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Smoke free kitchens: Africa kitchen revolution keeps going

improved cook stoveI am delighted today to get news of an award (Gender Just Climate Solutions Award) that was given to Sonita Mbah from Betterworld Cameroon. She actually received the award in 2017, but could not participate in the event. So today I saw the press conference recording from COP 24 which I will share below.

Sonita is championing the project we started together in 2015/16: the Africa Kitchen Revolution. We started in the local village with a group of women and taught them to build rocket cook stoves. The model for this was to teach a group by building or two example stoves in home kitchens and then ask those women to build stoves for the rest of the members of the group. In 2016 we held a training for trainers to be able to reach more women .

 

If you listen to Sonita’s statement the intention we set together has been moving forward:

Women are teaching women to build their own mud stoves.

Following this work in Cameroon I have shared the stove building process again in Kenya. And the rocket stove technology has been moving into a few other countries in Africa . Here’s an example from the Gambia by builder Alagie Manneh:

work of Alagie Manneh

To me it comes down to this:

In order to serve the needs of the women who in many cases have no access to cash income, a technology has to be culturally acceptable, attainable, locally doable and independent from industrial processes . If the women succeed to spread the skills and continue to develop the design to suit their particular cooking needs, this project is successful.

If you are interested in trainings for stoves like this please contact me. I will be in East Africa in 2019 and can be available to groups or organizations.

Here now as promised the award presentation: Sonita is speaking at 16:25

 

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Building with Earth- an invitation to creative expression

I made a comment on Facebook  recently stating how much I love to work with cob more than any other earth building method.

cob and bottles

Here’s a selection of techniques and my impressions which help me decide which method to use in a specific location:

Earthbags

earthbags as foundation

We’ve built Earthbag foundations  in Canada (OUR Ecovillage ), Tanzania and Cameroon. The earthbag foundations work well and are low cost in places where stone isn’t available.

At a Natural building colloquium I filled long tubes with earth. Friends from the natural building movement have built beautiful domes and other homes with this method. I believe if there’s clay in your soil, forget the bags and build freely with that clay-soil. It’s a matter of location and what’s available.

Rammed Earth

Another amazing technique producing beautiful and stunning buildings is Rammed Earth. Layers of different colors tell the story of the earth at the location. I’m talking about rammed earth free of cement here, as its being done by several builders in Europe. This way of building requires serious formwork and planning. My personal experience is limited to observation, because in my work I’ve been in locations where that formwork is very difficult (expensive) to build. As a result rammed earth shows up on the high end of building cost and in larger scale buildings.

Mud blocks

Adobe in Africa

Many cultures have built with Mud blocks (Adobe) and still do so. Here in Cameroon  I see homes being constructed with a mud-block infill system, using concrete for structural support:  ringbeams and to bridge large openings. Local people have experience producing these blocks and will make their own when it’s time to build a home.  Making blocks doesn’t require much: water and clay-soil. Fiber isn’t so commonly used but is useful to prevent cracks and to strengthen the blocks. You need a flat area to lay out the blocks to dry in the sun- this will take about a week. Then dry storage until construction begins. Building walls with blocks requires some skill- to build a house takes some practice at masonry work. And those blocks are very heavy to lift. However, depending on seasonal patterns and workflow, this can be a great way to build an earth home.

Compressed Earth Blocks

compressed earth block press at work

Compressed earth blocks (CEB’s) can be made with or without cement for stabilization in various shapes and sizes. Simple mechanical block presses require  at least two people to work together – mixing the clay-soil (sometimes sifted) with a little water, then filling the form and compressing with the power of a long lever. Scale it up and you’ll see machines working with hydraulics taking the hard work out, but driving up the cost . The result is a firm, even block, sometimes interlocking. We’ve just finished building our dormitory walls with CEB’s – because we had the perfect soil on site, were too late in the season for sundried blocks , and had straight walls to build. We hired a local builder to lay the blocks as they came from the press. It got the job done.

Cob

cob makes sculpted walls

Parallel to this process our volunteers were building with cob. We created some hybrid walls with the blocks to add sculptural details and bottles. And we shaped benches and a lounge area. A layer of cob fills awkward spots in the block walls (filling around posts etc) . I watched inexperienced building volunteers mix great batches of cob, build the walls and trim them. Everybody took on designing with bottles- allowing one individual  to be the overall artistic eye.

And that’s where that statement came from.

Watching people, who have never built anything, confidently building something beautiful makes my heart sing.

Earth Plasters

applying natural plaster

We’ll be moving into Earth plasters next – where sculptures get refined and block-walls disappear behind a hand-applied layer of mud. Earthen plasters can be simple sand/clay mixes applied by hand or more sophisticated ones with additions of ingredients like mica or marble dust, finished with special trowels. It’s up to the availability of materials, skills and  taste, desires and budget of the owner.

