Solutions for Self-Reliance

Resilient Entrepreneurs Abroad: Building Biogas Systems in Kenya

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There are lots of effective ways to build resilient communities (if you think there is only one, you are thinking too narrowly).

For example, you could build a cooperative community from scratch, like EcoReality is doing in the southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia, Canada.   Or, you could bootstrap one where you live, like “P” did in rural Vermont and Michael Froelich did in West Philly, PA.

Another approach, and the one I’m going to focus on today and tomorrow, is resilient entrepreneurship.  People that have started businesses to either help communities become more resilient (by selling products and services that enhance resilience) or to develop them from scratch.

I’ve got two great examples of this are from entrepreneurs that traveled the world looking for opportunities.

Today’s example will be Takamoto Biogas, a resilient start-up in Kenya.  Tomorrow’s example will be a start-up planning to build a fully featured resilient community in Fiji (!).

Today’s start-up is a company called Takamoto Biogas.   Takamoto was founded by Kyle Schutter, a Brown graduate with a degree in Medical Engineering.  Rather than waste his life working in a cubicle (even if he could find a cubicle job in the first place that wasn’t a glorified internship), he headed off to Africa to look for business opportunities.

The opportunity he found was in helping homesteaders become resilient.   Specifically, there was a glaring need for biogas digesters in Kenya.  So, naturally, he decided to build a company to meet that need.

What is a biogas digester?  It’s a system that turns biological waste (in this case:  farmyard manure) into clean methane gas that can be used in the home and fertilizer.  Here’s a diagram that shows how it works.

How do they work?

The process is pretty simple.  The homeowner puts manure and other biological waste into the mixing chamber on the left.  They then add water (just like a toilet) and flush it down into the digesting tank.  The slurry in the tank is digested by microbes that produce methane gas.  This gas is piped into the home.   The sludge that is left is routinely removed to provide compost for plants.

Takamoto installs underground systems built by masons that look like this (I suspect these will last more than 30 years):

What do people do with the methane gas?

Mostly, they cook and light the home with it.  However, there are lots of other ways to use it as this list of appliances shows:

So far, Kyle has had some success.  He’s raised some money to start the company and he’s successfully installed hundreds of systems.  Hopefully, that number will be in the thousands by next year at this time and tens of thousands in five years time.

Gotta love resilient entrepreneurs.

Here’s something to remember:  Resilient production not only makes households less vulnerable to energy shocks, it radically improves their economic prosperity.  Also notice how human scale systems like these help the global environment as a beneficial byproduct, without sacrificing or reducing quality of life.

Of course, this should get you thinking about how much energy biogas could be providing you right now and the ways you could use it to reduce your community’s dependence on volatile sources of global energy.

For the resilient entrepreneurs reading this.

  • Smaller versions of these systems work very well intensely urban environments (like TH Culhane has found in the largest city on earth: Cairo) where wood is currently being used for cooking.
  • It’s likely that the biological waste produced by a multi-person household in the US or the EU would produce enough gas to power a hot water heater, a gas stove, and electricity in a pinch (if you have a gas-powered generator).
  • There’s an opportunity for backward conversion.  A third of all of the homes use septic systems.  How difficult would it be to convert these systems into biogas systems?  Whose built a conversion kit?

That’s it for today.

Stay Resilient,

 

JOHN ROBB

 

 

PS:  Here’s something I wrote about TH Culhane’s efforts in Cairo a couple of years back.  Thought you would enjoy it:

One of his projects TH is working on is an urban bio-digester to produce clean burning fuel for urban residents. He’s found that this system not only works within urban environments, it is very productive.  It can be up to 4x more productive than rural systems due to the volume/quality of food waste found in urban environments.

This system fits into an approach to economic development for fast growing slums he likens to “urban farming.’

The first step is to avoid big infrastructure projects like sewer, water and gas system.  These “big” infrastructure projects quickly break down when the money runs out (as we may see in Greece and Spain in the not too distant future).  Once they break you can’t fix them, all you can do is rip them out.

The best approach?  To decentralize the infrastructure.  Optimally, this infrastructure is built from scratch by the people that will use it.  Here’s the approach to getting people to do this that seems to work.  First, you sell them on the benefits;

  • Lowered costs.
  • Quality of life improvement.
  • New sources of income.

Next, you build it.  Here’s how:

  • Simple Designs (open source, modular, etc.)
  • Designs that use low cost parts and/or easy to acquire parts (local available materials, trash, etc.)
  • Guided DIY build-out.  Help making it.  If you make it, you take better care of it and you have the skills locally to fix it.

I suspect this approach to local resilience will also work within developed environments that are in rapid decay.

If that’s true, there’s a significant opportunity for resilient entrepreneurs to:

  • radically improve the quality of the design/functionality of this grass roots infrastructure (to provide an organic DIY growth path towards a level of functionality and productivity that goes beyond subsistence approaches),
  • prototype community platforms (like micro-grids and other types of local platforms) that accelerate the build out of local production and local wealth creation, and
  • create global, open source networks that allow resilient communities (no matter where they are located) to share designs/improvements (to enable very rapid rates of innovation).

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