Michael's Dispatches

Gobar Gas II

(Unabridged)

Mount Everest, Nepal

Michael Yon
Published 15 June 2010

Brunei, Afghanistan, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam

Among the more interesting coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan are the legendary Nepalese Gurkhas.  Trained and fielded by the British, as they have been since colonial days, Gurkhas are a fascinating admixture: today many are British soldiers used to traveling the world.  Many of them grew up barefoot and poor in remote and primitive mountain villages in the high Himalayas: places that closely resemble parts of Afghanistan, geographically and culturally.  They understand impoverished life in a harsh environment personally, though Nepal has enjoyed some material progress in the last few decades.   That combination of background and experience makes Gurkhas helpful at generating useful approaches to Afghan development.  They know what is possible, and they’ve seen experiments succeed or fail.

A Gurkha veteran named Lalit whom I met, deep in the jungles of Borneo, at a British Army man-tracking school, came with good ideas.  Lalit began a conversation by announcing that many of Afghanistan's energy, land restoration and fuel needs could be solved if the Afghans would immediately adopt "Gobar Gas" production. This mysterious substance could improve the lives of Afghans as it had that of the Nepalese, he said, as, with great enthusiasm, he began to explain.

I returned to Afghanistan, this time to areas of Ghor, Helmand and Kandahar Provinces.  No Afghan along the way had heard of Gobar Gas.  I flew to Nepal to talk with Gobar Gas experts and users.

Nepal

Physically, Nepal and Afghanistan share striking similarities.  Both contain extreme mountains and have few roads.  The mountains are harder still to live in, because of the lack of electricity, transportation, communications technology and just about anything else associated with modern societies.  Both countries have, unfortunately, been saddled with corrupt governments, universally mistrusted.  They each have about 30 million people—eighty percent of whom are subsistence farmers, living in small villages.  The median age in both places is under 20, suggesting future crises. Half of the Nepalese are literate; perhaps a third of Afghan men can read, now, in the opening decades of the 21st century.

Desires, complaints and problems in both places often run parallel.  Sizable populations are isolated for months each year by snow, rain and landslides—or just lack of bridges.  Government influence in both countries mostly ends with paved roads.  (Though Nepal actually has a government of sorts, and not surprisingly, far more roads, if still few.)  In the hinterlands life remains primitive.  Government edicts and ideas issued from Kabul or Kathmandu are unheard or ignored—the words might as well come from Timbuktu or the Moon.

Ghor Province, Afghanistan

A remarkable difference in Nepal is that most ethnic and religious groups coexist reasonably well, and despite their recent civil war the Nepalese are less prone to allowing rule by local warlords, general violence, and especially violence directed toward outsiders.  Even during peak wartimes I had no difficulties walking hundreds of miles through contested areas in Nepal.  Though Nepal is one of the poorest, least developed countries on Earth, and despite rampant corruption and recent war, progress is perceptible.

Nepal is arguably a half-century ahead of Afghanistan in governance, education, press, and tourism; the steady stream of intrepid travelers who want to visit Kathmandu and trek the Himalayas is the country’s good fortune. Even during wartime fighters leave tourists alone.  Old-timers in Nepal say that in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, few boys and almost no girls outside the ruling elite went to school.  Today education is ever increasing in Nepal—though not universal. Democracy was first tasted in Nepal in 1950, but did not truly take hold until 1990.  The trend lines are slow but good.  (Some educated Nepalese might take issue with the previous sentence.)

Though Nepal is still poor and underdeveloped, if Afghanistan reached Nepal’s current level in a few decades, that would rightly be considered a success.  And so Nepal has become a sort of looking-glass for Afghanistan.  It’s a good place to search for insight and ideas that might be applied in Afghanistan.  The Gurkha idea for Gobar Gas was a pearl from Nepal.

Dung

Dung balls in Afghanistan.

“Gobar” is the Nepali word for cow dung.  The “Gas” refers to biogas derived from the natural decay of dung and other waste products and biomass.  In Nepal, villagers use buffalo, cow, human, and other waste products for biogas production.  Pig and chicken dung are used in some places, as are raw kitchen wastes, including rotted vegetation.

