By Alick Ponje:
In a small kitchen with its brick walls heavily blackened by soot, Lucy Chakhala, gently stirs a black pot of boiling vegetables and looks around for salt to apply to the relish.
Only three months ago, her house, sited between two seasonal rivulets at Nathenje on the southern outskirts of Lilongwe City, had firewood all over.
“Now, my family no longer uses firewood for heating and cooking. We are using biogas,” says the 41-year-old mother of three.
Chakhala is semiliterate but still understands how her community’s acts of clearing its towering trees and dense shrubs for wood fuel have left once-verdant crop and wild fields parched and less productive.
The tragedy has pushed her into a renewable and clean energy initiative which, when she had first heard about two months previously, had seemed too complicated for an untrained local.
“Generating biogas is not as complicated as many people think. For poor households like mine, there are simple ways of doing that,” Chakhala says.
The pitch-black walls of her kitchen and the black pot are a reminder of the past when firewood stood supreme and rainfall patterns were stable enough for farming.
Now, through one of the walls, a metal pipe goes from a container placed outside the kitchen, to a gas burner where Chakhala does the cooking.
In close and distant fields, small tree shoots and saplings are offering hope to her community which is now in search of climate redemption just like many other parts of the country that are feeling the pinch of unpredictable and dangerous weather patterns.
“Beyond the fact that as many of us opt for biogas, a few trees remaining in our fields and woodlots will be protected, this kind of gas is also non-polluting,” Chakhala says.
Clement Kandodo, Founder and Managing Director of EcoGen, a multi-award winning social business that provides innovative and sustainable biogas technology solutions to smallholder farmers, urban households and other locals like Chakhala, says the technology addresses food shortage, poverty and climate change.
The mixture of gases, produced by the breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen, is proving essential in communities not yet connected to the national grid.
EcoGen’s biogas system process is carried out using small and medium decentralised fermentation units for local processing of easily available organic wastes into clean energy for cooking, lighting or heating.
“The organic waste remaining in the bottom of the bio-digester, also known as slurry or fertiliser, can either be processed and marketed as fertiliser or can be used for personal gardening or farming,” Kandodo says.
At 26 years old, he and three other youth who share his vision have taken the clean energy campaign as one of the most important parts of their lives and are determined to see more Malawians switching to biogas as a source of energy.
Kandodo’s firm’s biogas plants have been described by those that use them as more efficient and affordable.
Unlike other plants which primarily use cow dung as feedstock, EcoGen’s plants use any kind of organic waste such as livestock manure, kitchen or even human waste.
Currently, the organisation is promoting biogas technology through students from Natural Resources College and communities surrounding the college so that they integrate biogas as a source of energy out of their resources while also reducing forest destruction.
“This will then tackle climate change and support agriculture through, among other measures, applying bio-fertiliser resulting from biogas production to improve soil fertility,” Kandodo says.
His firm’s business model has earned awards on being a successful start-up with innovative ideas on addressing environmental challenges the world is facing.
EcoGen has been recognised by institutions and forums such as the Tony Elumelu Foundation; Aid and International Development Forum; Nigeria Energy Forum Ideas Competition; Global Innovation through Science and Technology; and Africa Development Bank (AfDB), Enable Youth Programme.
At the AfDB programme, the youth-led firm was among 10 early start-ups in Africa providing innovative solutions to smallholder farmers to reduce food shortage and fight climate change.
Now, EcoGen has procured more advanced biogas materials, which according to Kandodo, will significantly simplify the process of making the gas, especially for rural households.
Environmentalist and researcher, Gift Chimika, waxes lyrical about biogas, saying the product, reduces greenhouse emissions.
“Since there is no combustion taking place in the process, there is no emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. While wood as a source of energy most common in rural households produces deadly gases, using gas from waste as a form of energy helps in combating global warming,” Chimika says.
He adds that in the course of researching on the feasibility of biogas use among rural Malawians, he has come across EcoGen’s prototypes which offer hope for the future.
“It is particularly refreshing that young people are championing such initiatives. Continuing to rely on wood fuel is dangerous for a country like Malawi whose vegetative cover is disappearing at a very fast rate.
“Biogas should be sufficiently promoted. Our hydro-electricity generation is one of the lowest in the world. We surely need these alternatives,” Chimika says.
According to the researcher, biogas is also ideal because its plants lower harmful emissions by capturing and using them as fuel.
And for Chakhala and her family, the simple plant in their household is also saving them from the arduous task of fetching firewood from faraway forests.
It is also preventing them from being exposed to hazardous smoke which results into respiratory diseases attributable to household air pollution sparked by inefficient use of solid fuels for cooking.
“We will paint our kitchen to remove the soot on the walls. Then the cleanliness of our new energy source will be there for all to see. The walls will not turn black again,” Chakhala says.
And Chimika is optimistic that if youth-led initiatives like that of Kandodo and his peers are given adequate support, Malawi would not be worrying much about energy problems.
“It is possible for biogas to completely replace other energy sources most used by people in rural locations such as wood, charcoal and plant residues,” he says.