Photo courtesy of World Agroforestry Centre / Sherry Odeyo

Growing mounds of waste offer African women unexpected business opportunities in the bioenergy sector

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This op-ed first appeared on the Green Growth Knowledge Platform.

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New technologies and smart business models could turn waste into a veritable gold mine of opportunity for African women.

How waste can fast-track transition to cleaner bioenergy

To explain how women are able to turn waste into opportunity, we need to revisit a well-known challenge: In sub-Saharan Africa, most people rely on firewood and charcoal for cooking and heating. Using firewood and charcoal in inefficient stoves dangerously pollutes indoor air quality, while cutting down trees without replanting plans degrades the environment.

Therefore, efforts to reduce the use firewood and charcoal and complement it with other forms of energy have been long underway. Yet, it is only recently that opportunities to find entirely new sources of biomass energy are being pursued. 

One idea for how to fast-track this transition is springing up from a surprising source: Waste. Waste materials, such as city and market waste, cow dung or even human excreta, can be recovered and made into cleaner, cheaper bioenergy products that can help alleviate the energy poverty that has long plagued sub-Saharan Africa.

Dionesia Ireri, a coffee farmer in Kenya, stirs the cow dung mixture that she transforms into biogas with the help of a biodigester.
Dionesia Ireri, a coffee farmer in Kenya, stirs the cow dung mixture that she transforms into biogas with the help of a biodigester.
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Evidence shows that women are particularly well placed to leverage these new waste-to-energy business opportunities, allowing them to gain new skills, jobs and incomes that can benefit them and their entire communities.

How women can be empowered to rise to the top of this new value chain is what we explored in a new publication: Recovering bioenergy in sub-Saharan Africa: Gender dimensions, lessons and challenges. In it, we have documented successful innovations that can be replicated across the region.

Opportunities for women entrepreneurs

Reusing readily available waste to produce bioenergy provides an opportunity for women who do not have access to lots of capital and may have little education to start modest, but viable businesses.

In the countryside, rural households can use crop and forestry residues, animal manure, human excreta or market waste to produce fuel pellets, briquettes or biogas.

Dionesia Ireri, who lives on a small coffee farm in Central Kenya, is pursuing this opportunity. She turns cow dung into biogas that she uses for cleaner cooking. The cow dung is processed in a custom-built concrete structure called a biodigester. The structure pipes biogas directly into her kitchen, and in this way she can get rid of soot-filled pots and interiors. The process also creates a by-product that she is using as fertilizer on her farm.

On top of this, Dionesia and other women like her are realizing that if they can be trained as masons, they themselves could construct biodigesters for others, generating an income and reducing their dependence on hired masons for maintenance services.

In urban areas, opportunities also exist. Here, mounds of waste are steadily outpacing municipalities’ efforts to keep cities clean, while households are struggling to pay for energy.

In Kampala, Uganda, women are capitalizing on urban waste by using kilns to transform banana waste into charcoal. The women are becoming part of a new value chain by selling charcoal to a company, Green Heat Ltd, which uses the charcoal to produce easy-to-use briquettes. Then, the company supplies the women with briquettes on credit, and the women sell the briquettes in their grocery kiosks at a profit.

Because women have decades of experience with cooking and home-based energy consumption, they are better salespersons than men and may have a greater chance of convincing other women to make the switch.

Beyond offering women with opportunities to create their own businesses and enjoy the benefits, such low-tech local businesses are also able to supply consumers with reliable, cheap and cleaner sources of energy that they would otherwise not be able to access.

Lessons from the past should inform future efforts

To make sure that African women can benefit from these emerging opportunities to turn waste into bioenergy, we must learn from past mistakes.

Take the example of clean cook stoves. Despite considerable investments by donors and clear benefits, they have simply not been adopted in large numbers. Why is that? One possible answer is that past cook stove projects have been mostly blind to the culture of cooking and the insights of women. Past experience shows that adoption of new cooking systems hinges on whether the technology fits the culture.

Clearly, today’s projects need to enable women to play a bigger role in decision making if cleaner bioenergy technologies are to be widely adopted. Several approaches need to be pursued. First, development professionals engaged in energy projects need to cast aside their assumptions about what drives adoption and invest in understanding the users’ perspectives.

In contexts where patriarchal norms are strongly established, project staff must acknowledge and respect that it takes time to build the trust needed to reach the women of these communities. It might also be necessary to prioritize solutions that are socially viable within certain gender norms, rather than always pursuing the most ideal solution.

Allowing women to play a role in the energy-to-waste business hinges on capacity building. While many business models are viable without great capital or education, we still found that the access to finance and level of education determined whether women were able to start a business.

Unless we address these shortcomings of the past, new efforts to empower women to fast-track the much-needed transition to cleaner bioenergy will also fail. But with the right approaches in hand, this is a sector with plenty of practical, successful models for addressing energy poverty, while allowing women to expand their working lives.

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Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners. WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors, including ACIARDFIDDGISSDC, and others.

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