Gobar is typically mixed with a roughly equal amount of water, and gravity-fed through a pipe into an airtight underground “digester,” where naturally occurring bacteria feast on the mixture. This anaerobic process produces small but precious amounts of gas. That gas can be fed directly into a heat source, such as a cooking stove, and used to power it.

Diagram of ‘Gobar Gas’ installation in Laos, where it's called ‘Gaz Sivulphap.’ In Cambodia ‘Gobar Gas’ is called ‘Chiveak Ausman.’

The biogas that is produced is 50-70% methane by volume, similar to natural gas, and a convenient source of clean energy. The biogas is easily collected and stored for lighting, cooking and other household uses.  After the bacteria have finished digesting the dung, the byproduct is a rich organic fertilizer (sometimes called slurry).  That fertilizer is more effective than raw dung, with two important benefits for hands-on farmers:  it doesn’t smell bad, and almost all the pathogens and weed seeds have been destroyed.  There is no downside.  No waste.  No poisonous residues or batteries.  No moving parts.  Gobar Gas is an astonishingly elegant tap into “the circle of life” that environmentalists, economists, development people and humanitarians should all appreciate.

The Home Plant

Nepalese Gobar Gas: this installation begins at the blue outhouse.  Human waste feeds to the underground 'digester.'

Animal and raw kitchen waste is churned with water.

Both pipes meet underground in the digester.  Normally this place is filled with tons of excrement.  This digester was under construction.

 


 

This cutaway is a training plant in Cambodia.  The construction is slightly different than the Nepalese photos above.

There are many types including even a plastic bag and prefab fiberglass versions.  The basics are the same.  Gas is collected from the vertical pipe at the top of the 'collection dome.'

BSP-Nepal

According to Saroj Rai, the Executive Director of the Biogas Sector Partnership (BSP-Nepal) in Kathmandu, which oversees the Biogas Support Program (BSP), the idea came to Nepal in 1955, when Bertrand R. Saubolle constructed and demonstrated a plant.  In 1975/76 the Nepalese government installed 199 individual plants.  But biogas truly took off when the Dutch launched a large-scale program in 1992.

Today, an average-sized home installation might cost US $530—big money in Nepal—but subsidy mechanisms and microfinance schemes have led to the installation of approximately 204,000 units in the last two decades.  The BSP program estimates that, with subsidies, another 500,000 units should be built.

It’s not just Nepal. Other poor Asian countries have started.  Biogas has become so popular in Vietnam that many farmers have it installed on their own, without subsidy.  Subsidies vary greatly from up to 50% in countries like Laos, to 13.5% in Vietnam. The size of the subsidy required to persuade farmers to install the equipment is a reflection of both the relative wealth of farmers, and the priority they place on having a reliable substitute for wood, charcoal and other fuels, as well as the value of the fertilizer.

Millions of Gobar Gas units current operate in India and China.

Women, Children and Trees

These women and children in a village near Bhaktapur, Nepal, used to spend hours a day collecting wood.   Now the family has Gobar Gas.   The two girls are 12 and 13 years old, go to school, and their English is good.

In Afghanistan and Nepal, poor women use wood-burning stoves to cook inside poorly ventilated homes—while their children crawl around the smoky, sooty rooms. This leads to a high rate of respiratory and eye problems.  The homes are like smoke chambers in Nepal, and seem even worse in Afghanistan.

Before coming to the biogas sector, Mr. Rai worked in photovoltaic energy.  “Biogas has much greater socio-economic benefits,” said Mr. Rai in his Kathmandu office, “but biogas is not sexy like photovoltaic, which mostly helps men.  Biogas mostly helps women—the men don’t really notice because they still get cooked food, so why would a man invest 25,000 rupees?  But men will invest in photovoltaic because they get the sexy solar panel,” he said.  “Even women sometimes will opt for photovoltaic solar power because they don’t realize the headaches, coughing and eye problems come from cooking.”

Subarna Budhathoki, a 52-year-old mother of five, was lucky and spent only about four hours each day collecting wood in the jungle, then hours cooking over wood in a smoky house.  Now she uses that time to grow vegetables to sell in the market.  She was proud to say her son just went to Japan.

