Rwanda Eyes Biogas and Other Cooking Fuels to Help Curb Deforestation

New York Times

September 22, 2018

By Amy Yee

KIGALI, Rwanda — The kitchen of Ecole Secondaire Kanombe Efotec, a boarding school here, is busy from dawn to dusk while the staff cooks meals for more than 1,000 hungry teenagers.


Previously, the school went though about 330 pounds of firewood for cooking daily. But since 2014, the kitchen burns one-third less wood after it started using biogas derived from a renewable energy source: methane piped from the school’s latrines.

Anaclet Karamuka, director of study, pointed out the school’s row of tiled latrines. Sewage flows to gigantic concrete receptacles buried beneath a grassy clearing that collects human waste along with the methane it creates. The school’s 20 dairy cows also contribute their share of methane. Narrow pipes carry the odorless methane to the kitchen. In the airless underground ‘biogas digester’ bacteria eventually converts the solidwaste into fertilizer.

The school previously relied on pit toilets, which are common in developing countries without modern sewage systems and can potentially prove dangerous. In embracing biogas, the school uses less firewood and saves money. It also doesn’t pay a septic truck to remove waste material like it did when the old pit toilets filled up. “Biogas has brought many ideas for us,” said Mr. Karamuka.

A boarding school in Kigali, Rwanda previously used 330 pounds of firewood for cooking each day. Now the school uses methane from an underground biogas digester connected to latrines and uses one-third less wood. Photo: Amy Yee

The biogas system was provided and built by Rwanda’s government; the school pays for minor maintenance. It is part of the country’s larger initiative to curb an urgent environmental problem: felling trees to make charcoal and firewood for cooking. Biogas and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) are two promising alternatives that could reduce destructive deforestation here.

In Rwanda, 82 percent of the population relies on charcoal or wood for cooking in this small, poor country of 12 million.

“By promoting alternative cooking energy, the government of Rwanda hopes to halve the dependence on biomass [energy from plants and plant materials] as the main source of cooking energy by 2024,” said Oreste Niyonsaba, manager of social energies at Energy Development Corporation Limited (EDCL), the government agency spearheading alternatives to wood and charcoal.

Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, last year underscored that ambitious target to reduce the use of charcoal.

Much of sub-Saharan Africa relies on wood and charcoal, which is made by slow-burning trees in dirt-covered pits. The process has led to severe deforestation as growing populations boost the demand for cooking fuel.

Chopping down trees leads to soil erosion and desertification, dangerous phenomena in countries where the majority of people eke out a living from farming. It also contributes to landslides across Rwanda’s famously mountainous terrain, which is intricately terraced with small-scale farms.

When trees are destroyed, they no longer absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which contributes to global warming. Carbon dioxide is also released during the actual destruction process. As a result, deforestation accounts for 11 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations.

Other African countries have also been plagued by deforestation because of the demand for wood and charcoal — damaging local ecosystems and wildlife populations.

In Malawi, demand for wood and charcoal contributed to a crisis in 2016; deforestation and drought led to electricity outages when rivers fueling hydropower plants dried up.

The illegal and lucrative charcoal industry also destroys protected forest and helps finance rebel groups in Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rwanda launched its national biogas program in 2009 following an initial pilot program supported by GIZ, the Germany aid agency, and Dutch nonprofit SNV. The Rwanda government took over the biogas program after a few years of operation.

Today there are biogas systems at more than 80 Rwandan boarding schools and all of the nation’s prisons use biogas from latrines for cooking.

Rural homes also rely on more than 11,000 biogas systems to create methane from cow dung and other types of animal waste. The government helped establish more than 50 private biogas companies to support these varied efforts.

Cost, however, is a significant barrier, especially for poor families in Rwanda, where the average monthly income is $70. Until 2016, there were subsidies of about 300,000 francs or about $350 for biogas digesters, according to Mr. Niyonsaba of EDCL, and financing plans were set up through the country’s bank cooperatives. Prices for biogas systems are between 800,000 to 400,000 francs, or $450 to $900, depending on size, he added. Rwanda is also trying different models made of plastic that are cheaper than the concrete variety.

