Getting To Know About Biogas; An Under-tapped Source Of Wealth Creation In South Africa:
Recent studies estimate that over 80 percent of African households (especially in rural areas) still depend on firewood and charcoal for cooking their daily meals.
For those who can afford it, kerosene (also known as paraffin) and cooking gas are the next best options. However, due to rapid deforestation in many parts of Africa, firewood and charcoal are becoming increasingly scarce.
The rising prices of kerosene and cooking gas make them less affordable every day. If this trend continues in the future, many people on our continent may be unable to afford fuels to cook their food.
In this article, you will learn about biogas; what it is and how it’s produced. You will also understand why it has such a huge potential in Africa and how entrepreneurs like you can take advantage of it.
Biogas. What exactly is it?
Biogas refers to a mixture of gases produced by the decay or fermentation of organic waste (like sewage, kitchen waste, animal manure, food scraps and plant material).
When all of this organic waste is allowed to decay in the absence of oxygen, methane, carbon dioxide and some other gases are produced. Methane is the most important of all the produced gases because it is a very valuable fuel. Methane is a popular natural gas that is used for heating, lighting and cooking purposes in the home.
We produce (and waste) large volumes of biogas everyday without even knowing it.
Every time you flush the toilet after use or wash kitchen dirt down the sink, you are wasting the valuable raw materials needed to produce biogas. All that waste probably ends up in an underground sewage pit where (sometimes) biogas is produced and wasted to the atmosphere.
This gas could have been channeled back into the kitchen and used to cook food and boil water. This gas could have saved you hundreds of dollars spent every year on charcoal, firewood, kerosene and cooking gas.
As you will find out later in this article, a household of six people (father, mother and four children) can produce enough biogas to last for up to 3 hours of cooking everyday!
Africa is still quite new to the concept of biogas. The Asians (especially in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam) have been using biogas for more than 50 years now. Over 2 million households in India use biogas as fuel for cooking and heating. In Bangladesh and Pakistan, the number is in the hundreds of thousands.
By producing fuel from their own waste, many poor families in Asia have cut down the amount of money they spend on cooking fuel (which can amount to thousands of dollars in a single year.
However, all hope is not lost for Africa yet. Like a few other revolutionary solutions (such as solar power), biogas is making considerable progress in some parts of Africa. Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and South Africa are some of the countries on the continent with a growing rate of biogas use.
With the concerted efforts of governments, NGOs and International Development Organisations, more countries on our continent will embrace biogas.
How is biogas produced?
Today, there are several different techniques for producing biogas and several models and designs of biogas machines and plants now exist. Nevertheless, the concept remains simple and the same.
The heart of any biogas system or production arrangement is known as a biodigester (or simply a ‘digester’).
A digester is a sealed and airtight tank or container (usually made of concrete or plastic) that behaves like the stomach of a human being. It collects waste (raw materials) and ‘digests’ it with the help of billions of bacteria.
Like I mentioned above, for biogas to be produced, this digestion must happen in the absence of oxygen (scientifically known as ‘anaerobic digestion’). The valuable byproduct of this digestion process is methane, the cooking gas that we so desperately need.
The methane gas that is produced usually rises and builds up at the top of the digester. A gas pipe is attached to the top of the digester to carry the produced gas back into the house (usually the kitchen) where it is used as fuel for cooking and heating.
The images below provide a visual representation of biogas production and how it works.
Other parts of a biogas system include a feeder pipe, through which the waste materials (from the toilet, kitchen and other sources) enter the digester. There is also an overflow pipe or tank that ensures that the pressure inside the digester remains within safe limits.
Human beings have a similar overflow mechanism. Remember what happens when the gas pressure inside your stomach reaches a high level? What happens? You fart or you belch! Whether or not it smells is a totally different matter. *Laughing*
The final other interesting part of a biogas plant is an outlet or collection pipe for the solid and liquid residue that is left behind after the digestion process.
This residue (also known as ‘slurry’) is commonly referred to as a ‘biofertilizer’ because it is very rich in nitrogen and phosphorus which makes it a good manure/fertilizer for your garden or small farm.
