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Inventor looks to sun to save Eritrea’s forests

An inventor in Eritrea hopes his solar-powered cooker will save local forests.
To accompany feature Eritrea- Invention
Seyoum Goitom inspects his unfinished solar-powered cooker at his workshop in Keren, Eritrea.Ed Harris / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Seyoum Goitom, inventor and father-of-six, stood in his workshop in Eritrea, explaining his passion for mechanics, while young girls herded goats outside and butterflies wobbled in the warmth.

Goitom has so far built a biscuit maker, welding machine and lawnmower from recycled parts. Now he is looking at a much bigger and possibly more significant project.

The 38-year-old is turning his creative energies to deforestation around Keren, his home and one of Eritrea’s most attractive towns, where the forest is slowly disappearing.

He is working on an enormous, solar-powered cooker, which he believes could drastically cut the need for firewood among his compatriots in the Red Sea state. Small solar cookers have been deployed in some areas, but Goitom’s is much larger, using a satellite dish to collect energy.

Some 95 percent of Eritrea’s forests have been lost in the past century because of drought, a growing population and -- to a lesser extent -- the war for independence from Ethiopia when many trees were cut to deny hiding places to combatants.

“When I was young, we could find big, old trees in the mountains and a small stream at the bottom all year round,” Goitom said, standing on a dry slope.

“Now the river is dry, and there are almost no trees. They have been cut for fuel and building,” he added, as two young boys ambled past, looking for firewood with axes in their hands.

Stopping the desert
Deforestation is a major threat to Africa’s vulnerable communities. An international report said earlier this year that desertification, caused in part by widespread deforestation, threatens to drive millions from their homes.

Goitom thinks he can make a difference.

“Our country is becoming a desert,” he said. “If we use solar (power), the environment will be OK. My children will be healthy and happy and better.”

The inventor has received some financial support from the Dutch Embassy and is hoping to win backing from other groups in order to make his solar-powered cooker available to schools and other public organizations.

“I’m using this old satellite dish, and converting it to a cooker,” he said. “The schools use wood for cooking. If they have a solar cooker, then we can save on wood.”

The satellite dish measures 6.5 feet in diameter.

Running his hands over the tin foil that covers the dish, Goitom explains how the direction and angle can be adjusted to cook wherever the sun is shining.

“We are trying a pilot project. If it is successful, then we will produce more (solar-powered cookers),” he said.

‘Modification’ strategy
Looking around at his tools, old generators, engines, and motorbike parts strewn randomly on his workshop’s dirty floor, he recalls how he developed his passion for gadgets.

“I used to go to my father’s workshop every day to help him,” he said, describing his first attempts as a 10-year-old to repair broken radios and water pumps. “Little by little, I became more and more interested in technical things.”

Necessity is the mother of invention in Eritrea, where roughly two-thirds of the population of 3.6 million require food aid this year.

Goitom recognizes the need to improvise and use what is available to improve one’s life.

“When there are no spare parts, you have to be more clever,” he said. “(You become) more interested in modification.”