Biogas takes rural communities by storm

Rural communities in Mashonaland East are adopting a simple technology to produce clean, alternative and easily accessible renewable energy from biomass.

Under the project, rural communities in Mudzi and Mutoko districts are demonstrating that this technology can produce clean energy from jatropha seed-cake and other available biomass, such as cow dung.

“Collecting firewood is a very difficult task for most families in this district. People spend at least six hours collecting about 40 kilogrammes of firewood. The route to the forest is also long and rugged,’’ said Loveness Round of Mututa Village in Mudzi district.

She is one of the community members using the technology by constructing biogas digesters in their homes to generate energy.

“Firewood has become scarce in our village and biogas has provided solutions to our energy challenges,” says Round.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Zimbabwe is working with communities in the two districts. WWF is one of the world’s largest conservation organisations.

One of WWF Zimbabwe’s strategic objectives is to support the creation of an enabling technical and policy environment for renewable energy access and investments in the country. As part of achieving this objective, WWF Zimbabwe piloted biogas as a possible solution in reducing the over reliance on wood energy by households in the two districts.

Funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), the project was implemented in partnership with a local organisation, Environment Africa, community-based organisations, and with technical support from the Ministry of Energy and Power Development, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands and Rural Resettlement.

Biogas is an energy product derived from organic material such as animal dung, that is decomposed in the absence of oxygen, thereby making a mixture that is mainly made up of methane (gas). The gas can be used directly for cooking and lighting or for generating electricity.

“Human, animal and organic waste is fed into the bio-digester in an underground tank. Micro-organisms breakdown the waste, and releases a mixture of gases, mostly methane,” explains William Simupere, a project officer with Environment Africa.

The project kicked off focusing on bio-fuels and expressing oil from jatropha, an abundant natural resource in the area. The oil expressing process produced jatropha seed cake amounting to at least 50 tonnes per year. This seed-cake would go to waste from the two centralised processing plants used by the community-based organisations.

Working with 11 community-based organisations in Mudzi and Motoko, the project has managed to build the capacity of communities to link better with local authorities and the Government, and empowered them to request for better services to access cleaner energy.

Each participating household contributed locally available resources  such as sand, bricks and water, while the project provided equipment and labour for the local masons. In the end, each digester costs $600.

About 70 per cent of the country’s 15 million people live in rural areas and are dependent on fuel wood as their principal source of energy.

Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Agency says 50 million trees are disappearing from the country’s forests every year.

Over-dependence on fuel wood contributes to massive deforestation and respiratory diseases associated with indoor air pollution. Further, energy poverty directly affects the viability of forests, soils and range-land.

The project is demonstrating how decentralised biogas digesters can provide clean, reliable and alternative energy to marginalised rural communities. It contributes towards reducing deforestation while improving livelihoods through agricultural production from biogas substrate.

Usually, women are the ones who suffer most in energy poverty – they spend a lot of time collecting firewood for domestic use.

Another beneficiary of the bio-digesters, Dorica Mariyapera said, “I’m happy that we now have access to energy for cooking and heating all the time. It’s available as long as we have cow dung from cattle.

“Before, it was so hard to find firewood that I used to cook for my family only once a day, in the evening. The fire provided the light for cooking and eating a meal with my children. After eating, it was bedtime.”

Mariyapera’s household energy budget was reduced from an average of $60 worth of firewood to almost no firewood per annum. In the two districts, the household energy budget was reduced from an average of 10 scotch carts of wood to about 1,75 per annum. In financial terms, the household energy budget was reduced from $100 worth of firewood to $17,50 worth of firewood per annum.

WWF Zimbabwe Business Development and Fundraising Manager, Charity Mbirimi said, “One of the project objectives were to build the capacity of the local communities in terms of their technical and organisational know-how so that they could become stronger entities that could be better stewards of their natural resources.’’

With improved livelihoods and quality of life, the approach was not just conservation. It involved a community-based natural resources management focus. Where there are benefits, conservation efforts will prosper.

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