Making Biogas Portable: Renewable Energy Technologies for a Greener Future

By March 17, 2019 Solution


Access to modern renewable energy services is a key factor in eradicating poverty and ensuring food security. Today, 2.5 billion people rely on traditional biomass fuels (charcoal, dung, firewood) as their principal source of energy for cooking and heating, and more than 80 per cent of them (over 1.7 billion) live in either sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia. The smoke inhaled when burning these fuels during cooking can cause respiratory diseases and eye infections. Every year, in fact, more than 4.3 million people die from chronic obstructive respiratory disease due to exposure to indoor air pollution. Replacing these traditional fuels with renewable sources of energy can significantly change living conditions in these regions, particularly for women. (

Towards a Solution

Between 2011 and 2015, Kenya and Rwanda collaborated with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to tackle this challenge by piloting a new generation of portable biogas systems to promote alternative decentralized sources of energy for rural communities. The project directly targeted smallholder producers as the chief beneficiaries. Women were selected because they spend considerable time and effort collecting firewood at significant distances from home each day. The rationale behind prioritizing women is that their increased free time can be used, among others things, for capacity-building, thereby empowering them, reducing the daily labours that cause back pain and exhaustion, and improving community living standards.

The project piloted a number of biogas technologies in Kenya, one of which in particular (Flexi Biogas) was endorsed by smallholder farmers. The project then decided to test and replicate the technology in different national agro-ecological environments and in another country, Rwanda. Through this process, the project supported cross-country knowledge and technology transfer via hands-on training and capacity-building instruments (training of trainers, farmer field schools, demonstration units, farmer-to- farmer site visits). It led to the systematic, cross-country transfer of goods and practices, although the process was at times slow and bureaucratic.

The methodological approach was based on baseline surveys and progress reports. Scientific data also corroborated a cross-comparative analysis with similar technologies. Project success depended on whether farmers would cease to use firewood as their main source of cooking fuel. The process was highly participatory from design to implementation.The project partnered with a private company that markets a technology that smallholder farmers can understand and thus properly operate and maintain with limited external skilled expertise.

The results were clearly positive once farmers did, in fact, switch from firewood to a clean source of cooking fuel. The benefits that accrue from the reduced time burden of households, and especially women, are still being documented although there are numerous examples of how access to energy has qualitative and quantitative benefits. Results have been gathered in the past two years with the collaboration and support of IFAD investment projects in India, Kenya, Rwanda, and Sao Tome and Principe. The following are the key benefits recorded: (a) users’ improved health after years of burning wood in enclosed spaces; (b) higher incomes; (c) increased food production due to high- quality fertilizer (bioslurry); (d) women taking up other activities thanks to more free time; (e) a better quality of life, especially for women and children; and (f ) the long- term impact on the environment and the community as a whole.

The project has brought simple, low-cost, easy-to- install and portable biogas technologies to smallholder farmers who were dependent on traditional, inefficient cooking resources, such as firewood and charcoal. Biogas is a suitable technology because it is integrated within farming systems and improves the management of livestock manure. In addition, the by-product – organic fertilizer – has a very high nutrient content that can boost farm production significantly.

The sustainability of the project has yet to be achieved, however. At present, major challenges include: (a) poor infrastructure in rural areas; (b) weak institutional capacities; (c) lack of financial resources for renewable energy projects; (d) limited technical and managerial capacity on the ground to sustain proposed innovative technologies; (e) lack of access to finance (collateral) for small and medium-size enterprises in the renewable energy sector; (f ) risk averseness of microfinance institutions in rural areas; and (g) a need for better coordination among line ministries to ensure suitable financing packages.

In Rwanda, the biogas initiative complements the One Cow per Poor Family Programme very well because cattle manure can be used as a resource for generating biogas. The use of biogas is having the following multiple benefits: (a) labour is saved from the reduced collection of firewood, leading to a decrease in deforestation and land degradation; (b) methane emissions are reduced as a result of better livestock manure management; (c) soil health is rebuilt through the use of organic fertilizer (bioslurry), a good alternative to chemical fertilizers; and (e) dependence on fossil fuels is diminished. Given the nature of the technology, replication is fairly straightforward and requires minimal importation. The main challenge is working with a company that has intellectual property rights.

The project involved a number of stakeholders. The beneficiaries and target groups were smallholder farmers in Kenya and Rwanda. It is important to note that, in the project design, Rwanda was not included but, given the potential synergies, the project facilitated this exchange through its project support units in both countries. The technology that was piloted involved working with small and medium-size private-sector enterprises, and non-governmental and research institutes (in Africa as well as the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart and the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi) for validation of results. Throughout implementation, the involvement of government agencies at all levels (village, district, provincial and central) was of paramount importance, ensuring that results were institutionalized within the IFAD results and impact monitoring survey.

Contact: Mr. Karan Sehgal, Portfolio Officer, Renewable Energy Technologies, Environment and Climate Division, IFAD

Project name: Making Biogas Portable: Renewable Energy Technologies for a Greener Future

Countries: Kenya, Rwanda

Sustainable Development Goal targets: 5.b, 7.1, 7.b, 12.2, 12.5

Supported by: Department for International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom

Implementing entity: IFAD

Project status: Completed

Project period: December 2011 to December 2015

URL of the practice: Flexi Biogas Technical Brief: e2125c188766

Related resources: How to mainstream portable biogas digesters; Video Interview with designer of the technology; Rwanda: Cooking with Gas: Video with beneficiary farmer; Shamba Shape-up – Biogas episode; Article in Rural 21 (International Journal for Sustainable Development);