By  Vijita Fernando

Freelance Journalist – Sri Lanka


In poor rural homes in Sri Lanka, cooking is done on “open” hearths with three stones supporting the pan with the fire underneath. Fed with strips of wood, dried coconut leaves or coconut husks, the fire emits thick smoke, the cooking takes long and the health hazards of inhaling wood smoke and air pollution within cramped and crowded shanties are silent killers.

According to a report published by the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), nearly 2.4 billion people in poor countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and several other South Asian and African countries are still mainly reliant on biomass fuel sources such as dung, crop residue, wood and charcoal for cooking. These fuels generate a noxious mixture of particulate matter, carbon monoxide and other gases that produce pollution levels that have alarming effects on human health killing at least 1.6 million people a year worldwide.

Several efforts have been made to reduce these ill effects by introducing alternatives to this form of cooking. ITDG has had some success in Kenya where the use of smoke hoods is said to reduce smoke and carbon monoxide levels by about 80percent. These projects are still, however, on a very small scale.

Harnessing the Sun in Sri Lanka

Biomass fuel sources generate a noxious mixture of particulate matter, carbon monoxide and other gases killing at least 1.6 million people a year worldwide

A Sri Lankan Non Governmental Organization (NGO) has come up with the innovative idea of cooking with sunlight using energy from solar power. The process is simple. It needs a wooden box called a solar box cooker. This simple contraption is exposed to the sun with uncooked food placed inside it for two to four hours and the food is ready!

“Cooking food in a box is not an idea that people find easy to accept,” says E.M. Abeyratne, Director the NGO, EMACE (Environment and science, Manpower and skills, Adult parenthood assistance, Childcare and women’s rights, Education and culture).

The initial stages of the project and the testing took place at Hambantota, a township in the south of the country with plenty of sunlight. Several workshops and demonstrations later, the solar box cooker is now being accepted in many areas.

EMACE helps the most marginalized people in the country with projects in income generation, health care and education. The need to find alternative methods of cooking was linked to health care, science and women. Abeyratne contacted a global company, Solar Cookers International, for information on how the idea of harnessing the sun for cooking could be put into actual practice.

“About the same time, two Canadian volunteers, Lee Sentes and Kathleen Manion, had completed a solar cooking project in Madagascar and Solar Cookers International requested them to contact me,” says Abeyratne.

The link was made, and in 2000 EMACE began their project in Katubedda, a town about fifteen miles to the south of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

Five models were tested before it was decided that the box was the most suitable for the country’s homes. Six skilled staff were trained to produce, manufacture and maintain the box cookers. Workshops were then set up and training was given to villagers from other areas of the country, Anuradhapura in the north central region of the country, Kurunegala and Puttalam on the fringe of the Dry Zone.

The Makeup

“There is no big science involved.” E.M. Abeyratne, Director of EMACE
click to in enlarge

Explaining the actual construction of the cooker, Abeyratne says that the prototype box is 60 x 41 centimeters in size and 14 cm in height. This can be altered to suit individual requests. The box is lined with coir fiber (obtained after soaking the outer hard green husk of the coconut and beating it to obtain the fibre, which is then molded into compressed sheets). A reflective material is attached to the outer surface of the lid and the base of the box. Uncooked food, in covered, black-painted aluminum pans, is placed inside the base of the box and allowed to rest on a thin metal sheet balanced on small objects to allow the heat to circulate, thus making the cooking process quite fast.

“There is no big science involved,” says Abeyratne, explaining that the box is positioned facing the sun with its reflector lid kept open. Sunlight reflected on the lid falls directly onto a transparent sheet of glass beneath which is located the food in the covered aluminum pots. The well-insulated base containing the trapped hot air begins the cooking at 85°C almost immediately. As long as the lid is kept open, the food stays warm.

“My wife has been using one for about two years and her cooking, especially of fish in the box cooker, is delicious,” says an appreciative Abeyratne.

The cooker can be used to cook two meals of rice and curry

The cooker can be used to cook two meals of rice and curry, the Sri Lankan staple food, for a day. It is also capable of turning out pastries and cakes.

“One must remember that there can be no cooking at night, nor when it rains or when the skies are threatening with clouds. The best times are between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on a bright sunny day of which we in Sri Lanka have plenty!” says Abeyratne.

The cooker must be kept in an open place in direct sunlight where the sun will fall unhindered for about four hours. The cooking pans will not be covered with soot as in wood fired cooking, and as the cooking is automatic, the housewife can attend to other chores while the box does her cooking.

There are no running costs other than the initial cost of 2,100 Sri Lankan rupees (approx. 22 US dollars) for a completely fitted box. There are no health hazards from smoke, no germs and after the rice is washed and the vegetables are chopped, cooking time is at a minimum. Maintenance of the cooker is at a minimum and as it is durable, the cooker is cost effective.

Abeyratne says that EMACE has now produced over 300 cookers and the organization is compelled to sell them to generate funds for the project. A larger, industrial type of cooker costs Rs. 16,500 (approx. US $180).

A women’s group in a refugee camp in the North where employment opportunities are scarce bought two of the larger cookers and several families have come together and started a bakery business.

Safer Water

Boiling water to make it safe for drinking is almost impossible in poor households

due to high costs of firewood. UNICEF Sri Lanka has pointed out that unsafe drinking water is the reason for the majority of deaths of children under five, who die of diarrhea and other water-related diseases. The solar cooker will be a boon once it gets popular for easy and cost free boiling of water for drinking.

Despite initial doubts due to the novelty of cooking with sunlight, Abeyratne is convinced that he is making a breakthrough in popularizing the advantages of harnessing the sun – so free, so plentiful and so inviting – to cook one’s food.

After so many years of cooking in smoke filled kitchens and struggling with firewood, women, he says will soon begin to look upon cooking with sunlight as a blessing!

For more information, contact EMACE Foundation at:

1/72 Rahula Mawatha, Katubedda, Moratuwa.

Tel: 94-11-2625422

Email: [email protected]


Vijita Fernando is a freelance Sri Lankan journalist with more than 25 years of experience. She is a member of the Sri Lanka Federation of University Women, Chairperson of the Centre for Family Services, which works with women and children victimized in local conflicts, and is a Board Member of a consortium of NGOs working in water and sanitation in poor rural communities. Your e-mails will be forwarded to her by contacting the editor at[email protected].