Michael's Dispatches

Gobar Gas


This cutaway is a training plant in Cambodia.  The construction in every country is different due to local technical variance.  Gas accumulates in the 'collection dome' and is brought into the kitchen by the pipe at the apex.

Many sorts of digesters have been developed, including plastic bag and prefab fiberglass versions.  The basics are the same: Waste in, gas and slurry out.  Gas is collected from the vertical pipe at the top of the 'collection dome.'


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

It’s not just Nepal. Other poor Asian countries have climbed aboard the biogas train. 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, other fuels—and the value of the fertilizer. (More details on subsidies in the unabridged version of this dispatch.)

About thirty million of Gobar Gas units are currently believed to be operating 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.  They attend 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—a situation which leads to 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. “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 per 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. Given a choice, Nepalese mothers prefer their children go to school rather than haul wood. During walks in the mountains, it’s common to see kids of maybe six or seven out collecting wood in little baskets.

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 Chinese 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.

School is a Luxury

This family has Gobar Gas but the mom, as 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.

Going to school in Nepal.  Their grandmother served us buffalo milk boiled over Gobar Gas.  The boy is already in college and the girl also is in school.


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