The Most Important Thing I’ve Ever Done


People always talk about “making a difference.” It’s a catchy phrase to use, “Make a difference, call your Senator” or “Make a difference, recycle your bottle.” Personally, I find it a phrase that is all too easy to say and much, much harder to do. Except for today. Today, it suddenly hit me that I might actually make a difference that could change people’s lives.

Okay, so a little background. My first day at work my supervisor, Felix, and I were discussing possible projects when Felix brought up the idea of biogas. CARD, my organization, focuses sustainable development in Western Kenya. Specifically, they have about four different initiatives they are working on right now. Their biggest project is the promotion of commercial beekeeping as a source of income generation, focusing on bringing income to orphans, widows and those with HIV/AIDS. They do a lot of outreach around HIV/AIDs, offering volunteering counseling and testing. Originally as part of beekeeping, they started to promote the agro-forestry of certain trees that provide food for the bees. As a result of a previous FSD intern, they began to do environmental education and planted tree nurseries in 16 schools around Kakamega. Basically, they have done a lot but they are always looking for new projects to take on.

Felix told me that CARD was looking into biogas as a means to decrease pressure on the Kakamega Forest and to improve the livelihoods of the communities that live there. Many members of the community rely on the forest as a source of wood fuel for cooking and lighting. Not only is this activity rapidly degrading Kenya’s last standing rainforest, it is also wrecking havoc on the quality of life for the community. In many families, the women will leave their houses as early as 4 a.m. to go to the forest. Once they get there, they have to contend with poisonous snakes, malaria carrying mosquitoes, police officers and even, as one woman told us when we visited, the possibility of rape. Once they get the wood, they carry it as far away as 10 miles in heavy loads on top of their heads. The pain doesn’t end there, the smoke from using wood fuel to cook stings eyes and can lead to chronic chest pain.

But I haven’t just taken Felix’s word that this is a problem, since he brought up the idea of biogas I have been frantically conducting research. From the internet, I’ve learned that biogas is naturally produced from decaying organic matter such as manure or vegetable waste. It can be harnessed for cooking/lighting through the amazingly simple construction of an anaerobic digester. It’s currently been done all over the developing world, there have been 3,000 digesters constructed in India alone in the past couple of years. My research gave me hope that this is something that could actually happen.

Then today, when Alfred and I went visit the forest communities, I realized that it is something that has to happen. I saw women, and even children that should have been in school, carrying impossibly heavy loads of tree branches. Alfred and I had made a survey to determine the need and interest in biogas. What we found was astounding; everyone wanted it and their reasons for their need (such as getting raped while collecting wood) took us aback. A few of those we spoke with knew about anaerobic digesters and said they wanted one but couldn’t afford it.

an example of what we saw

As part of our research, we had visited the Center for Renewable Energy near Kakamega. There we had spoken with a biogas expert who told us that the digester he made for the Center had cost Ksh 50,000 which is about 770 U.S. dollars, an impossible amount for the majority of the population. However, he said that it could be done for much, much cheaper, he just hadn’t had his services requested for it.

So here’s where CARD and I come in. Tomorrow we will begin writing a grant proposal. In it, we are asking for funding to set up a demonstration anaerobic digester in one of the schools that we visited near the forest that has two cows. We spoke with some of the teachers there who excitedly suggested that their Young Farmers Club be in charge of the digester so that it is a learning tool as well as a practical fuel source for the lunches that they cook for the kids.

A part of the money is to go towards training CARD staff on how to construct an inexpensive and practical digester. The expert at the Center told us he would train us for as little as Ksh 1,000 ($15). The idea is that once we are trained on how to make the digester and we assist in the construction of the digester at the school, we can then hold a community wide workshop on how to construct digesters. One of our questions in the survey asked community members how they could contribute to the construction of their digester. Although many said that they were unable to contribute monetarily, they volunteered labor and supplies such as bricks.

Now the only problem is how to keep it sustainable. It isn’t sustainable development if we rely entirely on outside funding. Alfred and I have been tossing around solutions and have come up with two so far. The first is that CARD could begin constructing digesters for people in town who want them and are able to pay a little bit more money for them. There is definitely a desire for them, my host mom has repeatedly told me that she and everyone else she knows wants one. Charcoal and natural gas prices have skyrocketed, the digesters would most likely pay for themselves within a year.

A second possible idea is that we could try to sell greenhouse gas offsetsfor every digester that we produce. This idea seemed a little far-fetched to Alfred but it’s something that I think could very possibly work. I tried to explain that there are a lot of people in the U.S. who are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions such as those that are produced from burning wood and chopping down trees. Already, there is a market in buying these so-called “carbon credits.” The credits go towards all sorts of things, from renewable energy to planting trees. Why can’t they go towards helping these communities improve their lives and keep their forest?

These are the ideas, hopefully I can help make it happen! If any of you guys have ideas, please send them my way!