Generating Energy From Waste: An Innovation For Rural Households

120 cubic meter biogas plant at Sitamarhi, Bihar to provide cooking fuel to 150 households and organic fertilizer to farmers.

Introduction

It all started in 2012, when I was studying for my Master’s degree in Social Entrepreneurship from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. During my fieldwork and stay in the remotest of rural areas, I figured out I was always interested in gathering firsthand experiences around issues of Indian farming communities. During one such time at Jhabua village in Madhya Pradesh, I woke up at 2 am to notice that the male members of my host family weren’t home. I found out that they were on their fields to irrigate the land, as electricity was only available during the wee hours. Not to mention, lack of electrical supply not only impacted the farmers but also other residents. The shops had to wind up by 6 pm. Children couldn’t study at night and women had to cook food by 5 pm. Since dinner was only eaten at 10 p.m. when families typically returned home, families often ended up eating cold food, which resulted in frequent health problems. This experience and the thirst to resolve the electricity issue still faced by several rural Indian villages led to the origination of my project on decentralized community bio-gas plant. I registered Swayambhu Innovative Solutions Pvt Ltd. as a for profit organisation that aims to generate bio-energy by linking a community to Community Biogas Plant(CBP), that would use domestic/kitchen, livestock and farm waste on a mass scale to produce biogas, thereby generating electricity and other by-products like organic manure and bio-pesticide.

With an idea and a small pilot  (in Pusa village, Bihar which served 50 families with electricity and served more than 200 farmers with organic manure and pesticide) my journey began. I entered into this entrepreneurial journey with lots of questions, confusions, desires and expectations. Gradually, I realized that having an idea is the easiest and converting it into a business model definitely not so easy.

Types of Waste
Rural areas: livestock waste, agriculture and kitchen waste
Urban Areas: cattle-sheds, kitchen waste and cafeteria wastes from corporates, institutes and government offices.
Current Scenario
Approximately 65% of population live in villages and are engaged in agriculture or other livelihood activities. Waste produced as a result of these activities is mostly never measured, 95% of which would be bio-degradable in nature and could be converted into energy to fulfil the basic needs of the rural population. Cities face a similar situation whereby 90% of wastes go to landfills without treatment and exploration of possibilities to generate energy or revenue.
 
Challenges
Untreated organic waste, absence of electricity at farm, unavailability of bio-products, lack of irrigation facility, declining agriculture, unemployment, migration

Meeting Self Help Group (SHG) Women at Diyara, Patna to discuss about benefits of a biogas plant

Currently, Swayambhu provides biogas to 150 households and organic fertilizer to 500 famers, both at 50 per cent of the market rate in Sitamarhi (Sonbarsa Block) and Samastipur (Bathua Block) districts of Bihar. In the next three years, I have planned to expand to 10,000 households and 15,000 farmers of east and north-eastern region, especially Mizoram. 

Swayambhu Model

We are involved in activities surrounding rural waste management, empowerment and livelihood security. We partner with local organizations/local entrepreneurs who facilitate empowerment of the poor and marginalized sectors through community services and pro-poor participative interventions. We collaborate with local organizations working with rural communities or provide training to local coordinators who would then act as local entrepreneurs for the project. The financial contribution ratio between community and Swayambhu is 50:50 of the total project cost; the amount contributed by the community per HH receives interest of that principal amount per year and complete principal amount after 5 years from the date of installation. Community people act as a stakeholder of the project who will not only share profits but will also be responsible in sharing risks and liabilities. We pay service charge to organizations/local entrepreneurs for community mobilization (a payment for field staff required for particular project and work) and later they too become the stakeholder of the project. This project acts as a circular economy. We take land on lease for atleast 15 years and purchase waste (livestock and farm) on daily basis from farmers such that it helps them in  extra livelihood generation. We produce electricity out of the biogas (Methane CH4) and other by-products i.e. bio-manure and bio-pesticide and sell it back to the community and community again pays us back for the same. The electricity is sold either for rural electrification or low cost irrigation facility. The project works as a decentralized model and acts as a circular economy; our beneficiary and customer both, are the same.

Utility and Impact

The community biogas plant provides several solutions to the problems found in remote rural communities. Firstly, the gas is used as a clean cooking fuel for women:  this has a positive impact on their health, as they are not inhaling smoke from charcoal whilst preparing food. Also, it saves time as they do not have to go out to collect charcoal, allowing the women to continue with other additional household activities. Secondly, the biogas plant provides cheap electricity to the community. This allows the farmers to irrigate the land during the day, the shops to stay open late and families to light their homes and have warm dinners. Thirdly, the slurry, which is the by-product from the biogas plant, is used as an organic fertilizer. This increases the produce of farmers while also making pesticides and chemicals superfluous. Surplus electricity produced from biogas plant will also help villagers to set up their own rural enterprises such as rice mill, flour mill etc.

120 cubic meter biogas plant at Sitamarhi, Bihar to provide cooking fuel to 150 households and organic fertilizer to farmers.

Swayambhu’s vision is to mainly focus on small and marginal farmers in low-income states of India. Within these communities, we try to improve the situation of women especially. We do so by not only providing clean cooking fuels, but also employ women in our project. They collect the waste, maintain contacts and work in the plants. We support soil testing for farmers so that they can understand their soil health and accordingly use fertilizers in their soil. 

Text Box: Sample collection at site for soil testing.
Sample collection at site for soil testing

We work with farmer producer organizations and women self-help groups constituted by NABARD, Jeevika, etc since these organizations allow members to take small low-interest loans to support the community biogas project. As 30 per cent of the costs need to be covered by the community, this is essential. The profit that is made using the biogas plant is shared with the community. Apart from profit other impacts are such as:

  • Women avail the opportunity to earn more by selling off the wastes of kitchen, livestock and farm @40 paise per kg, thus on an average with two cows/buffaloes she earns INR 250-500/- per month. They also save minimum INR 300 by replacing LPG cylinders with biogas pipeline connections.
  • Women are relieved from cooking food from cow-dung cakes, firewood and charcoal ; which prevents them from health concerns like Asthma and Tuberculosis resulting from exposure to smoke. It also protects the ground water from further contamination by processing wastes. Biogas can be used as cooking fuel and electrical supply can be generated with it. This will not only help children to study after dusk, but also support villagers to continue with their livelihood activities till late evening.
  • Women are employed at biogas plants to take care of the operations. Women are able to save their time and use it for other livelihood generation activities. Relieved from the tasks of making cow dung cakes, collecting firewood and replacing cow dung /firewood by biogas as cooking fuel saves 5-6hours every day. This time could then be utilized for training these women in different livelihood generation skills i.e. chocolate making, bangle making, sewing cloth bags, handicraft items etc.

Akansha Singh is the Founder of Swayambhu Innovative Solutions Private Limited. For more information and interaction reach out to her at akanshasingh1690@gmail.com.

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