Failure to Understand Local Context

by Mattias Goldmann, Head of Kenyan Operations, Tricorona

  • Project: Solar Cookers
  • Location: Kenya
  • Sector: Environment
  • Professional Designation: NGO


When I was still new in Kenya, I was at a meeting about energy efficient stoves, reducing firewood consumption by around 50%. I had read about solar cookers that totally eliminate the need for firewood, so after some time I could not contain myself anymore, but remarked that it seemed unnecessary to still be using 50% firewood, when that could be reduced to zero.

“You must be very new to Kenya”, I was told, and indeed over the following months I realized that very rarely will the societies of Kenya or Eastern Africa in general accept to cook food in the open, for everyone to see, and with no fire. Indeed, one time while camping, we were physically threatened for cooking our food in the open – it is a strong taboo for several tribes, and with good reason – in areas and times of near starvation, showing others that you have food is not good manners.


People will however accept an efficient stove that reduces the consumption by half. Over the years since, I have seen many failed solar cooker projects and have often reminded myself of my own ignorance about this.


Select three phrases that describe this failure.

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  1. I went to two workcamp in Togo working with mentaly disable kids in a school. The first year we all eat together adult and pupil, however the next summer the togolese they gave the food to the pupils first and then after they left we eat. When I asked the local leader of the camp told me it was the tradition that kids don’t eat with the grown up. Of course I knew that not to be true and it was out of ignorance (which i mean lack of knowledge) and fear of impossible contagious that they would not eat with the kids. I decide to take it slow and try to work around the problem, one day we had two french guest at lunch… so when I saw that the kids were been served I asked the two french women to go and start eating with the pupils… of course as a guest no one dare to say no and also it’s a bad maner to make the guest eat alone… so in the end we all set down. After that day every meal was done together. I was able to play the local hospitality to defeat a prejudice. The year before I would have just took the not eating together explanation as it’s face value. The camp went great and we did a great theater performance with the kids of the school and the one from the neighboor.. breaking down even more stereotypes… I believe that had a stronger impact that building a wall…. Over the camp we had many failures along the way, sometimes you just to bit the bullet and wait for a solution around the problem. You have to accept that you are powerless in some many instances

  2. connie says:

    I am a farmer in the states and see this type of failure to understand local culture by urban outsiders all the time. You can not come into communities and tell them what they ‘should do’ without the real risk of being thought a fool and not worth taking seriously. It lacks respect on many levels.

    It seems so basic and yet I see it being repeated all the time and with exactly the same reaction.

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