Farm Talk

April 8, 2014

In search of a cost-effective fuel for cooking in rural Africa


Parsons, KS — Most, if not all, food in Guede Chantier, Senegal is cooked over a wood fire. This is typical of the situation in much of rural sub-Saharan Africa. The acquiring of firewood often is a task that is added to all of the other household and farming/marketing tasks that are carried out by women.

In addition to the labor component, when the fire is built in a confined area, the women often develop breathing problems due to the inhalation of soot from the cooking fires. The gathering of wood by a village of any size also has an impact on the tree population of the area as limbs are constantly cut from living trees to provide firewood.

Through the European Union, Guede was given a grant that was divided among the districts in the community. One district decided to invest their grant in the development of women owned and operated businesses. A second district decided to use their money to fill in a depression that filled with water every time it floods. A third district chose to invest its money in a forestry project to increase the number and quality of trees in and around Guede. Two of the districts chose to pool their money and use it to improve the schools and build additional classrooms for the students.

One district decided to invest in biogas digesters that would turn human, animal and crop wast into biogas that could be piped into the kitchens of their homes and used just like natural gas to cook their foods. The money provided by the European Union was not great enough to provide these biogas digesters to each household in the district, but their presence would serve as a demonstration project and a test of the feasibility of building biogas digesters for each household.

The participating households each had to contribute 10 percent of the cost of the construction and installation of the biogas digester on their property. Initially the digesters were going to cost CFA 40,000 (approx. US $83.33). The cost to the household would be CFA 4,000 or US $8.33. After community input and a redesign by a young engineer from Dakar, Project Manager Serigne Madjou — his friends thought he was crazy to take on a project so far out in the rural area — read the literature and redesigned the configuration of the biogas material collection and biogas digester so that it could accommodate household vegetable waste, and animal waste as well as human waste.

With the reconfiguration of the system, Serigne was able to improve its versatility and at the same time reducing the cost to CFA 30,000, reducing the co-payment by the owner as well. Serigne also modified the layout of each system to meet the configuration of each household. While the sand cement, rebar, and the digester were purchased, the concrete block was made in Guede and all of the labor was provided by local workers who were quite proud of the quality of the work they were doing.

The system consists of a Turkish toilet that is used by all members of the household with an additional access hole where additional organic material — cooking waste, animal dung, plant material — could be put into the system as well as holding tanks and a digester. From the digester, the natural gas would be piped to the kitchen area of the house.

This should not be news to anyone in American agriculture. Wild climate swings have hammered the cattle, corn, vegetable and fruit sectors in the last decade and sustained drought continues to devastate huge ag areas from the High Plains to California.

It certainly isn’t news to the Land Grant universities that research global warming. At the forefront is Eugene Takle, a professor of agronomy and director of Iowa State University’s Climate Science Program.

Currently, Takle and ISU colleague Jerry Hatfield, director of the National Lab for Agriculture and Environment, are lead authors of the ag chapter of the mandated 2014 National Climate Assessment. The report, due later this month, “will paint a sobering picture of climate change globally and its impacts on the U.S.,” Takle related when interviewed last fall for a campus publication.

“One of the key messages of the report,” Takle said “is that the incidence of weather extremes will continue and will have increasingly negative effects on crop and livestock productivity because critical thresholds are already being exceeded.”

At least someone at a respected American agricultural institution believes climate change will be the 21st century farm and ranch game changer. Too bad it’s not an actual farm or ranch group.