Belete Tura straps a large, lightweight pack to her back before starting her short walk to a nearby biogas facility in ArsiNegele, in the Central Rift Valley of Ethiopia. The pack resembles an enormous pillow, half as tall as she is and nearly four times as wide. As the young woman walks down the dusty track in the early morning sunlight, passersby give the strange-looking contraption quizzical looks.
They don’t realise that Tura has joined a pioneering scheme that gives her clean and affordable energy. The inflatable pillow, or (B)pack, is a biogas backpack created by (B)energy, a social enterprise based in Germany that’s providing poor rural communities with opportunities to turn their organic waste—such as manure or kitchen waste—into energy.
Until now, collecting wood to burn for fuel was something Tura did for several hours every day. While demand for firewood has led to worryingly high levels of deforestation, the burning of wood and charcoal in homes makes respiratory problems rife.
Pointing to the ceiling of her kitchen, blackened with carbon from years of wood smoke, Tura said, “If my roof looks like this I wonder what my lungs look like.”
The founder of (B)energy, KatrinPuetz, is an agricultural engineer who learned about the potential of biogas as a clean source of energy while studying for her degree. She saw that it was cheap and renewable: the dung of one goat mixed with kitchen waste and wastewater produces enough biogas to supply the daily energy needs of three people.
However, she also saw that biogas production had to be redesigned before it could be made widely available to poor rural communities. The existing technology was expensive and immobile. Crucially, Puetz added, “there was no opportunity for households to earn money from selling biogas.”
While doing her master’s thesis in Germany, Puetz devised a range of affordable and scaled-down biogas products. After three years of research in Germany and Ethiopia she established (B)energy with her own savings.
The (B)plant is a digester in which organic waste (manure, kitchen waste, agricultural residues) and liquid (wastewater, urine) are mixed together and decomposed anaerobically to produce biogas, which is mostly methane and carbon dioxide. The digester is available in several different sizes. The smallest, which costs around 200 euros (US$210), can produce a daily biogas output of 2.5 m³, the equivalent of eight hours cooking time.
To allow individuals to transport and store biogas, Puetz designed the (B)pack. This lightweight bag automatically inflates when connected to a (B)plant through a hose. It releases biogas when a person connects it to a cooking stove via a ball valve and uses a weighted object, such as a wooden board and stones, to press it down. One (B)pack costs around 45 euros and weighs less than 5 kg when fully inflated.
Despite looking like mini zeppelins, Puetz insists there is no risk of these bags exploding. They aren’t pressurized and if the heavy-duty material did catch fire then the leaking gas would produce a negligible flare; biogas needs to mix with air to become flammable.
As far as distributing biogas, Puetz is convinced that the only sustainable model is a private sector approach that creates small business opportunities. “If you have access to animal dung, waste water and capital then you have an opportunity to lift yourself out of poverty by becoming a (B)entrepreneur who sells gas,” she said.
Under this scheme, a person or a group of people can invest in a large digester with a biogas output of 5.5 m³. They can then sell their surplus energy to anyone who owns a (B)pack, which can be filled with enough cooking energy for up to four hours.
In Ethiopia, a woman named YoditBalcha is the first franchisee to set up a local production facility and offer (B)energy products to the local market. “It’s a good business opportunity,” she said. “At the same time it helps people in my country tackle energy problems.”
The business has also been launched in Chile and is poised to spread across the developing world. Those users who have converted to biogas say there is no turning back. Since she made the switch, Tura has seen the time she spends cooking each day reduced from three hours to one, and has been saving the equivalent of 10 euros a month in energy bills, a considerable sum when the average monthly salary in Ethiopia is only four times that amount. She appreciates the better health, cheaper energy and social enterprise aspect. Most of all, she said, “It’s made my life easier.”
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A BACKPACK OF ENERGY
A German entrepreneur provides a response to energy needs in developing countries by turning waste and dung into transportable biogas and income
by Matthew Newsome
Belete Tura straps a large, inflatable pack to her back before starting her short walk to a nearby biogas facility in the Central Rift Valley of Ethiopia. It is a (B)pack, a biogas backpack created by (B)energy, a social enterprise based in Germany that’s providing poor rural communities with opportunities to turn their organic waste—such as manure or kitchen waste—into energy.
Until now, collecting wood to burn for fuel was something Tura did every day, just like millions of other people in developing countries. But demand for firewood has led to deforestation, while the burning of wood and charcoal in homes makes respiratory problems rife.
The founder of (B)energy, KatrinPuetz, is an agricultural engineer who saw that biogas was cheap and renewable, but the existing technology was expensive and immobile. Crucially, she said, “there was no opportunity for households to earn money from selling biogas.”
Puetz devised a range of affordable and scaled down biogas products. As far as distribution, she is convinced that the only sustainable model is a private sector approach that creates small business opportunities. A person or a group of people can invest in a digester to produce biogas and sell their surplus energy to anyone who owns a (B)pack.
Since she made the switch to biogas, Tura has seen considerable savings in cooking time and energy bills. What’s more, she said, “It’s made my life easier.”