Hybrid of techniques

The beauty with all of the options above is the possibility of mixing things up. We call it hybrid homes- for example walls of cob on one side and straw-bale on the other. Or adobe with inserts of cob for bottles and other sculpted elements. All tied together with beautiful natural plaster finishes.

I’m heading to Kenya this summer to create a cabin for my host Joannah in a couple of workshops. She’s already collecting beautiful things to incorporate. Dreaming her space. Clearing the site.

the site for the cob house

When participants arrive we’ll work with a selection of techniques appropriate to the location and learn about decision-making in the process. This opens up the possibility of  being creative builders in collaboration with others. We’ll be supporting the first stage of a learning center for permaculture in a protected forest.

So if you are so inclined, come to Kenya this August!  You will get your hands muddy and experience a different sort of safari!

 

 

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Natural Building in Cameroon- start of another season

discussing project work with women

What does it take to get a building project off the ground in Bafut, Cameroon?

What will be our most successful ways to share knowledge and skills?

How can we work with the local community and have different interest groups meet and move together?

discussing the project with local builders

These and other questions are my focus at this time of beginning the work of building a meeting hall and small kitchen at Ndanifor Permaculture Ecovillage. The building will be the first part of a learning center where Better World Cameroon intends to teach “Permaculture African Way”. It will also demonstrate natural building and set the direction for the remaining development.

How did we get this far?

As a new volunteer last year I got engaged in the vision of a sustainable demonstration site in Bafut. This is part of a larger vision for Bafut as Ecocity for 2020. Part of this demonstration site is a farm, where people learn and practice organic growing and where Permaculture design is gradually being implemented.

A teaching site cannot fully operate without shelter for people. A design was developed for a learning center with accommodation in form of an Eco-lodge. Big plans for a small organization.

meeting hall for learning center

Ndanifor Permaculture Ecovillage is recognized by GEN (global ecovillage network) Africa as one of their African examples. This is bringing attention to us, and we expect to be hosting events at this site in the near future.

Close relations with Bafut Council and the local Palaces are also important elements for this vision.

eco-hut gets action

In early 2014 I worked with a group of local women to build the eco-hut. This was a teaching course to get a natural building to the village. Entirely self funded, this building was built largely as volunteer effort, in one or two working days per week. Suffice to say it didn’t get completed in three months. The local builders did put a roof on it and now the cabin is waiting for completion.

Fast-forward a few months to November 2014.

We are back in Bamenda after a stay in Europe. While abroad I was able to secure some funding from LUSH Charity Pot for the next structure, the meeting hall.

Coming back here, that means expectations- word gets around and as soon as funding is in the game everyone wants a piece of it. It gets political.

I am a builder in a foreign land here,

and I must observe local custom and learn about the local hierarchies at play. In the village we have a local government represented by the Quarter-head. He reports to Bawum Palace (which is different from Bafut Palace). As an organization we are also working with Bafut Council and Palace, Bafut being the larger Region that Bawum is part of. Our immediate community are the people of Alegnwi, part of Bawum.

The leader of the women’s group we worked with last year is also a representative in the village. Are you confused yet?

Villagers here have responsibilities to their community.

They are for instance expected to participate in communal work parties, some of which have been taking place at the ecovillage site.If an individual isn’t regularly turning up at such workdays, his or her reputation suffers.

 

Design is discussed with builders

So here we are looking at putting together a team of builders from locals, to exchange skill and knowledge and to build a beautiful hall. I have a rough plan, so as we discuss with the builders we refine just how exactly this will be done.

Meetings before action

At an initial meeting at the siteI explained my vision of the building to three traditional builders and the leader of the women, as well as a couple of members of our organization.

women will be building

The ball is now in the builder’s court to give us an estimate for the stone foundation and a post-and beam structure for the roof.

Before we actually make any contracts we will have to visit the Quarter-head and state our intentions and share our plan. Only with his sanction will this project be able to have the community-building effect that we intend.

Updates about the project

will be posted here occasionally and more frequently on Better World Cameroon facebook page.

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A certificate for working with our hands

women proud of their achievement

plaster practiceEvery program comes to an end and a good ending is a celebration of accomplishment and recognition of the participants.

Our Eco-building community courses had their closing celebration on April 11 at Alegnwi Community hall. It was an afternoon of memories of our time spent together working at various projects. There were images of work, some candid portraits and Better World’s short documentary movies.

she's done it

This was an opportunity for community members to see what we would be taking into the world.

Much talking and laughter rose when people recognized themselves and their friends.

People may see themselves in a different light when they understand that participating in these projects reaches far beyond the boundaries of this region.

It’s been a busy three months for them: many community work hours were spent on the water catchment project resulting in fresh water for drinking. Women and Youth came to learn natural building at Ndanifor Permaculture Ecovillage where we now have a small eco-hut almost complete.

Recently community members started working toward the High Value Agriculture Project by tilling and planting the trial plot.

Certificates acknowledge those who put extra time and energy into the regular training days.

