From Waste to Energy

> Posted by David Levaï

I’ve just finished a week mission in Tanzania to jump start a new phase in our Energy Links program: begin building a real micro-energy sector in Tanzania by bridging the gap between the numerous energy companies (that have great innovations to offer, but struggle to reach scale) and the thriving microfinance institutions (that have a weekly access to a very large number of households, but lack the time or resources to  offer energy solutions to their clients).
Until now we have worked on two ways to provide the most basic of energy needs: lighting through small solar lanterns and cooking through biomass briquettes. These solutions are not only cleaner than the existing alternatives of kerosene (for lighting) and charcoal (for cooking), but they are safer, healthier, more efficient, and, most importantly, much cheaper over the long run.
Our newest alternative solution for cooking is biogas. In Dar-es-Salaam I met with Nachiket Potnis, the director of Appropriate Rural Technology Institute and a genius Indian inventor who’s lived in Tanzania for over 15 years. He is commercializing a very simple compact biogas system made of two large plastic water tanks that produces methane from food waste so that urban dwellers, his target clients, can replace their charcoal use with cooking gas,  thus reducing deforestation. With the smaller model (a 1,500-liter digester), 10 liters of water, and 6 kilograms of waste like banana peels or corn husks, an individual can get more than  3 hours of gas for cooking, enough for the two or three of the day’s meals. The biogas system is quite simple and requires no maintenance. I could even figure out how to operate it!
However, the problem that remains is the initial upfront investment of around US$600, equivalent to a year of daily charcoal use. This is the question we are currently tackling, and this is why financial solutions are so crucial to the uptake of clean energy products. Some sort of installment system is necessary. A microfinance loan could be one option. Or a credit from the product supplier himself, in which case the energy company would need to access large working capital, and thus support from a bank or some sort SME financing.
For our readers—do you have any other suggestions for making biogas systems sustainable for the urban poor? Your thoughts and comments are much appreciated.