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.

James Karuga/AlertNet
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.

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.

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.

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.

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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