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WEST AFRICA: Households Turning to Cow Dung for Energy

DAKAR, Sep 19 2011 (IPS) - There are dusty barrels carefully positioned outside many of the family compounds in the Léona neighbourhood of Kaolack, a city of 20,000 in western Senegal: signs of success for a project to introduce the use of biogas as a source of fuel. Amadou Faye, whose family herds cows, goats and sheep as well as growing groundnuts on the side, is among the early adopters.

Senegal is supporting the construction of thousands of biodigesters by local masons.  Credit: Zach Swank/Peace Corps

Senegal is supporting the construction of thousands of biodigesters by local masons. Credit: Zach Swank/Peace Corps

For the past two months, his household of 25 people has relied exclusively on energy produced from their livestock’s waste.

“To spend 300,000 CFA francs – more even – to install biogas is difficult. But I think it’s important. Since we started using this energy, I haven’t had problems with electricity cuts,” he told IPS. “We have our own energy source. I can easily find replacement parts when it is damaged, because Thecogas Sénégal, the company responsible for the installation, provides them to us.”

The harmful effects on the environment of using firewood or charcoal for domestic fuel are well documented – contributing to deforestation and threatening the health of women who spend hours of each day cooking over smoky flames. Yet turning to electricity as an alternative is frustrated by already- inadequate generation. Nearly every West African country is wrestling with frequent power cuts; in Senegal these have even led to public demonstrations against the national electric company.

Senegal, along with Mauritania and Burkina Faso, has turned to biogas as a partial solution. Alassane Dème, secretary general of Senegal’s Ministry for Energy, says that a major obstacle facing the country’s National Biogas Programme (known as PNB in French) is the high initial cost of installation.

The PNB is supporting the construction of thousands of biodigesters by local masons, consisting of an underground chamber – much like a septic tank – into which cow dung and water are added manually each morning, and a system of barrels in which the gas produced is trapped before being piped to a household’s kitchen.

“The fermentation of the mixture of dung and other waste will produce, in conditions similar to human digestion, methane gas. This gas is piped through a system of tubes to the kitchen or to a gas lamp to provide light in the house,” he said.

Anne Mendy Corréa, programme coordinator for PNB Senegal, explains that in addition to gas, biodigesters also produce a valuable organic fertiliser which the beneficiary households in both rural and peri-urban areas can use in their fields.

Each biodigester costs between 800 and 920 dollars depending on its size, though the Senegalese government is providing a supporting subsidy covering between 35 and 50 percent of the setup cost, according to the energy ministry.

Ousseynou Bâ, the energy ministry’s chief of staff, says the PNB is being piloted both in the groundnut- producing region of Kaolack and in the peri-urban areas surrounding the Senegalese capital, Dakar; 8,000 biodigesters are expected to be built between now and 2013.

“In Thiès, not far from Dakar, entrepreneur Aïssatou Gning has also turned to biogas. “I’m a restaurant owner; I spent more than 500,000 CFA (just over 1,000 dollars) to install a biodigester, the barrels and the tubing,” she told IPS.

“I have two barrels to store gas and I’ve been using them for five months and the needle shows that the gas level has not dropped. I have dung in reserve. I’ll say this – it’s expensive, but once you have it, you no longer have problems with energy.”

In Burkina Faso, which has also begun experimenting with biogas, Ignace Ouédraogo, head of PNB Burkina, says the cost of a six cubic metre biodigester (two barrels) varies between 850 and 1100 dollars, depending on the area and the construction materials used. This is somewhat higher than in Senegal, but here too the government is subsidising start-up costs.

“The government allocated a subsidy of 160,000 CFA (around 340 dollars) per biodigester. In the Cascades region (in the east), the beneficiary contributes up to 190,000 CFA (404 dollars) in cash, and can rely on the mobilisation of labour, which represents a value of 100,000 or to 140,000 CFA (300 dollars)…,” explains Ouédraogo.

In Mauritania, El Hadj Mamadou Bâ, president of the Mauritanian Self-development Association, says that over the past three years, his country has been able to produce biogas very cheaply, with neither harmful environmental effects nor a cost to users.

“At the beginning of the project, we had trained and empowered women in the Ari Hara and Dioudé Djéri areas – in the Senegal river valley (in the south of Mauritania) – in the utilisation of biogas, so that they can ensure the installation and management of biogas kits,” he said. He told IPS that around 100 families are now meeting their energy needs from the output of biodigesters.

According to Bâ, the women who’ve been trained there are now capable of installing and maintaining biogas units, benefiting more than 3,500 people and improving hygiene in and around the villages by collecting animal waste as feedstock.

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