“Forget about the environmental benefits,” said Mr. Rai.  “People don’t see the value in saving the trees.  Unless they are very enlightened they are reluctant to try biogas.  It’s about social marketing.  These types of products are not easy.  But once you install a Gobar Gas plant, the woman typically says, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this twenty years ago!’ Once they experience the benefits they are overwhelmed and social marketing is very easy.”

“Some women spend more than twelve hours per day, six days per week collecting firewood,” he said, “and children who could be in school are out collecting wood.” Those are extremes, to be sure, but as a rule women and children spend hours a day collecting fuel.  During walks in the mountains it’s common to see children out collecting wood in little baskets. Given a choice, Nepalese mothers prefer that their children go to school.

A Nepalese woman makes us tea with her Gobar stove.  Efficient stove design is important to maximize the hours of cooking available.  A huge biogas industry has developed in China and biogas appliances are exported worldwide.

Success: the 18-year-old girl can go to school instead of fetching logs out of the jungle for cooking fuel.  Educated moms make educated kids.

This family has Gobar Gas but the mom, in the role of farrier, was having a hard time getting the little girl shod.  The girl was no more helpful than a horse and she kept her eyes on me as if a giraffe had walked into the village.  At first she was shy, then before heading off to school started modeling for the camera.

 


 

In Laos, 'Gobar Gas' is called 'Gaz Sivulphap.'  The program is not sparking as well in Laos as elsewhere, perhaps because they still have many trees.  They don’t have to walk far or pay for wood.

Aussie Andrew Williamson from the Dutch SNV, and Bounthavy Sengtakoun, his Laotian compatriot, examine a biogas lamp in Laos.  This house has electricity but biogas is cheaper.  A biogas lamp, similar to an LPG camping lantern, can cost anywhere from US$3 to US$15 depending on quality.

Cambodia: light in many homes is provided only by battery.  A small business that uses a generator charges the village batteries.  If you are in a jam in a village like this, and need your sat phone or cell phone charged, find one of these places and they’ll wire you up while you have tea.  In Iraq, some people charge cell phones on motorcycles.

In addition to the health advantages of biogas for women and children, the rest of nature also benefits.  Birds and other creatures do better when trees remain standing. In Nepal a single biogas plant can save about 2,500 kilograms of wood per year.  Trees anchor topsoil and prevent erosion.  In some places, the wood is simply gone.

The people of Bhatti—a village whose business is making moonshine—said they had heard about Gobar Gas but never wanted it.  Wood for cooking and making raksi (rice whiskey) was plentiful.  But they burned through all the wood—destroying the local economy.  LP, kerosene and other fuels are too expensive to use in making moonshine. So the entire village of nearly a hundred people began travelling—up to three days to and fro—to buy wood from other places.  Even the men had to spend their time scratching for wood—a situation too humiliating to stand.  Gobar Gas started flowing in Bhatti in November 2009.

Lizard Hole

Dung piles in Karbasha Qalat, Afghanistan

Ghor Province, Afghanistan is similar to dry parts of Nepal.  In Ghor there is a village called Karbasha Qalat (Lizard Hole) populated by a cow, sheep, horses, dozens of people, and thousands of lizards.

Villagers dry the dung in the sun and collect it into huge stacks, as people do in India, and Nepal, and across many places.  Karbasha Qalat (KQ) is like a dry Galapagos with all those lizards basking in the sun atop rocks and dung.  Unlike the islands, KQ is not at sea level, but over 8,000 feet.

In some places Afghans tell stories about today’s barren mountains having been covered by forests.  If there ever were trees around KQ, they are gone. The wild plants that can survive here must be bitter to man and beast.  There is no local wood.  When the manure is burned, it chokes those nearby, and then it is gone.  If KQ had a biogas generator, tons of manure would make gas while yielding slurry, to fertilize the now barren land.  And there wouldn’t be human and animal feces everywhere—a serious hygiene improvement.  The villagers in KQ had enough manure piled up to fuel a rocket with Gobar Gas.

Lizards atop dung cakes in Karbasha Qalat.

Ten kilos of dung yields roughly an hour of stove burning time, and one of those skinny cows produces about 12 kilos per day.  KQ had a great herd of sheep—probably a couple hundred—kept in pens when not out feeding.  Villagers scrape sheep dung from the pens, which they mixed with cow (I saw only one), mule and horse manure for cooking.  A small stream runs through the village.  Afghans will use greenhouses if taught; I’ve seen them in Helmand and Oruzgan.

