Michael's Dispatches

Gobar Gas II


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.


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.


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