In Nigeria, biogas offers agricultural communities energy

Tuesday August 30th, 2016 - Smart Villages

Interview with Fatima Oyiza Ademoh

Project Manager, Ajima Farms and General Enterprises Nigeria Ltd

Location: Nigeria

“Biogas can power homes and communities”.

“I have always wanted to reduce the numbers of people living in energy poverty”, says Fatima Ademoh. Her first off-grid project, connecting the village of Rije, Nigeria to a biogas generator, will be completed in September 2016. Even before it’s switched on, Ademoh is looking forward to replicating the model. “Working in this community has made me realise even more the opportunity for development with access to energy and how access can create a ripple effect to other sectors”.

After getting an MSc in financial risk management from the University of Leeds in the UK, Ademoh worked in energy business development in Nigeria for a year, then started a farm incubator in the Kuje area to train young people to be successful market farmers—and entrepreneurs. It was a natural progression to get funding for—and project manage—a new biogas plant. This plant will power a mini-grid that will give an agricultural community clean, sustainable energy.

Lack of electricity, security, and sufficient water supply are obstacles to economic development for several off-grid communities in Kuje. Through a feasibility study, Ademoh and colleagues settled on the village of Rije as the most viable location for their biogas mini-grid. Local youth helped the study team do outreach and research that revealed community enthusiasm for the project. But Ademoh and colleagues had no luck when they asked the district government to grant land for the plant site.

Speaking at a Smart Villages webinar on women and energy entrepreneurship, Ademoh said her team initially encountered some resistance “not just because it was a woman leading the team, but because the community had had experiences with people coming in to tell them about projects they wanted to do and not getting off the ground.” But Ademoh’s commitment to ending energy poverty got through to Rije’s chief, who offered 2,405 square metres to house the biogas plant and generator. “I think he could see the sincerity and passion that I have for the project.”

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Fatima Ademoh with colleagues at the site of the future biogas digester.

Building a sustainable system—with tonnes of manure

Ademoh says the biogas digester is key to a sustainable system that can unlock productivity for the local economy. Kuje is a “food basket” that produces crops like yam, maize, and rice, and beef from cattle raised both by traditional grazing and more intensively on farms.

Cattle at Ajima Farms produce hundreds of tonnes of manure per month, waste that would normally be left in the fields producing methane, a greenhouse gas that is a potent contributor to global warming. The need to address the causes of climate change is a strong argument for turning that methane-producing agricultural waste to biogas. When biogas methane is burnt as cooking fuel or to power generators, it is regarded as adding no more CO2 to the atmosphere than was consumed by plants at the beginning of the food/energy cycle that produced it.

Manure will be transported from the farm to the digester by van —a free service in exchange for a raw material that at this point seems to be in unlimited supply. “We have much more than we can deal with”, laughs Ademoh.

There’s an extra bonus to the system. The by-product of manure processed into biogas is natural fertilizer. “Our fertilizer will be less expensive and healthier than the chemical fertilizer local farmers are advised to use now”, says Ademoh.

That good fertilizer will help farmers be more productive—and electricity from the mini-grid will help them process and store their crops. Ademoh says the price of tomatoes, for example, crashes at the height of the harvest when the crop is plentiful. With refrigeration, farmers can store perishable goods like tomatoes longer and sell them at a better price over a longer period.

“That’s just one example,” she says, “of how electricity will enable people to improve productivity, diversify sources of income, and extend their working hours”. The biogas digester and mini-grid are a for-profit project, but Ademoh says that baseline data compiled through the feasibility study indicates power from the mini-grid will be less expensive than existing energy expenditure on kerosene, dry cell batteries, diesel and petrol. The study shows that residents are willing and able to pay for electricity and bottled biogas, and the research findings will guide price setting and load allocation for households.

Social and health benefits are part of the plan. About 50 per cent of Rije’s population is under 18 years of age. Children who help on family farms after school will get extra hours of study time in the evening with electric light powered by the grid. Mothers who cook with bottled biogas won’t have to collect firewood, depleting the area’s valuable shea butter trees.

Then there’s water. At present the one working borehole in Rije is insufficient. Water is collected from a stream 1 km away from the village—and it takes three trips per day to collect enough water for the average household. Electricity from the new mini-grid will enable drilling of a new borehole in the village and power an electric pump, saving time and human energy.

At present, Rije has no health clinic. “People who can start a health clinic are not attracted to villages without electricity”, says Ademoh. She looks forward to the clinic and improved health for the village, thanks to the mini-grid.

Biogas mini-grids—a new concept

The plant and grid, which will provide electricity to 450 residents in 50 households in Rije, is a joint project of Ajima Farms, General Enterprise Nigeria Ltd., and Eco-Watts. It was funded by a $100,000 Beyond-the-Grid Initiative grant through Power Africa, a partnership of the US Africa Development Foundation (USADF) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).  Construction of the plant, with its fixed-dome biogas digester of 124 cubic metres, began last year and is now complete. “We have seen a lot of interest in the project but because it’s a new concept most individuals and organizations are waiting for our system to become operational”, says Ademoh. “We also view our project as a proof of concept that biogas can power homes and communities”.

Attending seminars and networking as a Mandela Washington fellow in the U.S. over the summer, says Ademoh, renewed her appreciation of energy development as a women’s issue.  On the Smart Villages webinar, she encouraged other women to embark on careers in energy development. “Having that passion and knowing the potential impact the business can have on the community, not just having access to electricity but having access to social and economic development, has helped me push through any of the challenges. Because I’m not just looking at the short run of it, I’m looking at the longer run, what access to electricity means for these communities.

—Valerie Schloredt, Writer and researcher