An outside stove in KQ.  Many Afghans cook indoors.

The bio-slurry from the digester is so effective for growing crops that in some countries, according to Mr. Rai, biogas is not an energy program but an agricultural initiative. In Vietnam it has been adopted for sanitation.  The biogas and the great sanitation benefits, including reduction of waste-borne diseases, are byproducts in one place and impetus in another.  In Karbasha Qalat, with a few greenhouses using the bio-slurry, the standard of life could dramatically improve.  There must be thousands of “Karbasha Qalats” in Afghanistan.

SNV: The Dutch Connection

The more one learns about biogas, the more one sees the Netherlands Development Organization (SNV) humming in the background.  SNV started working on biogas in Nepal in 1989, further adapting the Chinese technology (the system is used across China), and developing an effective market-based program model.  The Dutch could not be accused of looking for short-term solutions or following the crowd.  Fifteen years in, SNV decided their domestic biogas program model was ready to replicate elsewhere in Asia.  They started the program in Vietnam in 2003, and the Asia Biogas Program targeting 1.1 million beneficiaries in Vietnam (second phase), Bangladesh, Cambodia and Lao PDR in 2005.

Wim van Nes, one of the world’s leading experts on the subject, is in charge of supporting SNV’s biogas programs in fourteen countries, seven in Asia and seven in Africa.  And so I had to find Wim van Nes, but that comes later.

Kitchens in Laos are better ventilated than many in Nepal or Afghanistan.

 


 

Good for Business

Biogas brings national-level benefits to countries such as Nepal, helping to spur business, and has created employment for about 9,000 Nepalese. These include jobs for local masons, who are trained as biogas technicians.  Another benefit for rural development professionals: biogas programs create a new, sustainable profession even in depressed rural areas.

Today, the challenges for Mr. Rai revolve around nurturing a holistic business sector by simultaneously prodding supply—including the development of biogas appliances—and demand.  BSP-Nepal, with 30 employees, has a presence in 75 districts.  Challenges remain, especially in remote areas, but the program is growing steadily.

Incredible Return on Investment

For a typical Nepalese family, installing a biogas facility, even with subsidies, is expensive.  But people feel that the investment pays for itself quickly.  Some women reported that Gobar Gas installations completely returned the investment within a year to 18 months.  SNV figures are more conservative, but even they show a complete return on investment after about three years.

These rapid returns measure the financial cost against real financial gain, from new activities that are more likely to generate income, which take the place of the daily search for fuel to survive.  For instance, in Nepal, Subarna Budhathoki said her Gobar Gas unit cost 35,000 Nepalese rupees after the subsidy, but she made 50,000 rupees the first year by selling vegetables.  Subarna said, with a smile that hardly ended during the entire lengthy conversation, that she would have earned 200,000 rupees on tomatoes that year, but the tomatoes were victims of a hail storm.  So she cleared a real profit of 15,000 rupees in the first year.

Long Term Gains

But it’s important to consider the less easily monetized but still very real benefits of using Gobar Gas.  Saving 2,500 kilograms of trees each year per family has long-term economic value to farmers as the soil is revived. Improved health from better sanitation and the absence of constant wood smoke in the home has clear economic benefits, as does the ability to send children, freed from the labor of searching for fuel, to school.  These gains and many others don’t fit on a balance sheet.  But they are the conditions for real, long-term economic and social development in the Third World.

Donmarkai village near Vientiane, Laos.  There is more land than people here, so wood is free and free-ranging cattle make it more work to collect Gobar.

Growing rice earns money in Nepal, while wood collection costs time and often money.

The SNV program in Cambodia is doing well.  The economics favor success in Cambodia more than for Laos.  In Cambodia, for instance, wood can be difficult or expensive to acquire.  Cambodians I talked with who had SNV-installed biodigesters were very happy.  In Laos, however, the relatively small population and large number of trees makes people less excited about biogas and so the program is off to a slow start, though this is the perfect time, before the trees are gone.

Households of four to five people require about two cows or buffalos to create enough raw materials.  A thousand chickens or a hundred small humans can match one big water buffalo, and four pigs equal about two cows in dung production. Connecting the family outhouse gives a slight Gobar boost, but is more useful for sanitation than fuel.

