Building Solar Cookers for Afghan Refugees

Jack Howell ’64

Ovens in AfghanistanA family receives a solar cooker and attends a demonstation on how to use it, in a village outside Kabul, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Trust and Education.

Jack Howell ’64 is building and distributing thousands of portable solar cookers to refugee families in Afghanistan, and they’re changing lives.

“These families don’t have much. They’re part of the country’s half-million internally displaced people, forced from their homes by 30 years of war,” Howell says. They live in tents and mud houses, and have no electricity or running water. 

Howell's cookers don't need electricity. On a sunny day, they can heat up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to pasteurize a gallon of water in 45 minutes, and cook a whole chicken in two hours. Howell has distributed about 2,000 cookers to villagers outside Kabul during the past two years. 

And he makes them from a Bay Area throw away: Mylar bags from Peet’s Coffee and Tea, which the company uses to store wholesale beans. The shiny Mylar is stapled to panels, which are arranged so that their reflective surface focuses sunlight on a cooking pot, converting the sunlight into heat. 

Jack Howell ’64
Jack Howell ’64 builds solar cookers for Afghan refugees.

The ovens help Afghans in a number of important ways: they help kill waterborne bacteria in a country where only 27 percent of people have access to clean water, and they’re smoke-free. Worldwide, about two million people die every year from the effects of breathing smoke from open fires, according to the World Health Organization. 

The cookers also alleviate the need for costly firewood. “Families save up to $12 a month. That’s a lot, considering Afghans make only about $30 a month on average,” Howell said.

It costs about $15 to build each cooker; that expense is covered by Trust in Education (TIE), a nonprofit where Howell works as a volunteer. They’re shipped for free through the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Peet’s donates the Mylar bags—tens of thousands of them so far. 

Howell plans to build and distribute another 5,000 cookers by the end of the year. To get the job done, he has recruited students from 100 Bay Area high schools, all members of Interact-Rotary clubs. 

Howell says giving back is something he learned at USF. “Service and a global perspective have always been at the core of USF’s values. That’s something  carry with me.” 


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