The team at Hatch International’s BioD Project plans to apply the principle of animal digestion to turn farm waste into usable energy in Madagascar, the island country off Africa’s southeast coast.
BioD, has reimagined the biodigester for homes in the island nation, said Caroline Angelo, BioD electrical engineer and co-director. Hatch International, of Washington D.C., creates self-sustainable technologies for developing communities worldwide through a number of projects, such as BioD.
Biodigesters work, after a fashion, the way a stomach works. Shovel manure, food scraps and other organic material into a closed container, let bacteria and other microbes break it down, then harvest the methane gas that they produce in the process, she said. If they’re used properly, they can cut down on the amount of wood burned for cooking, which can reduce deforestation, clean up the air in the kitchen, and help families save money.
They also produce organic fertilizer that can be spread on local crops.
But many biodigesters are large, underground infrastructure made from concrete. And they can cost more than $1,000 in parts of Africa. They’re expensive for poor families and difficult to install and maintain, Angelo said.
BioD has made a smaller, less expensive digester using materials, such as farm waste, that can be found locally in Madagascar, home to about 22 million people.
“Our design is unique in that it’s small enough to serve a single household, and could even be picked up and moved around. Since everything is above ground it’s easy to troubleshoot and repair if necessary,” Angelo said.
The BioD team set out to make biodigesters more accessible in 2010 by attempting to build on existing designs.
“After several iterations and frustrations we decided to start from scratch, focusing on the biological processes and materials that are locally available in developing countries,” Angelo said.
Now the team plans to head to Madagascar to test its newest prototype and research the market for training, distribution and sales. The team will train local entrepreneurs to build and sell the biodigesters, and they’ll help families to afford them through financing. But they won’t do it alone.
“The key to our success has been local partnerships. We have established strong relationships in Madagascar with civil society organizations and university students, that has ensured that our product is not just technically appropriate, but is culturally sensitive and harnesses local skills and materials,” Angelo said.