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Hidden treasures

Hidden treasures

Nahason Nyaga is known as a wise man with green fingers. The retired head teacher cultivates coffee berries of the highest quality and grows more corn than he can eat. For his brother Daniel, who farms the adjacent piece of land, the situation is very different. His fields are full of weeds and yield nowhere near as much as Nahason’s. It’s an unfair battle.

The secret of Nahason’s rich harvest is his biodigester. Not only does it provide him with gas for cooking but also bio-slurry, a waste product that resembles fertilizer. He was one of the first Kenyans to buy a biodigester through the Africa Biogas Partnership Programme (ABPP). At the time this joint Hivos and SNV initiative, which makes biogas accessible to small farmers, was not nearly as well known as it is now in Kenya. It offered attractive subsidies and favourable loans for early adopters like Nahason. The former headmaster did the maths and jumped at the chance. His investment would soon repay itself.

Doing the maths
Nahason’s calculation was simple. The gas produced by the biodigester from the manure provided by his cows would make buying petroleum and firewood a thing of the past. His wife, Nyambura, could cook on a gas stove and the house would be lit by a gas lamp. The savings would be so substantial that he would already be earning money while paying off the debt. Nyambura would also never again have to inhale toxic smoke from her wood oven.

Daniel, however, was not convinced. No one in the neighbourhood had experience with biogas. Moreover, the purchase price was high, in spite of available subsidies and loans. It would take years before his brother paid off the investment. It was only when the digester began to produce a new type of fertilizer, besides the biogas, that its value became crystal clear.

Brown gold
The composition of bio-slurry depends on various factors, but generally it contains phosphorus, potassium, zinc, iron, magnesium and copper. These are all minerals of which there often is a shortage in agricultural land. Bio-slurry is a serious and appealing alternative to expensive fertilizer. After applying bio-slurry, Nahason’s crops proved to be more resistant to diseases and the growth of weeds –which attract insects– was suppressed. No wonder some people call bio-slurry brown gold.

Even Nahason only realised later how valuable bio-slurry is. After his biodigester was installed the ABPP service staff showed him how to use it. Nahason found that it is not all that much work. Because he lives at the top of a hill, he can run part of the slurry down a channel directly onto his vegetable garden. What he needs for his coffee plantation he carries there in buckets.

Agricultural innovation
Nahason and Daniel both inherited half of their father’s land. The plot boundary runs through the middle of the old coffee plantation, along bushes of up to 40 years old. It is valuable family property which the brothers use to supplement their small pensions. Whether their children will be able to benefit from it later is uncertain, as they will have to divide the plots again. Will there be enough land for them to live on? It is a question many young Kenyans are asking themselves. In any case it is clear that they must increase the productivity of their fields. It is possible, as the Nyagas have shown with their land.

Biogas could become the standard for farmers in Africa. By 2017 the ABPP will be involved in no fewer than 100,000 biodigesters, not only in Kenya but also in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania. This will be achieved by continuously seeking new applications and technologies. Newer systems will become cheaper, last longer, and supply more gas. Furthermore, an increasing number of entrepreneurs are realising the potential of biogas. Simgas, a Dutch company, makes hard plastic biodigesters that are locally produced, lightweight, easy to transport and very easy to maintain.

ABPP’s sophisticated strategy to expand and promote biogas relies for a large part on people like Nahason Nyaga. He took a chance and chose one of the first available biodigesters: a small brick one. He demonstrated the advantages of biogas to the local community and received an attractive subsidy in return. His brother Daniel did not; however, more importantly, Daniel did see the benefits of biogas with his own eyes. Now he has been won over, he is saving for his own biodigester; maybe one of those modern, hard plastic ones.