Some biogas projects have not worked as smoothly as the one at Ecole Secondaire Kanombe or have outright failed.

One challenge is that productive biogas systems must have enough waste to produce methane, as well as access to water to push the waste into the digester. Mr. Niyonsaba of the Energy Development Corporation estimated that a boarding school requires at least 400 students for a biogas digester to work.

In rural areas, biogas systems have failed when there aren’t enough farm animals to supply the necessary dung. Training and education are also essential as people are often unfamiliar with the collection procedures, as well as the need to keep nonorganic debris out of biogas digesters.

More than 400 masons, supervisors and appliance manufacturers were also trained by SNV in Rwanda to support the biogas project, which helped create valuable jobs in rural areas, especially for underemployed youth, according to SNV.

SNV says it has helped support or advise the development of biogas digesters for more than 800,000 households in Asia, Africa and Latin America over the last 25 years. It estimated that those digesters will save over 20 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions during their lifetimes.

Besides biogas, additional alternatives to charcoal and wood are also being ramped up. Nearly 60 percent of Rwanda’s population lacks electricity, but the country is increasing capacity with new power plants. If transmission lines are built, electricity could be used for cooking, but it would still be relatively expensive and not accessible to the poor.

And a company in northern Rwanda called Inyenyeri produces pellets made of saw dust, tree branches and other wood waste to use in efficient cook stoves.

The other promising alternative cooking fuel in Rwanda is liquefied petroleum gas. Although the gas is derived from fossil fuel, it is less destructive than chopping down precious forests for cooking. It is normally an expensive imported fuel, but the government has exempted import taxes of 23 percent, as well as 18 percent value added tax (VAT) paid by consumers. All accessories for gas such as metal cylinders, piping and regulators are also exempt from VAT.

Gas cylinders andcook stoves are a common sight at shops and gas stations in Rwanda’s cities and towns. On a street corner in Kigali, a young shopkeeper showed an older woman how a cylinder works. Other potential customers inspected the colorful cylinders and shiny cook stoves on display.


Rwanda LPG

In Rwanda, people are switching to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), biogas and other cooking fuels instead of wood and charcoal to stop destructive deforestation. A shopkeeper in Kigali explains to a potential customer how liquefied petroleum gas works. Photo: Amy Yee

Charcoal can cost about 36,000 francs ($42) per month for a family in Rwanda where incomes are low. But because people can buy small amounts of charcoal for a modest sum each time, they often don’t realize it is more expensive than gas in the long run.

LPG saves money over time, but equipment and cooktops have a high upfront cost, so financing programs are necessary for many people. Like with the biogas systems, Rwanda’s cooperative banks provide loans for gas equipment and cylinders.

Yet many people, even Rwanda’s urban elite, are culturally attached to cooking with charcoal. To change people’s minds, the government and l energy companies hold promotional campaigns to highlight the safety and efficiency of gas cooking.

Hotels and restaurants in Rwanda will soon be required to switch to LPG for cooking instead of charcoal or wood. Grilled meat, which is beloved in Africa, will be exempt from the rule. However, many businesses have not yet made the change and it remains to be seen how the rule will be enforced.

Dieudonne Rumarahishyika, head of LPG business at SP, a private energy company, observed that commercial LPG equipment may be expensive for hotels and restaurants. And some people still believe “charcoal is more efficient. They think, ‘You can’t cook beans on LPG,’” explained Mr. Rumarahishyika. “It’s a matter of showing people how to use it. Once they start, they enjoy.”

But some people change their minds more quickly. Mr. Karamuka of Ecole Secondaire Kanombe has switched to LPG at his home. He used to think LPG was for “mzungus,” a Swahili term for foreigners. “Before LPG was too, too expensive. But the government is making it as cheap as possible,” he said.

He recalled that his family paid about 32,000 francs, or $36, for four sacks of charcoal each month. Now with LPG, Mr. Karamuka estimated he spends 28,000, or $32, francs a month for LPG.

“We can use gas in a few minutes. It’s a big difference,” he said enthusiastically. “I am regretting that I didn’t use it before.”

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