Rwanda: Powering homes with cow dung (AlertNet)

| June 20, 2011

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Mix three buckets of cow dung with an equal amount of water. That’s the recipe Francine Musanabera follows every day to produce the energy she needs to run her home in Gasabo, 30 kilometres south of the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

Mrs. Musanabera is a schoolteacher as well as a farmer. She says, “It gives me two hours of gaslight and six hours of cooking gas every day.” She was one of the first Rwandans to equip her property with a biogas installation. The installation converts methane from decomposing animal waste into power.

Only 10 per cent of Rwanda’s population of over 10 million is connected to the national electricity grid. Power cables run directly over Mrs. Musanabera’s modest house and garden. In this village, no one is connected to the grid. “Too expensive,” she says.

Over 90 per cent of Rwandans cook with wood, charcoal or kerosene. These fuels pollute the environment and deplete the country’s forests. The government had hoped to help 15,000 households set up biogas systems by 2012, but has extended that ambitious timeline to 2015. Today, almost 1,000 homes have a biogas installation.

Each system costs nearly 1,300 US dollars, with the government providing a subsidy of approximately 500 dollars. Households can save money by supplying sand and stones to build the underground receptacle, and by helping to construct it themselves. They can also negotiate special low-interest bank loans.

Mrs. Musanabera had to think twice before investing in biogas on her small plot. She says, “It involved a lot of money. But now three years later, I am so glad I did it. It changed our lives.”

She explains, “My children can study at night and do not have to inhale the bad fumes of kerosene lamps. I save money because I hardly need to buy kerosene and charcoal for cooking. And biogas makes cooking so much faster.”

The easy part for most Rwandans is supplying the animal waste needed to produce the biogas. Under a government scheme, each poor family receives one cow, whose first calf must be donated to another poor neighbour.

Since it became known that livestock produce the greenhouse gas methane through their digestive processes, the government has been trying to limit the country’s cattle population. One solution is to channel the methane they emit into biogas installations to produce much-needed energy.

Another benefit of the biogas system is the liquid fertilizer left over at the end of the biogas generation process. Mrs. Musanabera applies it to her small vegetable garden, where she grows beans, bananas and tomatoes.

She says, “The yield of my garden has almost doubled since I’ve been using the fertilizer. So I also save because I have to buy less food in the market.”

The government has launched an advertising campaign to raise awareness about the possibilities of biogas. Though Rwanda is a small country, most people in remote areas have not heard about this green source of energy, nor the financial help the government is offering to encourage citizens to use it.