(SNV has plenty of detailed analysis country-by-country for the MBAs, scientists and farmers to analyze.)

Mrs. Am Phaly.

Mrs. Am Phaly, at Koh Prak village in Cambodia, saves about one hour a day on cooking.  After the $150 subsidy, she paid $250 for the installation of her unit, and saves $150 per year on charcoal and electricity.  In the time saved, Mrs. Phaly runs another business: a plant nursery.  She also buys 2.5 tons of rice per month and sells it all.  (She had a least a ton of rice in this room.)  The blue pipe in the background is the gas.  Mrs. Phaly was not sure who the President of the United States is, but said she feels lucky to be Khmer.  All three of her kids go to school.  A neighbor came over and laughed, saying that dung had become gold at this house.  But Mrs. Phaly will not handle the animal waste that goes into the digester.  She has her husband run the plant.

Taboos

In Nepal, cow dung has both religious and societal sanctity, and its virtues are praised in songs.  They handle Gobar as we would handle apples.  Interestingly, Gobar doesn’t stink in Nepal.  Some Nepalese have had the experience of traveling in the United States, and becoming nauseous when passing by a cow pastures.  Feed for American cows makes the Gobar stink terribly for Nepalese. In Nepal, I’ve seen women clean floors with fresh, wet buffalo dung, which they later dry and cook with, or increasingly some feed into the digester.

Mr. Christophe Barron, the Head of China Program for Initiative Development, installs biogas in China.  Mr. Barron recounted seeing numerous biogas program failures in Africa, largely due to taboos, though Mr. Barron said there is little problem in China.  The implications for Afghanistan are unknown, though some Afghans definitely handle dung.

The Chinese will connect outhouses to digesters without a second thought, but many Nepalese refuse to connect outhouses.  In Nepal, social obstacles are steadily being overcome by smart program design and time; to qualify for subsidy, the buyer hires one of the BSP-Nepal accredited companies.  The blueprint requires that a pipe be installed, for a future connection to the outhouse.  The owner can choose to connect or not.  In the early days, according to Mr. Rai, very few people connected outhouses, but today two thirds of Nepalese households eventually make the connection.  Less than 1% of the families in Laos have connected outhouses to the digesters.

Larger Projects

Toilets connected to Gobar Gas at German-supported orphanage in Kathmandu.

SNV concentrates on domestic biogas, but others will undertake larger endeavors. Sunil Krishna Shrestha is the Nepalese manager of a German-funded project.  Most home installations use a 4 or 6m3 plant, but this 30m3—at an orphanage for 40 children—is enough to run two stoves for 6-8 hours per day, saving about $130 per month in LPG costs.

Large German-led project near Kathmandu.  This 100m3 Nepalese plant is under construction.

Associated with the orphanage is a larger project where two large biogas plants are being installed along with greenhouses.  The kids learn how to use the biogas and work on the farm.  The goal is to achieve a financially self-sufficient orphanage by the year 2020.   Today they collect kitchen wastes from seven restaurants to feed the digesters, then sell organic vegetables back to the restaurants at 20% over the non-organic price.

Two installations (one each of Chinese and Nepalese design) were being connected to five homes—with a goal of connecting fifty homes.  Sewage pipes will run from the toilets to the digesters, and biogas will run back to the kitchens.  Households will pay a small monthly fee, and that fee will go back to the orphanage.

The 50m3 Chinese design is made by an established Chinese biogas company called Puxin, and Mr. Shrestha said the cost is about $19,000.  The Puxin system needs to be fed only once per six months.  The 100m3 Nepali design cost about $34,000 and will be fed by the animals, kitchen wastes and toilets on a daily basis.

Greenhouses that help pay for the orphanage.  Afghans are open to using greenhouses.

Other Afghan Factors

Afghanistan recently won the silver medal in a competition for the world’s most corrupt nation.  Somalia beat them by a nose, walking away with the gold medal, and all the gold that was meant for the people.  Adding resources to Afghanistan has only made it more corrupt by giving thieves something to steal and more power after they steal it.  Grassroots efforts can bypass many of these issues.

