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Applicant: Solar Projects Foundation for Nicaraguan Women (FUPROSOMUNIC) Project: "Solar Women" for Central America Country: Nicaragua

Most women in the rural parts of Nicaragua do their cooking over open fireplaces, and thus need large quantities of firewood and are exposed to harmful smoke every day. In 2004, Maria Mercedes Alvarez Valle established the non-profit foundation FUPROSOMUNIC (Fundación Proyecto Solar de Mujeres Nicaragüenses) to tackle these environmental and health issues. Maria Mercedes trained as a chemical engineer and has been the main coordinator at FUPROSOMUNIC for over eight years now, promoting the use of solar-powered ovens and food dehydrators and the use of solar technology in the treatment of drinking water. So far, the initiative has achieved that more than 700 "solar women" in the four towns of Rivas, Masaya, Granada and León have built their own solar ovens; they have also come to understand the benefits of solar technologies more generally. They use their ovens -- whenever the sun permits it -- independently, i.e. without the need for continued support.

The solar ovens are really simple to build and to operate, says Maria Mercedes, and they need neither wood, nor gas or electricity to run on. Perhaps the best thing about them is that the food cooks by itself in the sun, giving the women more time for other chores around the household, to look after their children or simply to take a break sometimes. The solar dehydrators are used to dry for example hibiscus flowers for herbal teas, or fruit like pineapples, bananas and papayas. Selling dried fruit and herbs is moreover a source of income for the women. FUPROSOMUNIC holds workshops where environmental conservation, gender equality and nutrition are discussed. The project staff also attend solar industry fairs, meetings to share their experiences, and various training events on how solar energy can be used, where they also discuss problems and exchange recipes.

Maria Mercedes Alvarez Valle enjoys working with the solar women in Nicaragua; in her spare time she also spends time with her friends, reads, plays her guitar or goes hiking. Her latest plan is for a "demo centre", where the solar women can discuss their experiences, teach other women how to build and operate solar ovens and dehydrators, and produce dried fruit and teas -- that is, to create an organization that can sustain itself. After all, Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western hemisphere and this project is at least a modest starting point for raising the income of its poor and protecting the environment at the same time.

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