Building a Methane-Fueled Fire: Innovation of the Week

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

For half the world’s population, every meal depends on an open fire that is fueled by wood, coal, dung, and other smoke-producing combustibles. These indoor cookfires consume large amounts of fuel and emit carbon dioxide and other dangerous toxins into the air, blackening the insides of homes and leading to respiratory diseases, especially among women and children.

Biogas, however, takes advantage of what is typically considered waste, providing a cleaner and safer source of energy. Biogas units use methane from manure to produce electricity, heat, and fertilizer while emitting significantly less smoke and carbon monoxide than other sources of fuel. Access to an efficient, clean-burning stove not only saves lives-smoke inhalation-related illnesses result in 1.5 million deaths per year-it also reduces the amount of time that women spend gathering firewood, which the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) estimates is 10 hours per week for the average household in some rural areas.

The IFAD-funded Gash Barka Livestock and Agricultural Development Project (GBLADP) helped one farmer in Eritrea, Tekie Mekerka, make the most of the manure his 30 cows produce by helping to install a biogas unit on his farm (similar to the unit that Danielle saw in Rwanda with Heifer International). Now, says Mekerka, “we no longer have to go out to collect wood for cooking, the kitchen is now smoke-free, and the children can study at night because we have electricity.”Additionally, Mekerka is using the organic residue left by the biogas process as fertilizer for his family’s new vegetable garden.

In Rwanda, the government is making biogas stove units more accessible by subsidizing installation costs, and it hopes to have 15,000 households nationwide using biogas by 2012.  While visiting with Heifer Rwanda, Danielle met Madame Helen Bahikwe, who, after receiving government help to purchase her biogas unit, is now more easily cooking for her 10-person family and improving hygiene on the farm with hot water for cleaning.

In China, IFAD found that biogas saved farmers so much time collecting firewood that farm production increased. In Tanzania, the Foundation for Sustainable Rural Development (SURUDE), with funding from UNDP, found that each biogas unit used in their study reduced deforestation by 37 hectares per year. And in Nigeria, on a much larger scale, methane and carbon dioxide produced by a water purifying plant is now being used to provide more affordable gas to 5,400 families a month, thanks to one of the largest biogas installations in Africa.

To read more about how waste can be turned into a source of fuel, energy, and nutrition see: Making Fuel Out of Waste, Growing Food in Urban “Trash,” ECHOing a Need for Innovation in Agriculture, Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste, and Vertical Farms: Finding Creative Ways to Grow Food in Kibera.

If you know of other ways people are making the most of their waste and would like to share it with us, we encourage you to leave a comment or fill out our agriculture innovation survey here.

Innovation of the Week: Investing in Better Food Storage in Africa

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Cow peas are an important staple in Western Africa, providing protein to millions of people. Unlike maize, cow peas are indigenous to the region and have adapted to local growing conditions, making them an ideal source of food.

Making sure that the crops make it from the field to farmers’ bowls (or bols), however, is a real challenge in Niger and other countries (see Innovation of the Week: Reducing Food Waste). Cow peas only grow a few months a year and storing large amounts of the crop can be difficult because of pests. But that’s changing, thanks to a storage bag developed by Purdue University. The bags, called Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage, or PICS, are hermetically sealed, preventing oxygen and pests from contaminating the cowpeas. According to Purdue President Martin C. Jischke, “The method is simple, safe, inexpensive and very effective, which means that getting the right information to these people will reap tremendous benefits.”

With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the PICS project hopes to reach 28,000 villages in not only Niger, but Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Chad, and Togo by 2011. And while many farmers are at first skeptical the large storage bags will protect cow peas throughout the year, seeing is believing- in each village bags are filled with cowpeas and then 4 to 6 months later PICS has an Open-the-Bag event, allowing the farmers to see that the cowpeas are undamaged and ready-to-eat. In addition to protecting the cowpea from pests, the PICS bags also save farmers money on expensive pesticides.

Stay tuned for more on PICS bags when we head to Western Africa in a few months.

Innovation of the Week: Winrock International and Sylva Professional Catering Services Limited

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Sylvia Banda started Sylva Professional Catering Services Limited in 1986, even though just 30 years ago women weren’t allowed to own businesses-or even eligible for loans-in Zambia. She began her business by serving people food she cooked and brought from home on what she calls, a “standing buffet,” because she didn’t have enough money for tables and chairs.

Not having furniture didn’t stop Sylvia’s business from taking off; she made almost a hundred dollars after a few days. And with her husband listed as the proprietor of her business because land rights are limited if not inaccessible to women in Zambia, Sylvia was able to grow her small “standing buffet” into three subsidiary businesses.

Sylva Professional Catering Services Limited is dedicated to creating, selling and serving nutritious foods, made from indigenous and traditional products that are purchased from local farmers and merchants. Sylvia provides work for 73 people and has developed partnerships with local development organizations, using her financial and popular success to become a proponent of farmer and employee training. She calls it “economic emancipation.”  

Sylvia’s success has benefited not just her own family, but the wider community as well. And Winrock International, an organization that collects examples of projects focused on sustainable food, improving livelihoods and preserving local food traditions, hopes to extend her positive impact even further still by making her case study available as a resource and model for potential entrepreneurs-and for policy makers and NGOs who support potential entrepreneurs-around the world.

For more information about Sylvia’s work and other projects that are focusing on sustainable food, improving livelihoods and preserving local food traditions, see Winrock International’s site on Community Food Enterprises.

Innovation of the Week: Land Grabs

(This new diary contributor is writing good stuff on important issues. – promoted by John Morgan)

Crossposted from Nourishing the Planet.

Over the last few years, China, India, and the Middle East have invested heavily in African land, spurred on by the global food and economic crises-as well as the threats of climate change, population growth, and water scarcity. By controlling agricultural land in Kenya, Ethiopia, and elsewhere on the continent, these nations hope to secure future food supplies for their populations, even as sub-Saharan Africa faces increasing hunger. At least 23 million people are currently at risk for starvation in the Horn of Africa. And this increasing foreign investment in African land has largely remained under the global radar. In addition, the push for alternative energy sources is driving investors to purchase land for energy crops, like corn and sugar cane, which can be used to produce biofuels instead of food.

Some experts argue that “land grabbing” or the investment in foreign soil is progress for agriculture, by bringing development and big agriculture to impoverished countries through the introduction of new technologies and jobs. But, as the article, The Great Land Grab, co-authored by Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group member Anuradha Mittal, explains, “corporate agribusiness has been known to establish itself in developing countries with the effect of either driving independent farmers off their land or metabolizing farm operation so that farmers become a class of workers within the plantation.”

Land grabs can come at a great cost to local farmers and communities. In Pakistan, for example, the United Arab Emirates purchased 324,000 hectares of land in the Punjab province. According to a local farmer’s movement, this purchase will displace an estimated 25,000 villagers in the province, where 94 percent of the people are subsistence farmers only utilizing about 2 hectares of land each. Because of these “land grabs,”not only are farmers removed from land, but the local economy also suffers.  Many hunger-stricken countries, such as Sudan and Kenya, will have to import foods that were once grown locally.