 200 and 250 solar ovens sold in the Dominican Republic between August 2015 and July 2016. Each oven costs 1,000 pesos, or about $22. Although funding to build and transport the ovens comes entirely from donations in the United States, the purchase price goes toward running the workshops throughout the country.

After the workshop, Esthel bought one of those solar ovens. With the money she hopes to save, she wants to buy better-quality food for her family. But she does have a few concerns—such as working around cloudy or rainy weather and having to adjust her daily life to cooking with the new oven.

“We will have to wake up earlier,” she said. It takes two or three hours to bake a meal in a solar oven instead of about an hour on a gas stove.

Idalia Batista bought her solar oven about six months ago and starts preparing lunch by 8 a.m. She’s adjusted her schedule to cook for her family of eight, preparing rice, beans, corn, and occasionally meat in the oven.

While the food cooks, she does other chores around the house. She said she’s used the solar oven almost every day since she bought it.

“There never was a day when it was too cloudy,” she said in Spanish through a translator.

She’s already seen a difference in her budget. Before she bought the solar oven, she said, she would buy a 15-gallon tank of gas, costing her up to 1,600 pesos, or about $35, each month.

Now that she uses a solar oven, she only buys a nine-gallon tank of gas to prepare other food on her gas stove, saving up to 380 pesos, or about $8, each month. (Because she cooks for eight, her solar oven can only prepare a fraction of the food. She still uses her gas stove to prepare portions of each meal.) The change is significant, she said, and she spends the extra money on more food to feed her family.

Batista sees solar ovens as an opportunity for her community.

“Everybody loves the oven because...the sun is something they always have, and it’s there for them,” she said. There are about 35 solar ovens in her community of Jaquiemeyes.

Solar Oven Partners worked in Haiti for 14 years before starting in the Dominican Republic in 2015. The organization sold and distributed almost 10,000 ovens there.

“We don’t have any illusions of saving the world or even a society or country, but our philosophy is that if you help one family improve their situation by cooking, then you’ve done something important,” Jost said.

He wants to empower people to change their lives in small ways, affecting their societies in turn, by using solar ovens. The organization works through the IED church system to reach places in the Dominican Republic where the ovens are needed most.

The church gives the organization guidance and has the “ultimate control” over which communities get ovens, Jost said.

“As so often happens, even with international outreach programs, if you just go in and start doing for people what you think they need without any consideration of their culture, you’re not doing them any favor—you’re actually harming the situation,” Jost said.

Other organizations have been bringing solar ovens to Central America, other parts of the Caribbean, and Africa.

A team led by Molly Enz, a professor at South Dakota State University, conducted a three-year survey response to solar ovens in Haiti completed in 2014.

The survey of 900 people found that women are using their solar ovens half of the time when they prepare meals for their families. The money saved from purchasing other cooking materials goes toward more nutritious meals, medical care, and sending children to school.

Jost estimates the life of an oven is at least seven years based on the plastic materials used to make it. Replacement materials and repairs are available from the IED church headquarters in Santo Domingo when an oven is damaged.

Enrique Antonio Solel, a member of the church in Sabaneta de Yásica, compared the use of solar ovens in the Dominican Republic with men walking on the moon.

“[The organization is] introducing a new technology to the Dominican Republic that will create a new era,” Solel said in Spanish through a translator.