Biogas production has a long life span. A small scale biogas production plant in your backyard can last for up to 20 years and will require little maintenance during its life time.
How much does it cost to build one? It depends.
A biogas plant that is made of plastic is likely to cost less than one made of stone, sand, iron rods and cement. Labour costs may be the other significant cost to consider after the cost of materials.
When the biogas plant is built and in place, it requires no running expenses. It’s the only machine or plant on earth you will ever own without spending a dime on fuel. That’s because your guts will provide the fuel!
Why is there a huge potential for biogas in Africa?
The economic and health benefits of biogas to African consumers is huge. Sometimes, I’m surprised that biogas hasn’t taken a foothold on our continent given its very immense potential.
As is our tradition on Smallstarter, it is important that we take a look at some of the reasons why biogas has such a lucrative prospect on our continent.
#1 – There is a growing demand for sustainable, cheaper and cleaner fuels in Africa
People in developing regions like Africa spend a huge chunk of their money and time on cooking fuel. The high demand for firewood and charcoal has led to the rapid decline of Africa’s forest resources.
Wood and kerosene also produce a lot of unhealthy smoke when they burn in kitchen stoves and lanterns. This is leading to a rise in the incidence of deaths and sicknesses resulting from inhaling harmful substances.
The short video below gives an interesting account of how biogas is transforming the daily lives of ordinary people in Ethiopia. Just fifty years ago, more than half of Ethiopia was covered by forests. Today, just about 3 percent of its forests remain due to intensive logging for firewood.
In a country where nearly 90 percent of its people cook with firewood, it may only be a matter of time before all the forests disappear. Fortunately, biogas is coming to the rescue. Rather than spend the little money they have on firewood, ordinary Ethiopians now use dung produced by their cattle to produce cooking fuel.
With the looming threats of climate change and global warming, there is a growing demand for sustainable fuels which cause little harm to our health and environment. In addition to these threats is the rising cost of wood, kerosene and other traditional fuels.
Biogas provides a more sustainable, cleaner and cheaper option for most Africans. By using ‘worthless’ resources like rotten food, kitchen waste and human/animal waste, ordinary people can produce the valuable fuel they need to cook food and produce lighting.
#2 Africa has a suitable environment for biogas
Available evidence shows that the microbial activity and chemical reactions required to produce biogas performs best above certain temperatures (usually above 15 degrees Centrigrade).
As a result, people in temperate and cold regions of the world may need to provide additional heating during winter (and other cold periods) to produce biogas. This possibility makes it difficult to justify biogas production in these areas.
Like in India and other parts of Asia where biogas has worked so well, Africa’s average temperatures are within a range that is most suitable for microbial activities that produce biogas. Our continent’s tropical climate makes biogas production economically interesting and viable.
In addition to the climate, there is a readily available supply of organic matter (human and animal waste) which provides fuel for biogas systems.
The ‘Little Green Monster’: An African biogas success story
A group of forward-thinking entrepreneurs in South Africa have developed an interesting domestic biogas production plant for households and small scale users.
The product, branded as the “Little Green Monster” is designed to ‘eat organic waste and breathe fire.’
Wally Weber, one of the engineers who developed this brilliant product says its aim is to “help South African communities to reduce their energy bills, reduce their carbon footprints and limit wastegoing into landfill sites “in a responsible and positive manner.”
As you will discover in the video below, the system can produce up to 500 litres of biogas in a day (for an average household of six people). This is equal to a total energy content of 7 kWh (units) per day which is enough to heat up a water heater to produce enough hot water for two people to have a 10 minute shower or cook food for up to 3-4 hours in a day.
The product was launched in April 2013 and is manufactured by Pioneer Plastics Energy, a South African company. It is designed to fit into the existing sewage system of a house and requires little intervention.
The Little Green Monster retails at over $1,000 in South Africa. This is a product that shows a lot of promise and I strongly believe similar designs and innovations will come up across Africa in the not too distant future.
To find out more about the Little Green Monster product and how it works, visit the company website at: http://www.pioneerplasticsenergy.co.za/pioneer-biogas-digesters
How can you make money from biogas in Africa?