“ We have never had a certificate for working with our hands” said Dorothy Nemuluh, the chairlady of Alegnwi and one of the ecovillage builder women.

woman with child plastering

That statement means a lot to me as instructor. If we can value the hands-on skills of people similar to academic achievement we may reach a better balance in our education.

Leaving the village and leaving Cameroon, I take away a sweet feeling of connection to all those I had the privilege to work with and I carry in my heart the songs we shared and the memory of being in the mud together.

women proud of their achievement

 

Watch us work together in the mini documentary Power of community:

 

 

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Building improved cook stoves with women in Cameroon

preparing the improved cook stove

Did you know that countless women in Africa cook the family meals on 3-stone fires? I don’t have statistics, but I see the evidence all around us both in the city of Bamenda and when we go to the Village. I have mentioned building improved wood stoves frequently since our arrival here, and many women say “I want one”,  but it took initiative and some funding (VSO thank you) to actually start building.

learning about building

It’s a project!

Wopong Jocelyn Achu asked me to come and teach 15 women in the small community of Pinyin in Santa, to the South of Bamenda. She is working as VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) national volunteer for HEDECS (Health Education Development Consultancy Services).

We set the goal to build one stove with the women in a workshop, perhaps start a second one and then leave supplies for them to build another five stoves by the end of the month of January. We hope that this will trigger further stoves to be done under people’s own initiative.

Some research into the topic in combination with my own experience from previous stove projects produced a handout with mostly visual instructions. I know what it feels like to learn something in a workshop and try to do it alone the next time: a guideline is helpful, and since not all women read or speak English, it had to be visual.

To make things affordable and easy to repeat I looked for simple, local solutions for elements like form work, chimney building, tools and materials.

presenting benefits of improved cook stoves

The workshop

We left Bamenda in the early morning by shared taxi to Santa, from where we carried on by motorcycle to Pinyin.  Mountainous terrain with densely farmed valleys, this is a highly productive region for vegetables that are distributed throughout Cameroon and beyond.

The women gathered in front of Lillian’s house, where we would be building the stove under a good sheltering roof next to the front door.  But not just women wanted to learn, a group of secondary school girls attended as well and many men and youth came by during the course of the day.

The list of materials :

the main material clay is in the yardMud bricks (the women had produced 230 bricks approx. 10x10x20 cm )

Claysoil ( the pit was in the yard)

Two sacks of sawdust

Small quantity of sand (most precious there because it is brought in)

 

Tools to have at hand:

Tropical hoe to dig and mix clay

Cutlass (machete)

Measuring tape (if unavailable use body measurements)

Buckets

 

Steps to designingsize the stove to the pots

  1. Take the largest pot that will be used on the stove and determine its volume
  2. The volume relates to the size of combustion chamber and heat path through the stove (all the same cm2), a simple chart is available to look this up:  download publication
  3. The width of the stove will be determined by the diameter of the pot plus insulation plus bricks
  4. The length of it is the sum of the first pot plus a second, smaller pot, plus chimney plus edges and channels.
  5. Finally the height of the stove as illustrated in the sketch

drawing of improved cook stove

 

much interest in cook stoves

Building the stove:

  1. Prepare a 1:1 (by volume) mix of clay and sawdust  (estimated 4 wheelbarrows of clay) and a clay mortar mix
  2. Layout on the ground: position pots, mark center lines  and edges on the wall
  3. Set edges with bricks and configure firewood feed and combustion chamber (considering 5cm insulation)
  4. Build up edges and combustion chamber.using banana stems as forms
  5. Insulate combustion chamber. We used banana stems as guides which I saw in my research, but decided to pull them up as we built up instead of leaving them to rot in place, as suggested)
  6. Fill voids with compacted earth or bricks
  7. At appropriate height set the first (larger) pot in place and fill around it with insulation mix.using the pot to form the stove top
  8. At the same height the channel to Pot 2 will be built with insulation mix, followed by pot 2 set into place
  9. Continue building up around the pots to desired height.

10. Make a channel to the chimney and set up a form to build the pipe (banana stem works here too)

11. Remove the pots and smooth all edges and surfaces inside, scraping down the surface around the pots to create hot air circulation. Place three clay supports to lift the pot- allowing heat to move under and around the pot.

proud owner of the improved cook stove

Tadah!

With the experience the women had – they already know how to mix mud, make bricks and lay bricks- we accomplished the first stove in about 4 1/2  hours- with much deliberation and figuring out the process.

To my great surprise everyone got up after the meal that followed, and carried bricks to the next house. And then the women went ahead and within 1 ½ hours built another stove with little input on my part!

women build the second stove Built in less than two hours

We will return to Pinyin to do some surface finishing and to see how things are. And we hope to light the fire in the first stove at that time. When all is done and our feedback is in, I will publish a full report and make it available for download.

At time of publishing this post, the women have built three more stoves and are on track for the last 2. I am now working with another group of women on constructing a cabin, an oven and a stove….stay tuned!

Pinyin workshop group