In Kenya, taking clean energy to the poor

KISUMU, Kenya, Aug. 29 (UPI) -- It's 12:15 p.m. and Lucy Okun has arrived home in time to prepare lunch for her grandchildren, who will soon be returning from school.

Unlike the other women from Kindu village in Kisumu, a city in western Kenya along Lake Victoria, she won’t be going into the thicket to fetch firewood. That's thanks to a simple but remarkable device that was installed in her home three weeks ago.

The device is called a floating biogas digester. It produces methane from household waste, which can then be used to fuel a gas cooker.

“Since this digester was installed for me in my home, I have been able to save a lot of time, as I do not have to walk long distances to fetch firewood,” she said as she lit her stove.

Okun is among 33 beneficiaries of a clean and affordable energy project in Kindu village. The project was implemented by Ecofinder Kenya, a non-governmental organization promoting environmental entrepreneurship among local communities.

Ecofinder worked with two other organizations, Joint Energy and Environment Projects out of Uganda, and Small Solutions, from Germany.

The floating drum digester is made from cheap and easily available materials. A hole is drilled into the lower side of a large metal drum. This is where the food waste is deposited. A smaller plastic container is inverted and placed into the metal drum, with its edges sealed. This becomes the chamber that collects gases that form when anaerobic bacteria react with the food waste. The bacteria break down organic matter and one of the gases generated is methane. As the gas builds up, the plastic chamber rises. A valve is cut into the plastic chamber, which delivers methane to a cooker just like a normal pressured gas cylinder.

“Once you have this digester installed, all you need to do is feed it twice a day using thoroughly crushed kitchen wastes mixed with animal urine or water,” said Confreo Subaga, a biogas installation technician from Joint Energy and Environment Projects.

Unlike other digesters, which are fed regularly on cow dung, this type only requires it once during installation to introduce the anaerobic bacteria and thereafter uses ordinary kitchen refuse. The unit is also cheaper to install as it costs $150 -- more than 80 percent less than the conventional fixed dome digesters.

Even though clean and renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind and biogas have been around for decades, environmentalists say their slow rate of adoption could largely be credited to the costs involved in their initial installation.

Leonard Akwany, Ecofinder Kenya’s coordinator, argues that the war against environmental degradation needs a change of tactics.

“We now need to focus more on poor households in developing nations who contribute a lot to the reduction of forest cover due to their reliance on wood for fuel," he said.

Statistics from the Energy Regulatory Authority indicate that 80 percent of Kenyans rely on wood for fuel. At that rate, Kisumu's population likely destroys 5,000 trees each day.

Wilbur Otichilo, the author of a climate change bill that is soon to be debated in Parliament, agrees that Kenya’s current sources of energy aren't sustainable. There needs to be an overhaul in the policies governing the energy sector, he said. He said he hopes his bill will push Kenya in that direction.

This bill seeks to ban trade in charcoal as a means of controlling the destruction of forests. The bill will also promote the use of renewable energy with proposals for a tax waiver on solar panels and materials for biogas and windmill construction.

“It is time that we moved from the board rooms and conferences and start developing simple and affordable solutions to this population that heavily relies on a source of energy that is not only expensive and unsustainable but also harmful to the environment," Otichilo said.

“I am so grateful for this technology because it has saved me a lot of time and money. I don’t have to buy firewood or charcoal anymore,” Okun said as she served ugali, Kenya’s staple meal prepared from corn flour and fish to her grandchildren.

Okun is the sole caregiver for her four grandchildren, aged between 8 and 16. They have been living in her two-room, mud-thatched house since their parents were killed in the violence after the December 2007 presidential elections, when Kisumu was a stronghold for the opposition.

Their digester offers benefits other than saving the environment, Okun said.

“My grandchildren do not cough from smoke or get respiratory problems anymore," she said.

There are no clear statistics on the penetration of biogas in Kenya but industry players approximate it to be less than 2 percent. This is expected to change if the climate change bill is passed and with help from non-governmental organizations such as Ecofinder Kenya, which plans to install an additional 2,000 biogas units by December.