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Push for biogas in Kenya asks women to get their hands dirty

Women are among those being trained as masons to install biogas digesters in Kenya, providing households with cheap, clean energy and helping to slow climate change by replacing wood, gas, or kerosene.

By James KarugaAlertNet / March 4, 2013

A woman mason in Kenya tends to a biogas system. Biogas, produced from the bacterial breakdown of animal waste in airtight containers, is used mainly for cooking. It replaces wood, gas, or kerosene, and reduces deforestation, a big problem in rural Kenya.

James Karuga/AlertNet

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Nairobi, Kenya

Lydia Owenga is a rarity among young career women in Kenya – a trained installer of biogas systems who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty.

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She is at ease doing masonry and ensuring her farmer clients mix cow dung and water in the right proportions. Nor does she shy away from handling manure or concrete when checking whether a biogas digester is working properly.

Owenga, 27, runs her own company and is passionate about providing African households with clean energy, and helping slow climate change in the bargain.

Biogas, produced from the bacterial breakdown of animal waste in airtight containers, is used mainly for cooking. It can replace wood, gas, or kerosene, and reduce deforestation, which is a big problem in rural Kenya.

Ms. Owenga is one of fewer than 40 women among 560 Kenyans trained to build biogas systems under the Africa Biogas Partnership Program (ABPP). The project is funded by a 30 million euro ($39 million) grant from the Dutch government and uses technical expertise from SNV, a Dutch development organization.

The ABPP network has installed more than 25,000 biogas digesters since 2008 in five countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Burkina Faso, with a target of 70,000 by the end of 2014.

Caroline Toroitich, SNV’s senior renewable energy adviser, says around half the 2,000 biogas digesters built in Kenya since the 1950s had stopped working by 2008, mainly because they were poorly built and maintained.

The ABPP wants to improve this record by bringing in new partners, reducing costs, offering credit and training, and promoting the use of biogas as an alternative clean energy source. “Other biogas projects never factored in this collective approach,” said Toroitich, resulting in high failure rates.

To reach more people, especially rural farmers, SNV teamed up with the Kenya National Federation of Agricultural Producers (KENFAP), which has 65 field offices around the country and works with more than 150 partners in regions where farming has a good chance of success.

KENFAP in turn set up the Kenya National Domestic Biogas Program (KENDBIP), which aims to “develop a biogas sector that departs from donor dependency, and is driven by demand and supply where each actor is rewarded,” according to its coordinator, George Nyamu.

Almost 7,000 biogas digesters have been built so far under the KENDBIP scheme. The target is 11,000, which it estimates will avoid nearly 94,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

In the Kenyan context, that is not a lot, however. A 2010 report prepared by Practical Action for the International Institute for Environment and Development noted that an estimated 52,000 hectares (128,000 acres) of woodland is cut down in Kenya each year, resulting in annual emissions of 14.4 million tons of carbon dioxide.

Nyamu considers it important to keep the biogas sector growing by protecting the interests of both the service providers, like masons, and the farmers who are the main consumers.

SNV helps trained masons to set up biogas installation companies by providing marketing, branding, and expertise as they build their first digesters. So far, 40 of the 560 trained constructors have established companies, five of them run by women.

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