Biogas and Wayyy too Many Bananas

July 8, 2008

In America I have this really bad habit of eating chocolate when I’m upset. Here, chocolate is a little harder to come by so I’ve substituted it with miniature bananas. These are very easy to get, you can buy them on the street from the women carrying them in huge baskets on top of their heads. I just bought 23 of them… I’ve already eaten 15 of them but I’m starting to feel a little sick so I decided to take a break from my new found comfort food and write about it instead.

I didn’t get the grant. If that doesn’t make sense, let me explain… A month ago, when I first started working at CARD, Alfred and I conducted a survey of the villages that live around the Kakamega Forest, the last remaining rainforest in Kenya that is swiftly being depleted. What we found was that the majority of community members were relying on wood fuel from the forest for their cooking needs. We also found that wood fuel collection, aside from depleting the forest, is a dangerous and time-consuming task for the wood collectors, the majority of which are women. The women told us that they were spending all day collecting wood and were facing threats ranging from snake bites to arrest and even rape. Alfred and I thought (and still think) that the best way to alleviate this problem is by introducing biodigesters into the community, i.e. using cow dung and other organic waste to produce cooking gas.

As part of the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD) program, we are encouraged to apply for a grant if we find a need that we think should be addressed. I applied for a grant of $650 to educate the community about biodigester use and to build a demonstration digester at a high school located near the forest. Like most secondary schools in Kenya, Shabwali Secondary keeps livestock and provides lunch for the kids.

Basically, my first week at CARD I did the needs assessment/survey and the second week I wrote the grant. The grant is 14 pages long so it took the whole week. I turned it in on June 25th and was told that we would hear back by July 1st. We didn’t. Apparently there had been some confusion over the deadline and so we didn’t hear back until today (July 8th). In the week in between writing the grant and waiting to hear about the grant, I discovered two very important things that I wish I had known in time to write them into the grant.

The first thing I found was instructions for a simple, low-cost digester that is currently being used in Vietnam. Biodigesters are becoming more popular and are being used all over the world. However, most of the models I had previously discovered require a fair amount of money, ranging from the $750 version used in India to the $200 version used in Costa Rica. The Vietnamese model is the first one I have discovered that might not even require subsidies, it costs around $60.

As soon as I found it, I ran (literally) back to the office and jumped up and down, telling Alfred and Felix that we have to try building this thing NOW. One of my least favorite words in Kiswahili is “kesho” technically means tomorrow but in practice pretty much means never. So I talked them into doing it today and we went to the store to look for the materials.

We came across a small stumbling block when we realized that the main material required, tubular polythene plastic, is unavailable in Kakamega. But the pause was momentary, we bought sheets of plastic instead and spent a good part of yesterday ironing them into a tubular shape. It was actually pretty funny, it ended up being me and three big guys carefully ironing. It also included a fair number of dirty jokes and (of course) some impromptu dancing.

Digging the trench was equally entertaining. Alfred and I started it last Friday and then yesterday (Monday) he was busy. There were three other big guys sitting in the office but no one moved when I asked if we were going to work on the digester today. So I grabbed a shovel and went out there to try and dig it myself. After a little bit, they came out to watch, and finally Ben grabbed the shovel and said “let me assist you” before he accomplished more in 1 minute than I had done in the previous half hour. Tomorrow we are planning to connect everything together so hopefully it will work!

The second exciting thing that I found online is a business called Carbon Credit Capital (carboncreditcapital.com). Basically, what they do is give money for sustainable biomass projects that result in a reduction of greenhouse gases. Our idea is that once we set up our demonstration digester at CARD, we can receive funding through CCC to slightly subsidize the cost of the digesters. Even though this version of digester is extremely cheap, 36 % of the households in the forest communities that we are targeting earn less than Ksh 1,000 a month ($15.38). That’s less than 5 cents per day. It is these lower-income households that are more likely to be collecting wood from the forest, meaning that 1) they are our main target and 2) they will not be able to pay the approx Ksh 4,000 for the digester. So hopefully they will support us!

I’m also looking into applying for other sources of funding, the Ford Foundation and Autodesk are the ones on my list right now but if anyone knows of any other good ones, let me know!

So I guess not getting the grant wasn’t such a bad thing, I still have lots of ideas and I definitely think that I will be able to accomplish something during my time here. That’s all I really want, is to go back home and not have just been a tourist but to have actually made a positive contribution.

Basically even though I am starting to feel as though I’ve seriously overdosed on miniature bananas, life is still pretty great.