No matter how poor the country you are working in they always have dirt. A clever Permaculture Aid Specialist can always come up with a range of projects made out of dirt. LORENA stoves, houses, granaries, bricks, and pottery are just some of the things that a community can make from their mud. Local agricultural waste products can also be added to the clay or earth to create workable materials for these earth type projects. My favourite is the earth pizza oven or bread oven.
A well-made pizza oven can produce a heap of tasty, healthy food. It can bake bread, cakes, scones, buns, meat dishes and of course pizzas! Pizzas must be one of the most universally loved foods on the planet. I introduced pizza to several cultures over my years as an aid specialist. In Karamoja, Northern Uganda, in 2010 I build a large oven and fed the Karamajong their first ever pizza and it was wood fired too. They had seen pizza in American films but had no idea what this food actually tasted like. After my Green Warriors had their first few slices of pizza they began singing and dancing around like they just won the lottery. I asked them why they were so excited and they said that because pizza had finally come to their land then they must be moving forward in their development. I hadn’t realised how iconic pizza had become worldwide.
Conversely you should check your local cultural practices out before you build too. I once almost caused a riot in Aceh, after the 2004 tsunami. Our Permaculture Aid team built Aceh’s first wood fired pizza oven at our permaculture field school there. Once the oven was complete, on a whim, I added some large eyes to go with the large opening at the mouth to give it the look of some kind of animal. Little did I know that putting eyes on inanimate objects constitutes blasphemy to those Muslims in that area. After the whole village massed to come and take me out for building a “God” I relented and removed the offending eyes. The riot petered out and they all went home, thank God! The blind pizza God still functioned and the Acehnese got their first taste of pizza after all.
In developing communities, getting the people together for a meeting can be a real hassle. They come in drips and drabs and most of the time key players don’t show up or come too late. Once you have a community sized pizza oven and promise a pizza at the end of the meeting, the whole community magically shows up right on time, lest they miss out on the prized pizza! The pizza oven is a great “gateway project” or first project to get the community involved in further aid projects.
There are many styles of oven and lots of advice on how to make them. I’ll give you some of my main pointers to getting your oven operational.
- Site your oven in the best place to gain the community’s support. These things cannot be moved once they are built. Consider all aspects of the design ands where the oven is placed before you touch the project.
- Get the right mix of materials to make the oven. Here I used 2 parts clay, 2 parts sand, 1 part chopped coco fibre, 1 part rice husk ash and finally 1 part cement. (the cement guarantees your oven will be set and workable in 4 days as opposed to 3 weeks without cement). The rice husk ash strengthens the mix and acts as nano-particles of silica that bonds with the other materials creating a very hard oven. Test your mix on a small scale before you make the final oven.
- Make it big enough to climb inside. Its too difficult to repair or clean if you can’t get inside.
- Make the walls thick, especially at the top of the dome. I use the width of my hand as a rough guide.
- Put the chimney hole on the top of the arch in-between the dome and the door opening.
- Insulate the oven floor with bottles and make a smooth strong flor so your pizza paddle doesn’t catch on the floor and you end up spilling your pizza.
- Get an iron door made but make sure its not too heavy to manhandle.
- Add a think insulative layer of material after the initial oven is complete. This makes the oven more efficient and it will use less fuel in the long run.
- Make some tools with extra long handles to use during the cooking. I chop up conventional garden tools and weld long handles on them so I can retrieve my pizza without becoming a pizza myself.
- Get yourself an oven thermometer so you can learn how to use the oven properly for cooking different food products.
Making a fine oven takes a good bit of planning and preparation. Make sure you have all the materials on hand before you start the construction. To make the oven ergonomic to use you will need to build a waist-high plinth, or base. This should be ideally built of stone or maybe earth=bag. If the oven is too low then the cook gets a bad back rather quickly.
Once your oven is operational you must learn how to cook culturally appropriate food. Some cultures are lactose intolerant so cheese might make them sick. Lots of experimenting will be required to get your first local pizzas into local stomachs. I always use a few local ladies that like cooking to help me develop the first range of products from the oven.
A family can make a good livelihood from a large oven. Most cultures eat some kind of bread. Flat bread is the easiest and cheapest bread to begin with. You can experiment with mixing the local root crops like sweet potato, cassava, taro as well as Mouringa, pigeon pea and other legumes to boost the nutrition and move away from wheat flour. Blending these starches together using rice flour can give you some pretty healthy alternatives to conventional white-floured bread.
Several families can use the same oven. Some may cook pizza, others can cook cakes and breads. Different types of meat can also be cooked well in the oven. The smoky flavour added by the wood fire adds flavour that everyone seems to love. Let the local people experiment and see what they come up with.
If you have never built an earth oven before do your homework first. It pays to build a small model first and test your materials. If you stuff up a large scale project then you have a large scale problem to fix. If you build a small oven first you will learn all you need to produce a large workable oven. Its takes a good deal of planning and resourcefulness to make a sizable oven but once you have it complete it will make all other projects much easier with pizza as the bait!