More than forty of the world’s most developed nations are nurturing Afghanistan, trying to push, pull and prod it into shape.  Simultaneously, it won a silver medal for corruption.  This means, at very least, that top-down solutions are typically not working.  The government cannot be trusted with development money, because they don’t care about the development part.  We might as well feed the money into bio-digesters.  Fundamental progress in Afghanistan can best be achieved with more bottom up efforts.  That’s what worked in Nepal.

There is no accurate census for Afghanistan.  This causes headaches for the U.S. military and others, because they don’t have a great understanding of who is where.  A Nepalese census found that only about 13,000 families live above 3,000m.  As a rule, 3000 meters is the limit for use of a biogas facility.  Though some companies have installed them a little further up the mountains.  There is no true technical limit for altitude, but there are practical limits.

Kathmandu Valley with visibility reduced partly due to the smoke from cooking stoves.

 


Temperature

The caloric rollercoaster for the star anaerobes begins at about 15ºC (59ºF).  That’s when they start waking up and going to work.  To kick them out of bed, some farmers pile straw atop the digester.  Decaying straw produces heat.  Busy anaerobes begin to help by producing heat inside the digester.  Some people build greenhouses over top, or barns.  In China, according to Jan Lam, the SNV biogas project manager in Cambodia, “The ‘3 in 1’ approach is popular.  A greenhouse contains a vegetable garden, pig sty and biodigester.  Vegetable waste is fed into the pigs and their waste goes directly into the plant which is often large enough for cooking and a water heater.”

In cold weather, digestion can be prodded with warm water.  As temperature rises, production rises, but the top of the “thermo coaster,” the ideal temperature, is about 35ºC (95ºF).  Good dung, plenty of water, little oxygen, and the anaerobes do their job.  Above that temperature, they slow down, trying to shed some heat.  But if slowing down doesn’t work, if their world gets too hot, they die.

Installing a digester is like adopting a baby elephant.  It can’t get too hot or cold.  It must eat every day, and drink lots of water.  Sometimes it needs a little washing.  If the water source is far, the system is impractical.  Many parts of Nepal and Afghanistan are impractical for baby elephants and biogas.

Mt. Everest: 8,850 meters (29,035 feet): too high for Gobar Gas, and yaks.

Dr. Ram Baran Yadav, President of Nepal.  (Saroj Rai, head of biogas in Nepal, stands on President Yadav’s left.)

Reliability

Plants in Nepal seldom break unless there is an earthquake or calamity, cracking the collector dome.  Concrete is semi-permeable to gas, requiring sealant on the concave side of the dome.  A tiny crack in the sealant allows methane to escape, disabling the unit until it is repaired.  Cracks on the bottom and the wall of the digester can self-seal like scabs.

If too much oxygen gets into the digester, the anaerobes die and the unit must be cleaned out and refilled.  The anaerobes can be killed by too much soap, pesticides, insecticides and other “cides” such as antibiotics.  Experts say hospital installations are headaches because when people take antibiotics, they kill the microbes, but the bigger problem is toilet disinfectants.  On farms, cows on antibiotics can also kill the plant.  Gisella McGuinness, from the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that a prison installation in Nepal is working fine.  This is important, she said, because the prison is only allotted a specific amount for food and cooking gas, and so the Gobar Gas allows more of the budget to go to food.  Asked if antibiotics damage the plant, she answered, “no because prisoners don’t get much medical care.”

President Yadav at biogas conference in Kathmandu

Kanak Mani Dixit, PhD, is a well-known academic and journalist in Nepal, who lived in New York for 10 years and is the publisher and editor of the monthly magazine Himal Southasian.  Dr. Dixit said that his family was one of the first to install Gobar Gas in Nepal, and their plant has been running with no problems for about 30 years.  Jan Lam from SNV says, “All plants are constructed with a guarantee clause.  Usually the guarantee period is 2-3 years.  If a plant functions after a 2 year period, it will function for a 20 year period with normal operation.”

Maintenance costs are trivial.  BSP-Nepal estimates that 94-98% of the plants that were installed since 1992 are still operational.  In Vietnam, the SNV program manager, Jeroen Kruisman, in his Hanoi office, said that about 99% of the about 74,000 plants in Vietnam are operating.  Mr. Kruisman explained that plant failures occur because of socio-economics, not design.  If a farmer moves or sells his pigs, for instance, the plant stops.

