KAPCHORWA, UGANDA—Rich in cows and poor in firewood makes Kapchorwa ideal for biogas systems that turn cow dung into biogas for cooking. I visited Kapchorwa through contacts at Heifer International and GVEP. Heifer is leading the Uganda Domestic Biogas Program and now has around 1,000 systems installed, with around 10 of those constructed in Kapchorwa in just the last month.
So the story goes, Willie and Bruno of Kapchorwa chased down the Heifer truck when they saw that it read “Biogas” on the side. As part of the farmer and conservation organization for their village, they knew using biogas for cooking could be an opportunity for their people to cut their dependency on firewood gathered from the neighboring national park. As you can see below, there is a clear line between the national park boundary on the left and the farm fields on the right. People in Kapchorwa are allowed to collect dead wood lying on the ground in the park on two days each week for 3,000 USH (1.30 USD) each time, as there is no longer any trees for firewood left in the village. This adds up to 25,000 USH per month. The villagers fear that the national park might soon deny them from collecting wood altogether. How would they cook their meals then? Such was the desperation when the men chased down the Heifer truck.
In the mid-’90s a group of organizations attempted to start a domestic biogas program. The program subsidized the cost of biogas systems nearly 100% but the project did not last long and few of those digesters are functioning today.
Heifer International with SNV (Dutch Development Organization) as a technical partner and Hivos as a financial partner has started a new biogas program called Uganda Domestic Biogas Program with domestic meaning that these are small scale system meant for farms with 1 to 10 cows. They aim to construct 12,000 biogas plants in Uganda from 2009 to 2013. Similar programs are in place in Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya. After a year and a half, around 1,000 biogas digesters have been built. They have a long way to go to meet their goal and have had to make several interventions to encourage uptake and capacity building.
We first visited Mbala, the big town near Kapchorwa, for a two-day business training session. I tagged along with Bryan at GVEP (Global Village Energy Partnership) who was there to train the biogas-masons to become biogas-entrepreneurs. Currently all of the masons were paid a wage by Heifer for building the digesters. But, as Heifer wanted the program to be sustainable and knew that they could not subsidize the biogas plants forever, they wanted the masons to become their own bosses.
But there were many challenges with this. The masons were very used to receiving a salary from Heifer and did not seem to understand that Heifer would not always be there for them. Heifer also had monthly quotas for biogas construction and some of the best masons who were on track to meet their quotas were not able to attend the business training classes. Many of these masons were in Kapchorwa which is why Bryan decided to visit.
In Kapchorwa we were greeted by 50 children who should have been in school. They ran after me but seemed frightened of being captured on camera.
Kapchorwa was an inspiring story because so much of the Uganda Domestic Biogas Program was going wrong. Masons did not have enough work, farmers were reluctant to pay and material shortages were common. But here, already there were soon to be 13 biogas plants completed, only a month after the community leaders chased down the Heifer biogas truck. Work here was efficient. For the biogas program to work, biogas construction companies need to be efficient and profitable. And inorder for that to happen they need to find many more Kapchorwas—places where the farmers will pay any price to end their dependence on firewood.
The Uganda Domestic Biogas Program only uses the Modified Camartec design and only in three sizes: 6 m3, 9 m3 and 12 m3. Here I am standing with my lower half in the digester and my upper half in the expansion chamber. The biogas comes out of the blue pipe behind my head. The masons said that could finish a digester in 5 to 10 days depending on the size. They worked 7 days a week to as late as 10 pm at night. They were hosted in the house of the farmer whom they were working for, which seemed to be an effective arrangement.
Even though Kapchorwa is off the electric grid, the masons still listened to the radio.
And they still were able to use their cell phones. This mason said he charged at a store with a solar panel down the road for 0.25 USD per charge.
The building materials of the digesters contrasted with those of the local houses which were made out of mud and sticks. Some people at Heifer said it was hard to convince a farmer living in a mud house to buy bricks and cement to house cow dung; he would much rather spend the money on building a better house. But here, all farmers lived in mud houses and building a digester seemed not to be a problem.
Kapchorwa is beautiful, built on the top of cliffs that suddenly rise out of the plains to the north.
The people where very kind and spoke excellent english. (I was told this was uncommon for such a rural area.) Every farmer’s wife insisted that we drink milk tea (delicious!) until I had to make a short call really badly.
On the way down the cliffs I noticed many piles of coffee husks left to rot. Does anyone know of the best way to turn coffee husks into energy? Gasifying maybe, but that is a little too high tech for a village. Charcoal briquettes, maybe?
The BIG Picture After talking to Heifer in Kampala about the difficulties they had in persuading farmers to invest in a biogas digester, I was concerned about the longevity of the Uganda Domestic Biogas Program. But after seeing the success in Kapchorwa I now have hope. We just need to find the next Kapchorwa. And the next one after that. Bryan, myself and another friend I met in Uganda will submit to a business plan competition tomorrow. Our business model will focus on the Kapchorwas of Uganda to be financially sustainable. More on this later.