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Biogas can be a game changer for rural Bangladesh

  • Published at 04:33 pm September 9th, 2019
Biogas
Photo: BIGSTOCK

A potential and beneficial renewable energy source for sustaining rural women’s livelihoods support

Access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy is crucial in achieving many of the sustainable development goals -- from poverty eradication, via advancements in health, education, water supply and industrialization, to mitigating climate change.  Energy Access however, varies widely across countries and the current rate of progress falls short of what will be required to meet the SDGs. Redoubled efforts will be needed, particularly for countries with large energy access deficits and high energy consumption.

Turning manure like sewer, urban waste and cow-dung into biogas is reaping rich rewards for many people not only in urban and rural communities of Zimbabwe but around the world.  Biogas is used to supply power to remote villages for lighting, playing small radios and power television sets.

Far from Zimbabwe but still in Africa, in the Karen district, just outside Nairobi, Kenya, the Magdalene family own a $300 biogas energy plant on a dairy farm, cutting the amount of time the staff on the farm spend gathering firewood. 

The biogas energy plants are helping established beneficial projects and in the process reducing energy costs, as well as limiting their carbon footprint and improving their business value. Speak of the sprawling Mbare Musika (market) biogas digester, situated three kilometres just outside the capital, Harare, the Glen View 7-built biogas energy plant, further to the south-west and the 31 families benefitting from the SNV-supported project in Mungate village in Domboshawa, 25 kilometres to the north of the capital. This speaks volumes of the potential of this alternative and renewable energy source and underscores the fact that ‘biogas works and has benefits’.

According to one of the demands of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), renewable energy should be realized by urban, peri-urban and the rural poor. If these groups of people are left out of the energy renewal equation then many of the fundamental SDGs objectives will be missed.

Focus on Women but benefiting all

Biogas as a domestic fuel has been promoted by women’s groups at Zimbabwe’s agricultural shows and the international trade fairs and is now established in many urban and rural communities across the country. 

Many farmers have testified that their horticulture businesses are booming because the slurry from the plant is used as fertilizer for horticultural plants. The peri-urban Domboshava group is currently supplying horticultural produce to local shops and the group was named supplier of the year in 2017 at TM/Pick and Pay at the nearby Borrowdale shopping center.

“The project has relieved women and children of traditional chores that have tended to keep women disadvantaged and is also allowing children to attend school more often and participate in other social activities rather than looking for firewood”, Barbra Warikandwa, a member of the group, said in a recent interview. The biogas digesters’ sizes are between 5 cubic meters and 15 cubic meters. The 5 cubic meters produces enough energy for a family of eight, allowing for three meals a day, noted one of the village beneficiaries.

Horticulture business has boomed because the slurry from the digester also functions as liquid organic fertilizer for the production of Napier grass to feed cows and grow vegetables.

This source of power has relieved women and children of traditional chores that have tended to keep women disadvantaged, and is allowing children to attend school more often and participate in other social activities rather than looking for firewood.

Simple technology

Energy specialists note that the biogas digester technology is quite simple and can be constructed by both women and men.

Many countries in Africa have sufficient raw materials for this technology in the form of farm animal dung, agricultural and urban waste and industrial effluent.  One of the women beneficiaries, Mrs Warikandwa said that her family use cow dung, vegetable waste and chicken waste to feed their 10 cubic meters bio digester.

The biogas option has added advantaged in that the spent slurry from the biogas-generating plant is excellent organic fertilizer for crops and fish farming, another favourite pastime for women and men in rural and urban areas.

Many biogas energy digesters have been used for cooking, lighting and heating. On farms, it is mainly used to heat water to clean the cows’ udders. 

Like many rural and peri-urban communities who value their animals as an important source of food and income, families using biogas energy digesters hope to supply green power by expanding the use of biogas digesters in their areas. 

With robust awareness Bangladesh can learn more from these experiences from countries that have fully embraced the technology by crossing the cultural barriers and with little investment.

Challenges

The green and renewable energy technologies should not become too expensive and unaffordable to such disadvantaged groups, like women so that the market-led approaches will be meaningfully realized.

Meanwhile, energy and power development experts have said lack of constant feeding of digesters lead to the development of ‘scum’, a thick dirty foam layer on the surface of the liquid manure and this requires a complete renovation of the plant for effective biogas production.   

In order to counter that, it is better to provide minimal feed to the plant than completely desist from, said, a Zimbabwean government energy and power development official, in a recent field interview.

She equated biogas digesters to the human body which requires everyday feeding for the survival of the body.

On the issue of packaging gas into containers for sale, she noted that “this was expensive” and the best solution was to connect neighbours into groups at a village or urban level so that they can pool their resources together, including the gas produced and the income generated from sales.

It has been noted that, community involvement, local partnerships in smart biogas design with continued training, maintenance, and renewable energy policy alignment are essential in meeting urban and rural communities’ energy needs.

Sherpard Zvigadza is a visiting researcher at ICCCAD and as well as a sustainable energy access advocate.