Physically, the plants are not indestructible. But for all intents and purposes they only fail due to calamities such as earthquakes and floods, in which cases people have more to worry about than fixing their Gobar Gas.

User Investment and Social Marketing

Financial participation from users is crucial to marketing success.  Experience shows that if users are not investors, they tend to let the units fail, and as Andrew Williamson from SNV said in Laos, “One bad unit equals ten good units.”  Entire programs can suffer heavy damage by installing plants for people who do not care for them.

Lalit, the Gurkha soldier who first told me about Gobar Gas, said his father installed a biodigester some 25 years ago and it never had a problem.  Lalit’s dad was also a Gurkha who had traveled the world, and when he returned to Nepal and installed biogas, other villagers were skeptical.  Lalit says that today hundreds of families in the immediate area have Gobar Gas.  “It’s monkey see monkey do,” said Lalit.  “If you bring Gobar Gas to Afghanistan, at first they will not believe it works.  Then they see it, and all will want Gobar Gas. And then it’s easy.”

Social marketing likely would be a large dimension of a program for Afghanistan.  This is not as simple as just installing a few hundred thousand plants, but includes the development of an entire business sector.  Though the Chinese and Indians are the undisputed champions of biogas in their home countries, it’s unclear if they would succeed in Afghanistan.  SNV has biogas operations in 14 countries and has developed institutional expertise from bottom to top.  Social marketing is nuanced and would require an “international mindset” to crack that nut in Afghanistan, and even within countries the marketing is complex.  In Nepal, there are arguably 160 ethnicities and 67% of users come from only two of those.  On literacy, in Nepal 83% of members of biogas households are literate while about half the country cannot read.  Higher subsidies are provided to ethnicities that are less involved in biogas.

Bottom line: Social marketing is complex and unit failure nearly always is due to user failure.  The user must participate in costs or there will be a high failure rate.  Program success builds through social marketing as a result of successful units.

The SNV idea is to plant the seed that leaves behind a viable, self-sustaining biogas industry that functions alone and without perpetual outside inputs.  To accomplish this goal, SNV conducts a detailed feasibility study and strategy.  Then comes the nuts and bolts of identifying managers, training trainers to install units, social marketing, subsidies and other details.  The biogas units themselves are different in every country, as is the strategic business model, which must be tailored to cultural values.   A rule of development projects is that the technology is the easy part. The keys to success are in getting people to change what is often age-old traditional behavior.  It’s tricky to convince a farmer that this new technology should be a priority for his family.

In Laos, when SNV opens programs in new districts, they identify social leaders such as teachers or veterinarians, and install biogas at their homes.  Those social leaders become kernels for social marketing.  When a farmer wants biogas, the local government official who has been trained by the SNV project inspects the person’s home for basics such as water availability, dung output, and flooding potential.  If the official signs off, the process can begin.

Carbon Credits

Global warming is a huge political issue, playing out across the planet.  Though third world nations can rarely afford to be as pollution-sensitive as developed nations, biogas is a ticket into the international carbon credit market.  In that market, entities which reduce net emissions of greenhouses gases can sell carbon credits to companies which use more carbon-based fuel.

According to Saroj Rai, Nepal pulled in about $600,000 on the sale of seven years’ worth of carbon credits from 19,396 plants. That represents a small start, since Nepal has 220,000 plants, which BSP-Nepal is working to get certified. Selling these carbon credits will potentially bring tens of millions of dollars into Nepal over the projected life of the plants.  This “carbon revenue” is earmarked by the government for re-investment into biogas and other renewable energy programs.

CDM certification, which is necessary in order to participate in the international carbon market, is painstaking, extremely expensive, and takes up a big part of the return unless the national program is large enough to achieve an economy of scale.

For the farmers on the ground the eco-friendliness is just a byproduct.  In parts of Cambodia and Nepal, biogas is attractive because the wood is gone.  Other countries use biogas plants for agriculture.  China and India view biogas as basic infrastructure.  These programs would exist regardless of trendy carbon credit markets.  Nonetheless, the advent of these credit schemes works for investors and users alike.

On a side note, I attended some carbon financing talks in Kathmandu in relation to biogas.  That part seemed like a scam of global proportion.  The rest of the biogas program seemed incredibly good.

