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Transforming lives through clean, green cooking energy

21 May 2018 – Dr Jake Reynolds, Executive Director, Sustainable Economy at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership describes how the lives of community in rural Kenya will be improved through a strategic collaboration between a global corporation, a leading university and a technology company.

The best development solutions take a holistic approach to design, benefitting people, environment and economy all at the same time. A project conceived by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and AstraZeneca exemplifies this. Through the introduction of clean biogas fuel to Dunga Beach on Lake Victoria in Kenya, we expect to see improvements across a wide range of outcomes, from respiratory health among women and children to status of women, income generation, job creation and reduced pressure on local wood resources. In short, a healthier, more prosperous and resilient community powered by its own, locally generated green energy source.

This unique project is announced today at the 71st World Health Assembly. It arises through a partnership between CISL, the University of Cambridge Centre of Development Studies, AstraZeneca and Kenya-based Biogas International. The project is part of a wider initiative in CISL to explore how companies can become agents of inclusive development in the global South through innovative partnerships, technologies and business models.

The challenge

As in many other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, families are heavily dependent on firewood and charcoal for cooking energy, leading to significant exposure to smoke from indoor and outdoor kitchens. In addition to respiratory ill health, this creates a major demand on local wood resources and the consequent degradation of land. In Dunga Beach, fish cooking on wood-burning stoves takes place on a large scale at the lake shore, leading to constant daytime smoke inhalation by the women workers. Owing to depletion of wood resources, and the Kenya Government’s ban on logging and charcoal production, the cost of firewood is rising steadily.

The solution

Using local technology supplied by the Kenyan firm, Biogas International, portable biodigesters (flexi-biogas) will be introduced to up to 60 low-income households in Dunga Beach, allowing families to process organic waste – animal dung, kitchen waste, plant material – into valuable clean energy for cooking and other applications. The project will also see the deployment of two larger, community-scale biogas plants serving the needs of beach industries.

Clean burning biogas is produced when waste organic materials (which can include the invasive weed water hyacinth which clogs Lake Victoria) are digested anaerobically. The process yields a high-quality liquid fertiliser as a by-product which can be used to enhance the productivity of gardens. Each digester provides enough cooking gas to meet the needs of a typical family for one day, while the larger community digesters will power kitchens, fish driers, charging points and electric lights for local fish processors, fishermen and market stalls.

In principle, the switch from firewood to clean biogas fuel produced on the doorstep obviates the need for households, in particular women and children, to collect firewood for cooking, freeing up time for more economically productive activities such as schooling and income-generation. Avoiding firewood collection also reduces the risks of cuts and bruises, accidents, and even assault, which women experienced on long treks away from the village.

The adoption of biogas at Dunga Beach is expected to provide new livelihoods for the local community and open up several opportunities for income generation. The larger biogas plants at the beach site will also create several direct jobs, from technical management of the biodigesters to collecting organic waste and retailing cooking and electric charging services and fertiliser.

Robust evaluation

Biogas has huge and diverse potential to improve lives in rural Africa. However, rather than assume these benefits will materialise in all cases, the outcomes of this project will be evaluated robustly by an experienced research team led by the Centre of Development Studies at Cambridge, and supplemented by health monitoring from AstraZeneca. A baseline study will be accomplished before any biodigesters are installed, and following their deployment outcomes will be monitored obvert the course of one year.

The study will examine the impact of the project on health, status and activities of women, energy costs, household income and outgoings, and diffusion of the biogas technology. It will look not only at whether positive outcomes were achieved, but also attempt to understand how and why such that lessons can be replicated. In the case of the community digesters, the study will also explore the potential for biogas to stimulate employment through a financially self-sustaining (and potentially scalable) business model.

Although we will not study it directly, the shift from firewood to biogas is also expected to have a positive impact on the local environment, supporting the Kenyan Government’s target to increase the country’s tree cover from the current 6.2 per cent to 10 per cent.

Conclusion

The project illustrates the power of strategic collaboration between a global corporation, leading university and technology company to address a series of complex, inter-related challenges in rural Kenya. The impact of the project on the Dunga Beach community – and the reasons why these impacts were generated – will be evaluated robustly in order to draw lessons for future replication and scale. Showcasing how biogas can contribute to health and wellbeing in Africa is a precursor to identifying innovative alliances, for example with local health services, to make access more widespread.


Read more about our work in inclusive development.

About the author

Jake Reynolds

Dr Jake Reynolds, Executive Director, Sustainable Economy at CISL, is responsible for our collaborations with business, government and financial institutions to build a sustainable economy, and is architect of our 10-year vision, Rewiring the Economy.

Prior to this Jake worked with CISL’s predecessor organisation to refocus its work on sustainability, drawing on a background in conservation and development with the UN and others in India, Kenya, Lebanon, Bahamas, Guyana and Uganda, and spells in engineering research and the private sector.

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.