Key opportunity for household biogas in Covid-19 recovery

March 24, 2021

‘It appears that the pandemic has disproportionately affected poorer households lacking access to clean cooking solutions’, a new paper of the World Bank Group concludes. A worrying message because it means that Covid-19 will push an estimated four billion people without access to clean cooking solutions further down the energy- and poverty ladder if external support remains absent. But, with the right policies and interventions, Covid-19 also presents opportunities for the transition to clean cooking fuels, the paper notes. Most notably for household biogas.

Changed cooking practices

The findings in the World Bank’s paper are derived from a case study conducted in rural Kenya in which two groups of households were interviewed. One group consisted of households that use domestically produced biogas. The other group involved households that primarily use wood, supplemented by liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and charcoal.

The case study shows that the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have altered households’ cooking-related behavior of especially the second group. As the paper notes, these households saw their spending on food and fuel raise significantly. Increased transportation costs, scarcity of fuels, and consequently higher costs for LPG and charcoal, but also the higher number of household members at home during the day, are the main drivers behind the increased spending. At the same time, household incomes were cut. Participants without a biogas digester reported an increase in the use of firewood and other biomass obtained close to home. This has a negative impact on people’s health, the environment but also on time spend on cooking and gender roles and women’s empowerment within the household.

Biogas households: increased resilience, growing interest and divide

On the contrary, independent access to biogas insulated the households with a biogas digester from fluctuations in fuel prices and limits on access. These households did not report major differences in cooking practices and even noted that biogas had increased their resilience to crises like Covid-19. Hivos published several stories of biogas owners in December 2020 in which farmers explain how biogas has helped them through lockdowns. The stories reveal that biogas has offered farmers an alternative for the scarce and expensive fuel for cooking, an organic fertilizer for their crops, and in some cases even an extra source of income from selling the left over bio slurry to neighbors or on the market.

Covid-19 has also encouraged the adoption of the energy technology. Sistema.bio, the biogas company that was selected to nominate biogas users in the World Bank case study, besides recipient of a loan from Hivos-Triodos Fund , indicated that Covid-19 has stimulated interest in biogas and nudged middle-income households to switch to modern cooking fuels. The company reported an increase in sales in 2020.

Local construction companies supported by Hivos biogas program underline the growing interest in biogas but also warn that additional support to make biodigesters more affordable for poorer households is needed. Local construction companies did not see an increase in uptake as Sistema.bio did, but even saw a decline as poorer households do not have reserves to bear income losses. Restrictions on travelling were imposed affecting construction companies and masons to visit farms. In this period of Covid-19 poorer households cannot come up with the money for the initial investment, whereas middle-incomes can. This is instigating a growing energy divide between households which undoubtedly will have a deeper impact on development opportunities.

Supporting poor households

Governments need to consider clean cooking an essential service and a critical part of the pandemic response and put policies in place for speeding up the transition to clean cooking fuels. But external financial support is just as needed. Recovery packages therefore should include real investments in clean cooking technologies such as biogas.

In the meantime, every individual and company can contribute to biogas projects that truly benefit poor communities by offsetting CO2 emissions. The Hivos biogas program and affiliated carbon credits program provides this offsetting and invests in bio-digesters to individual households by supporting households with the upfront costs. More info on how to offset can be found on this website and on the Gold Standard Project Marketplace.