Final Leg: Vietnam

Jeroen Kruisman, SNV Program manager in Vietnam, explains the Vietnamese model at the Hanoi office.

This research began serendipitously in the jungles of Borneo, leapt to Afghanistan, over to Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, back to Nepal, and finally to Vietnam.  Vietnam is set to become SNV’s most important biogas undertaking.  Vietnam biogas likely will overshadow even Nepal’s wildly successful program.

Whereas Nepal has over 200,000 domestic units, SNV-Vietnam program manager Jeroen Kruisman said that since 2003, 74,000 units have been installed in Vietnam.  Annual installations have already passed Nepal.  The program is so successful in Vietnam—the social marketing so strong—that many farmers don’t even spend the time waiting for subsidies; they just buy the plants.  About 22,000 units will be installed in 2010.

Vietnamese plant model.

Most fascinating about the Vietnamese success, is that Vietnamese say they buy the plants for the sake of improved sanitation.  The maximum subsidy is only about 13.5%.

The Vietnamese raise millions of pigs in urban and semi-urban environments.  Imagine a tracthouse neighbor with a backyard full of pigs.  Swine draw flies, mosquitoes, stink to high heaven, and unlike cow dung, pig dung is not safe to use to clean your floors.  It poisons the water.  And so, Vietnamese use the biogas only as an afterthought, though they are happy with the savings.  Many Vietnamese are rich compared to Nepalese.  Vietnamese cook mostly with gas or coal, making Hanoi smell acrid.

Mr. Nguxen Duc Bang, living in a densely packed neighborhood in Hanoi, had just bought a 12m3 plant, which was a couple of days before completion.  I counted only eleven pigs.  Not enough dung for such a big plant.  Mr. Nguxen said that when the plant is finished, he will add ten more pigs.

In Vietnamese, “biogas” is Khi Sinh Hoc, but a lot of Vietnamese don’t know that because they call it biogas.  For Vietnamese, it’s biomoney.  At this rate, biogas may add billions of clean dollars to the Vietnamese economy.  They buy the sanitation systems because the neighbors then permit them to raise more pigs.  At a different household, a Vietnamese woman said she is sending her son through university with money from the extra pigs.  Again, domestic biogas can be a nearly direct link to education.

For governments there is an additional payoff: increased legitimacy.  The incremental improvement in conditions that each plant represents is a more direct route to winning hearts and minds than most big, impersonal development projects.

SNV experts say national leaders like to be associated with the biogas projects, explaining why Nepalese President Yadav came to the Kathmandu biogas conference.

According Mr. Kruisman, SNV expert for Vietnam, there might be a technical potential for 2 million units, and a practical potential of about 1 million units in Vietnam.

This research odyssey on Gobar Gas was sparked by Lalit, a Gurkha whose father installed a plant in Nepal, and a man who grew up eating hot meals cooked on Gobar Gas, and who saw his village, house by house, install Gobar Gas, go to school, start businesses and prosper.  Villages with Gobar Gas are better than villages without.

It could work in Aghanistan. Our troop concentration of efforts and resources happens to be in optimal places for biogas.  The Helmand River Valley, for instance, is ideal. The Dutch have the experience and resources to make it happen.  They are already a crucial partner in Afghanistan.  And it fits into our current strategic, nation-building needs.  Our huge, “save Afghanistan all in one fell swoop” electrification projects have not been as successful as we had hoped.  Domestic biogas grows like a tree, from the bottom up, and the roots occur at the district level, a level we must win at.


Subsequent some matchmaking, SNV has been in contact with the U.S. Army with interest in bringing biogas to Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, since I completed this research in 2009, in an attempt to bring Gobar Gas to Afghanistan and help win the war, the trajectory of the war has taken a nosedive.  I’ve never had confidence that the current U.S. President has the wisdom or personal fire to win this war.  Our President is not a war winner, a reality so obvious that this sentence is already redundant.  My final hope, or nearly final hope, was that General Stanley McChrystal would have the fire and the wisdom.  He has the fire.



Note: An excellent book that covers these topics and more: “BIOGAS, As Renewable Source of Energy in Nepal, Theory and Development.” (ISBN 99946-34-76-3)

 

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