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close this book Boiling Point No. 26 - December 1991
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Solar Cooking of Traditional Foods in Western Africa

By Hollis and Reynald Chatelain

Reproduced from SCNCR, Technical Information Service, Thailand

In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in Western Africa, the Centre Ecologique Albert Schweitzer has been testing solar cookers for more than one year. It is one of the first organisations to try to adapt an African diet (Burkinabe) to a solar cooker. Even though many organisations and individuals have brought a variety of solar cookers to Africa, few have tried to cook with one day after day.

The box-type solar cooker has many advantages for the Third World. It helps to save wood. Household hazards are reduced or eliminated, for instance, a child cannot be burned as with a flame. Food cannot bum and since vegetables and meat are cooked without water, at a lower temperature, many vitamins and minerals are retained that would be lost in traditional cooking.

We feel we have succeeded inchanging the traditional Burkinabe recipes and methods of cooking to obtain almost the same results as with a wood fire. We say almost because the results can never be exactly the same. Cooking over a wood fire gives a slight smokey flavour to the meal that even a gas fire does not give. But one must make sacrifices to save wood.

We have had many ups and downs in our research. We cheered when our peanut sauce boiled and we attempted to keep our enthusiasm and our smiles when, for the fourth day in a row, our rice was not cooked as it should have been.

Even though it is hot in W. Africa, we do not have enough direct sunlight to enable us to cook solar year round. During the dry season (November to April), we often have winds from the Sahara, called Harmattan. These winds carry small particles of sand which block out the sun. On these days, it is not possible to cook with solar energy. On the days without Harmattan almost all foods except "to" (made of millet and corn flours), can be cooked for midday, expecially if there is very little humidity.

As the rainy season approaches, we have less Harmattan but more clouds. The humidity increases and we must diminish the quantity of liquid in our recipes. In the month of June, rice is not prepared in the same manner as in January.

During the rainy season from June to September, it is better to put the solar cooker in storage. The skies are clear enough to use it again in October.

After all our experiments, we have come to realise that the idea of cooking with the sun is neither easy to understand nor readily accepted by the Burkinabe women First of all, they don't believe the solar cooker is hot enough until they put their hands in it. Some even get down on their hands and knees to look for the fire under the oven. After we explain how a cooker works , the women taste the food, and admit that it is good, but we feel they are saying in the back of their minds, "You can't cook without a fire".

We have a long way to go. After all, it took more than ten years for the improved wood-burning stove to be accepted, even though the recipes and the methods of cooking didn't change.


We had an eye-opening experience with a woman from Ouagadougou who followed a one month training programme with us. She was learning to use a solar cooker with the firm intention of using one in her own home. Two weeks later, she was back to cooking with wood. She told us she preferred to pay for the wood and be sure that the meal was well prepared and ready when her husband wanted to eat. She also added that food was too expensive to take the risk of ruining it.

We are now beginning to be more realistic in seeing not only the positive aspects but also the problems we must solve.

After more than 150 tests, we have tried all the basic recipes in the Burkinabe diet (especially the Mossi diet). We have tried every meal more than once because the sun's duration and intensity is different every day. Attempting to be consistent, we did our testing three times a week. We did not always have good sunshine for our tests. We also cooked with two and sometimes three cookers each day to see how consistent our ovens, pots, placement of the ovens, etc. were. We also tested different types of food on the same day.

The majority of the Burkinabe people eat "to" 300 days a year. To is prepared with millet flour or corn flour. In the solar cooker, we have been able to make to with corn and with the fine millet, but only in small quantities. To do this, we must start at 8.00 am and the meal, for two people, is ready between 3.004.00 pm. We have not yet been successful in preparing to with sorgum, which 85% of the Burkinabe population eat everyday.

A Burkinabe family consists of 10-15 people with an average monthly salary of 25,000 CFA (US$75.00). In the cities, most women cook once a day, at noon. They prepare enough food for two meals in order to save wood. The "to" is eaten with a sauce which is nominally made with dry vegetables, spices and water. Fresh vegetables and meat are added only if a family can afford them. A family of 10 people spends about 600 CFA a day for two meals. This doesn't include meat or fresh vegetables. The same family spends approximately 3600 CFA a month for wood to cook once a day (in Ouagadougou).

In the villages, people don't pay for wood, they scavenge for it. The solar cooker would probably be accepted much more easily in cities due to economic considerations.

In the cities, the women usually start the preparations for the midday meal between 10.00-10.30 am after having been to the market. The market is a very important part of their social life. A woman spends about two hours there, not only buying her daily provisions but also socialising. The noon meal must tee ready between 12.30 and 1.00 pm when the husband and the children arrive at the house.

To cook solar, a woman must be back from the market by 8.30 am in order to put the meal in the solar cooker to have it ready for 12.30. This means an important change in her social life.

We must be patient before commercializing our solar cookers as we have a lot to learn and test before they are efficient enough to be sold. We must be able to make "To" not only one out of four times, but every single time and with every type of millet consumed in Burkina Faso.

We will encounter numerous problems during the acceptance of solar cookers that will require a lot of imagination and perseverance from the women desiring to teach and to team this new method of cooking. But considering the dramatic situation in this country concerning desertification, our efforts are fully justified.


Types of "To":

• White Sorghum "To" - Most often eaten in Burkina. 85% of the people eat it everyday.

• Red Sorghum "To" - Eaten more in the villages than in the cities. Also used in the preparation of "dole" which is the local millet beer consumed in Southem Burkina.

• Fine Millet "To" - (2 varieties - grey and yellow). This type of millet is commonly used in bird seed in our countries. Also used to make porridge (called bouillie).

• Corn "To" - Made from white corn flour. This type of "to" is less filling so it is eaten less often.

Traditional preparation:

• Boil water

• Mix some flour with cool water and add to boiling water, cooking until thick (called bouillie).

• Remove a small amount of the bouillie and set aside.

• Add more flour while stirring constantly over a strong fire.

• Once you have a consistency of thick dough, add the bouillie (which was set aside) and stir until cooked (20 to 30 minutes total cooking time).

• Once cooked, the "to" is dipped out by a ladle. The "balls" are put one on top of each other in a bowl.

• The "to" is eaten with a sauce. It is eaten hot but not burning hot because you eat with your fingers. Pieces are broken off and dipped in the sauce.


All sauces have the same basic ingredients, only the main ingredient changes. The basic ingredients are:

• Soumbala: beans from the nere trees that are boiled for a long time, allowed to ferment, then dried and rolled in balls. Soumbala is the spice used most in Burkina.

• Millet yeast.