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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.

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Owenga founded Byestar Limited Biogas Systems (BLBS) in 2009, after two years working for other biogas firms. Her own business has now built 15 biogas systems – four for institutions and the rest for households. It employs seven permanent staff and 10 casual workers.

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Few women have made so much progress. Owenga remembers that, in her first masonry class, there were 30 men and four women. She is the only one of the four women working in the sector today.

A study last year by the ABPP and the International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy reported that in the five countries where the ABPP is active, Kenya had the highest proportion of trained women masons,  8 percent of the total, and Ethiopia the lowest, 1 percent.  

To stay competitive in a society that often does not take women seriously in business, Owenga promotes BLBS aggressively at major events such as  agricultural shows. She also ensures that presentations to potential clients are polished and follows up promptly on enquiries.

The KENDBIP has a flexible gender policy to encourage more women to join all activities from marketing to construction and does not require them to have prior masonry training like men.

Women begin with basic construction training and build up their skills through refresher courses to give them confidence. They also go to established biogas companies as interns, working under expert masons and learning the trade, as Owenga did.

Simon Mwangi, a farmer from Ruai, 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Nairobi, is one user who appreciates the impact biogas has made on his life since he installed a digester a year ago.

He used to spend almost $100 a year on four Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) tanks. “I quarreled a lot, urging my family to economize,” he said. Now, his 12 cubic-meter (424 cubic foot) biogas system saves him time and money, and he even heats water for showers without wincing at the cost, as he did when using LPG.

He adds 200 liters (7 cubic feet) of dung and water for more gas when needed. “It has made my life so easy I rarely use firewood to cook,” he said. A fish farmer, he puts the slurry that is a biogas by-product into his ponds to grow food for his tilapia.

Kenyans applying to the ABPP for a biogas system must have at least two cows and an adequate water supply. To qualify for a Dutch subsidy of 25,000 shillings (around $300), SNV requires a farmer to show commitment by first building a digester tank.

Banks and micro finance institutions help farmers get credit to raise the remaining amount and arrange for repayments over an agreed period.

The Visionary Empowerment Program, a 7,000-member micro-finance organization based in Thika, 40 km (25 miles) from Nairobi, began making biogas loans in 2010, and targets farmers and women entrepreneur groups. The number of women applying for loans has increased by an annual average of 13 percent, it says.

Of the 1,111 biogas plants it has helped finance, 733 have been for women. Women’s groups act as guarantors to a woman getting a loan, and repayment rates average 98.5 percent. Repayments are made in equal monthly instalments over two years, plus 1 percent per month interest on the reducing balance.

• James Karuga is a Nairobi-based journalist interested in agriculture and climate change issues.

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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