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Biogas heats up in Kenya as fuel of choice for the poor

by Kagondu Njagi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 24 March 2016 12:11 GMT

ASTICOM staff deliberate over the waste problem in Bungoma county, Kenya. PHOTO/ASTICOM

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Farmers are being offered one-year loans to install biogas units, helping the clean, cheap energy to spread

By Kagondu Njagi

NAIROBI, March 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Poor Kenyans are increasingly switching to biogas for cooking, as traditional fuels like kerosene and gas cylinders remain expensive despite lower world oil prices.

According to Nairobi-based ASTICOM K Ltd, a company that recycles solid municipal waste to produce biofuel and electricity, the availability of simple, cheap methods to produce biogas has stimulated demand in poorer households.

“Once domestic users have the technology, they can generate as much biogas as they please,” said ASTICOM CEO Leah Tsuma.

The World Bank estimates that 77 percent of Kenyans have no access to electricity.

Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Standards shows that Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), used by around a tenth of Kenyans for cooking, sells at around $23 for a 13 kg cylinder, nearly double the price in South Africa.

Around 45 percent of Kenyans live below the national poverty line, making it hard for them to afford fuels like LPG.

Biogas, on the other hand, has an upfront cost, but is practically free once the equipment is installed.

A basic home biogas unit costs between Ksh. 50,000 ($500) and Ksh. 80,000 – which is prohibitive for many.

But more Kenyan farmers can now afford it, as they are being offered one-year loans for biogas units by the development agencies of the German and Japanese governments.

ASTICOM encourages farmers to keep at least two cows, Tsuma said. “The animal waste is used to generate biogas while farmers can sell the milk to repay the loan,” she added.


Studies say the use of biogas in Kenya could have a large impact on conventional fuel consumption, thank to the savings it generates in the longer run.

For instance, a biogas digester of 12 cubic metres, fed with dung from six cows, can produce enough gas for more than just cooking, according to the government-backed Kenya National Domestic Biogas Programme.

“Small-scale biogas development can reduce the workload for women and children,” said ASTICOM’s Tsuma, as it reduces the time and energy they would otherwise spend collecting fuel wood.

It also boosts incomes, as farmers can trade their surplus gas with neighbours, she added.

The technology has another fledgling financial benefit, which could boost appetite for biogas thanks to the emissions reductions it offers.

Kenyan farmers who have installed biogas generating units can sell carbon credits through the Japanese and German development agencies.

The credits are generated based on avoided emissions – in this case the volume of methane from manure that is not being released into the atmosphere because it is being used as biogas instead.

A standard biogas unit reduces methane emissions equivalent to 4 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. The credits produced can be sold on average for $6 per tonne, meaning the rewards remain relatively small for now as carbon prices are low.


Demand for biogas in Kenya has also been spurred by legislation restricting timber harvesting, and a growing appetite for solid and liquid waste management within county governments.

Experts say waste generation has increased in rural areas due to migration from the city.

Some Kenyans have found new jobs created by government devolution since 2010, leading them to settle in the countryside.

Other middle-class families are moving temporarily to their rural properties to invest in assets like commercial housing in county trading centers, said Theresa Barasa, an economist working for Bungoma County.

“People are travelling from Nairobi to the counties and taking lots of solid waste from the city with them like packaged foods,” Barasa said. “A lot is also being generated from infrastructure development, small industries and agriculture.”

Kenya’s middle class produces 140 kg of waste per person every year, she noted.

That waste could be used to generate biogas, which could replace kerosene, charcoal and firewood as fuel in rural areas, she said.

“Waste management is now the responsibility of county governments, and a big problem, but it can be solved through innovations like biogas generation,” said Geoffrey Wahungu, director general of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).

Officials with the Center for Energy Efficiency and Cogeneration (CEEC), based at the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, are aware of the potential of biogas.

CEEC programme manager David Njugi said his organisation is working with county governments to produce biogas on a large scale.  

“Our focus is to generate biogas from public sewerage facilities and solid waste within counties, which we can then use to power public assets like street lighting,” he said.

A 2012 report from the U.S.-based SIT Graduate Institute noted that for the biogas industry to succeed in Kenya, larger production facilities would need to be developed.

That can be done by creating policies that encourage the private sector to invest in biogas production, Njugi said.

The government has set a target for businesses to be able to sell electricity generated using biogas to the national grid from June this year, he added.

(Reporting by Kagondu Njagi; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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