LOS ALTOS -- It's the life of an engineer. See a problem. Solve a problem. See a problem. Solve a problem.
And it's partly how Allart Ligtenberg's Silicon Valley garage workshop has come to look like some sort of modern art installation, with shiny parabolic and box-shaped solar cookers hanging from the ceiling, scattered across a big table, stuffed on shelves and tucked under boxes.
Yeah, solar cookers. Ligtenberg is big into cooking with the sun and more than that, he's big into how solar cooking can make life better for people, particularly women, in rural Nepal and other developing countries.
"This is really 24/7," Ligtenberg, 71, says sitting outside the workshop in his sunny Los Altos backyard. "I feel that you need to leave the world a better place."
The retired Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) engineer has been at it for more than 20 years, traveling to Nepal with cookers he's designed to demonstrate how the sun can provide clean energy and a hot meal. He's recruited villages and non-governmental organizations to the cause. He's launched education centers in which Nepalese families learn how to build shimmering gizmos to cook food, purify water and dry fruit for storage or sale. And for the past decade, he's worked with the Los Altos Rotary, which has taken on the solar cooking crusade as one of its many causes.
"Allart is a great guy," says Los Altos Rotary board member Frank Verlot. "He's just a passionate guy who loves what he's doing and he's doing great service in the parts of the world that are underserved."
Yes, solar cooking is a little bit of an obsession for Ligtenberg, says his wife, Ineke Ligtenberg, 72, but it could be worse. "I'm glad he's so focused," she says. "A lot of men who are retired don't have a lot to do."
No surprise, finding a Silicon Valley engineer who is focused. That's the way they grow them around here. But the delightful thing about Ligtenberg's focus is that the technology is so simple. Silicon Valley, after all, is known for producing mind-bending advances, the exact workings of which are well beyond the grasp of many of us.
But solar cooking is not rocket science. In general it's all about using shiny surfaces and glass to concentrate the sun's rays on a pot filled with your edible target. Any number of simple devices are for sale on the Web and the homemade possibilities seem endless. Ligtenberg still uses a backyard cooking device that he built 25 years ago out of cardboard boxes, aluminum foil and glass. It serves as a slow cooker. For quicker jobs he has a shiny parabolic-shaped gizmo that will boil two liters of water in 20 minutes. He's built cookers that double as umbrellas and even fashioned one out of a lamp shade.
The question, of course, is why? Why build this stuff in the first place?
It's a long story, as it turns out, that has its roots in Ligtenberg's own tough childhood. He was born during World War II in Indonesia to Dutch parents who had moved to the Dutch colony for work. The country was soon invaded by Japan and Ligtenberg ended up in a prison camp, where the lack of food and medical attention left him sick and weak.
He recovered and went on to college and a good career, but he never forgot what it was like to be poor and powerless. Fast forward to the late 1970s when Ligtenberg was in India on assignment for Hewlett-Packard. A born adventurer, he took the opportunity to trek through Nepal while he was in the neighborhood.
"I hopped over to Nepal," he says, "and totally, totally fell in love with the country -- the culture, the people, the ethnic diversity, the different religions, very fascinating."
He was also taken by the aching poverty and the difficult conditions for many families, who lived on subsistence farming and relied on wood fires for cooking. In 1991, with Nepal still on his mind, Ligtenberg took an attractive buyout, which amounted to early retirement from HP. "I wanted to start solar cooking as a program in Nepal,'' he says.
It seems an odd impulse, but think about it: The typical cooking method in Nepal requires gathering or chopping wood, meaning destruction of forests and hours of work -- usually for women and girls. That work often precludes any opportunity to go to school. The cooking fires produce harmful smoke inside family huts, leading to lung ailments. They produce dangerous flames that have been known to burn children. Why not find a better way?
So just like that, Ligtenberg went from HP to NGO, acting as something of his own non-governmental organization working on behalf of Nepalese villagers. While doing so, he figures he's touched tens of thousands of families with the help of the army of allies he's recruited over the years.
"Basically, when I started this in Nepal," he says of solar cooking, "it was not done at all."
And now it is. Not bad for seeing a problem and taking a step to solve it.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.