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Workshop on Wheels August 10, 2007

Posted by isabelleinnamibia in Eco-goodness, Education, Home and away, Namibia, Oh..interesting, Ovitoto, The job.

Last week, I was involved in the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia’s (DRFN) “Workshop on Wheels”. The idea is simple yet genius. Hire a coach, fill it with people with an interest in Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, and travel around the country looking at different Energy focused projects. All expenses paid. I approached the DRFN a few months ago about the wonderful wood-efficient stove, the Tso-Tso Stove (meaning Twig-Twig, referring to the small amount of wood needed for cooking on it), and they decided to include us as one of the visited projects.

As I have previously mentioned, we did a training for seven community members before Christmas on how to make these wood-efficient stoves, with the idea that they can set up a business in manufacturing these stoves. Since many people cook on open fires, even in urban areas, and wood is a non-renewable and limited resource, these stoves are important towards tackling desertification as well as global warming (on a very small scale though! But every little counts!). As so little wood is needed for cooking on them, as they are incredibly efficient, it saves the amount of money people spending on firewood, or on the amount of time they spend collecting firewood from the veld (some people walk up to 15km to collect firewood). The stove is also a lot safer to use, especially around children, and incredibly quick to cook with.

As you can tell, I like this stove a lot, but it isn’t so easy to convince people to use them. People traditionally like a good ol’ fire to sit around: for heat, for light, for the communal aspect of it, and for many, the religious aspect of the Holy Fire. Whilst the Tso-Tso Stove is cheaper, safer, quicker and healthier, for the general public, nothing beats an open fire under the stars.

Back to the workshop though…It started on Monday morning at the Habitat Research and Development Centre (HRDC, see link at the side, it’s fab, check it out) in Katutura, the township of Windhoek. About 30 people were there, all from different parts of the country, with different interests and areas of expertise, all around ENERGY. A few presentations introduced the issue of desertification vs bush encroachment, as well as energy use in the households around Namibia. Biomass, aka firewood issues, are a hot topic right now, and rightly so, as new and diverse ways to manage wood as a resource, as well as look at alternative methods of energy use.

I then had to dash off to Ovitoto to arrange my stove makers in preparation for their debut demonstration the following morning, whilst the workshop went to visit firewood sellers and food-sellers around the township.

The following morning, after much running around the ECO-C making everything look nice and making sure that my stove boys knew what they were doing, the big green bus arrived, filled with eager energy-folk. My boys were on form, showing how to make the stove, showing off their cutting, bending and hammering skills and letting participates have a try too. A group of engineers got in a huddle and started debating the faults of the stove and possible improvements to be made. Others, unfamiliar with the stove, stood by, watching and learning. I also had the opportunity to show the group around the centre, showing off our Otjitoilets, our shading and insulation methods and our garden projects, currently barren due to the dry winter.

I left with the bus, heading towards Grootfontein, a good 5 hours on the slow coach, feeling very content that I had successfully done what I intended to do – promote the hard work of our stove guys, and promote the centre itself. Hurrah.

As we ambled up the main highway of Namibia, the bus’ microphone was passed around, starting debates on energy, bush encroachment, development, the future of Namibia and so on. We also had a tour guide who pointed out key geographical and botanical features of the landscape (which I will be regurgitating for my parents’ visit in a few weeks!). We arrived at dusk at our lodge near Grootfontein, and before our hearty supper, watching a documentary about nuns in Tanzania who make a diesel-like fuel from the jatropha plant, using its oil to run their generator. Brilliant.

Early Wednesday, we set out for a charcoal making factory near Grootfontein. After an hour on gravel roads, our big green bus pulls up at the farm and is taken out to proper veld by the farmer. He explains how the lack of bush fires has lead to massive bush encroachment, to the point that no grass can grow, and the bush is too thick for cattle to graze or even cheetahs to hunt. So he chops down two-thirds of the encroaching trees and turns it into charcoal, much of which is shipped off to the UK for BBQ season. He has a large and dedicated workforce, who all lives in a village on the farm. Next to the main farm house is a settlement of wood and mud huts, children running after chickens barefoot and women cooking around fires. They even have a teacher who runs a basic school for the children, and evening literacy and numeracy classes for the adults in the evening. As we left, the women spontaneously chased down after us, singing and dancing, children hanging from their backs and hips, thanking us for visiting them.

We piled back into the bus, and set forth for Ongwediva, right in The North, over the Red Line, to Ovamboland. The Red Line is the old historical line that the colonist drew right across the country, separating their sprawling colonial farms from the Namibian’s communal lands. It is now the Vetinary  Line, a check-point for transporting possibly infected livestock. The landscape difference is remarkable. South of the Red Line, the country is chopped neatly into predominantly white-owned farms, farming livestock and game mostly, fenced in by tidy, straight fencing. A very small proportion of farms are owned by blacks below this line. Above the Red Line is what people imagine to be “real Africa”. Homesteads with wooden kraals and mudhuts scatter the landscape, smoke wafting up from their fire; dirt tracks leading into the bush; donkeys, cows and goats wandering freely around (often causing traffic or accidents at night!). This region is predominantly populated by the Ovambos, who were stubbornly resilient against the colonists attempt at rule. Around roadside villages, shebeens (local bars) line the streets, with imaginative names like Lighthouse Pub, Nice Time Bar, Pretty Lady Bar, and even an Al Quaeda Bar with an attached Taliban Restaurant, found in Ongwediva. 

After breaking down at the Red Line (the hand brake jammed, stranding us for 2 hours), we made it to Ongwediva late, had a quick dinner, a few drinks down the local shebeen and hit the sack.

Thursday was the last active day of the tour. We started the day with a demonstration from a rival Tso-Tso Stove manufacturing entrepreneur, who has been doing it for about 3 years. He cleverly trains people to make the stoves for him, pays them a pittance in shoddy working conditions, and then sweeps in the profit on a massive mark-up (cheeky sod!).

We also visited a solar-box cooker manufacturers. Since Namibia is sunny 365 days a year, the sun is a valuable resource, and these ovens have been designed to use the sun’s energy as efficiently as possible. Simple yet effective, the sun’s light is reflected off metal foil sheets into a glass-lidded box, creating an ideal cooking environment. I’ve used them before for cooking rice, eggs and bread and must say that they are very effective, if you don’t mind waiting.

After all this dashing about, we spent the afternoon at the Oshikati Market, the biggest market in the North, where we had to ask local marketers about their energy consumption. Being the only foreigner, and the only white female on the workshop, my presence at the market caused quite a stir, especially as I wandered around with my workshop friend, Selma, who being Ovambo, was able to help with the language barrier. It is quite amazing the efforts some people have to go to just to get enough wood or paraffin to cook with.

The following day, we left a few Ovambo workshop participants behind, and our depleted crew began the 900km drive back to Windhoek. Ideas about energy efficiency and development were bandering around on the microphone. I tried to catch a few winks after only 4 hours sleep the night before and a night in the shebeens. I arrived home at 7pm, dirty, exhausted but buzzing from all the new knowledge and experiences, as well as a refreshed respect and adoration for Namibia.

Photos and more stories from this week will follow in due course.



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