The upside business potential for biogas in Africa is huge. Like solar energy which has turned Tanzania’s Patrick Ngowi into a millionaire, biogas has the potential to make lots of money in Africa if you can get it right. It’s something totally new and different.
So, how can interested African entrepreneurs make money from biogas? Let’s take a quick look at three interesting options that come to my mind.
#1 Installation of biogas systems
One of the main reasons why biogas hasn’t caught on in Africa (compared to Asia) is that there is very little and limited technical capacity. Although some of the common biogas systems have simple designs, it still requires knowledge and skill to successfully install a biogas system that works.
You will need to have a working knowledge of the basic biology and chemistry involved in biogas production. Some construction knowledge is also involved because installing these systems usually involves plumbing, piping and other structural work.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you now have the skill and knowledge required to install biogas systems. Every household in your community will surely want one after they learn that it is cheaper and cleaner than all the other expensive (and dirty) fuels.
You can start your own small biogas construction and installation company that installs these systems for a fee.
#2 Training & Consultancy
Like I mentioned in the last point, the technical skills and knowledge required for producing biogas are lacking in many parts of Africa. You can use your skills and knowledge to empower other people to build and install biogas systems for themselves and for others.
You could partner with a government agency, an NGO or a company looking to sponsor training programs for youths as part of its community development initiatives and programs.
#3 Sales of biogas appliances and equipment
At the moment, there aren’t a lot of biogas appliances and equipment in the market. As the adoption of biogas grows, the demand for these products will grow too. Meters, gauges, pipes, biogas stoves and even full biogas digester units like the Little Green Monster will be in demand.
Who are the best customers for biogas?
Now that you recognize the business potentials of biogas, who would be interested in installing biogas systems?
The customers you should look out for presently generate a lot of organic waste and spend a lot of money on cooking fuels.
Schools (boarding schools and university hostels), prisons, hospitals, and populated residential buildings are strong potential customers. Households that keep livestock (such as pigs and cattle) are also very good targets.
These sets of customers will find enormous value in installing biogas systems.
Another interesting group of potential customers are Governments (local and national), NGOs, and International Donors/Development Organisations. These organisations are usually interested in projects that promote green technology, sustainability, social and economic development, especially in Africa.
If you find a community that will benefit tremendously from biogas, you could approach any of these organisations with a well-developed proposal to sponsor your project/initiatives.
The Africa Biogas Partnership Programme (ABPP) is one of the most active supporters of biogas on the continent. It is a partnership between two NGOs (Hivos and SNV). ABPP supports national programmes on domestic biogas in five African countries.
The Programme aims at constructing over 100,000 biogas plants in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Burkina Faso. It plans to provide access to a sustainable source of energy for over half a million people by the year 2017. You can visit the ABPP website at: http://africabiogas.org/
Information, knowledge and skill will be critical to your success if you plan to exploit the lucrative potentials of biogas.
I have identified a couple of useful (and free) information you can start with. Use the things you learn to dig deeper and do some more research. You never might guess what interesting opportunities and perspectives you may stumble on.
Here they are:
- Introduction to Biogas Plant Construction. This interesting manual was written as part of a training program for biogas technicians in Kenya. The program was jointly sponsored by the European Union and the Kenyan government. It provides a detailed understanding of biogas, and the design, construction, operation and maintenance aspects of biogas plants. It is written in simple and clear language. You would enjoy it.
- Biogas Training Material for the Improved VacVina Model. VACVINA is one of many biogas technologies that exist in the world today. It was introduced in 1998 by The Center for Community Research and Development (CCRD) in Vietnam. This training material contains information about the design for this model.
We should be excited about the potentials of biogas in Africa
Biogas is an interesting energy source that will play a very critical role in our continent’s future. It is also a timely business opportunity for African entrepreneurs.
I hope that the information in this article will be useful as you consider opportunities for biogas around you. I believe that the opportunity and information we have shared with you in this article can be taken further by your creativity and energy.
You could also look at many more interesting and lucrative business ideas in the Business ideas section of this website.
What do you think about this business opportunity? Please leave a comment, share your views and ideas or ask any questions you may have in the Comments section below.
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To your financial success!