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Biodigesters: A pathway to Independent farms

Smart Harvest
 installation of a Biodigester. [Willis Awandu, Standard]

The biogas firm targets the installation of 10,000 units as it seeks to save farmers fuel costs.

Our goal at Sistema.bio is to create self-reliant farmers.

Eng Madrin Maina is the East Africa Director of Sistema.bio. This is the firm behind the provision of biodigester solutions to farmers, particularly smallholders, across the region. She is a civil engineer who has transitioned to renewable energy.

The Standard had a sit-down with Eng Maina, who shared her journey since joining Sistema.bio in 2018 as a Technical Operations Manager, her plan to expand Kenya's market further by 10,000 units in the next three years, and why more needs to be done to increase demand for biodigester as a form of renewable energy.

How has business been for Sistema.bio since the launch?

Sistema.bio was launched in Kenya in 2017. We have had year-on-year growth. In the first year of 2017, we sold 800 units. Last year, we sold 2,030 units. Even when COVID-19 hit back in 2020, we still outgrew 2019.

The demand is there; what is not there is awareness. In the solar industry, even my grandmother knows they can get electricity from the sun, but a lot of people do not know about biogas. Our challenge is to create more awareness. We work with several partners, like the government, GIZ, and the World Bank.

As the East Africa director, how many countries do you manage?

We started with Kenya and Uganda, but in the last two months, we ventured into Ethiopia. We won a tender through a Dutch organisation. In the last month, we also ventured into Malawi, where we are supposed to install 10,000 biodigesters in the next three years.

So East Africa started as two countries, but it is probably growing into Africa, or East and Southern Africa. We will see how it goes.

When it comes to Kenya, what is the scope of your market?

We work with smallholder dairy farmers, who form 95 per cent of our client base. We also work with poultry and pig farmers, but they are less than five per cent. According to the research that has been done, there are about three million smallholder dairy farmers in Kenya. It is a very big market with potential. We have only installed slightly over 9,000 units so far.

We operate mainly along the dairy belt. We have three major, fully equipped field offices, excluding Nairobi, in Kericho, Githunguri, and Meru. We also have five smaller administrative offices, including Muranga, Nakuru, and Eldoret.

Is there a difference between the Kenyan market and that of Uganda, Ethiopia, and Malawi?

The difference is not so great. An interesting thing about farmers is that they are almost the same globally. Even when I visit our offices in other regions, we see the same challenges. The only difference is in the purchasing power; therefore, when I talk to partners, I have to be very clear that how Kenya works is not the same as Malawi or Uganda.

What is this biodigester unit that you sell to farmers?

A biodigester is a waste management system. If you have organic waste that is biodegradable, you can use a biodigester to manage it. And the benefit of it, which is why we work with farmers, is that you get biogas, which is a clean source of cooking fuel. It can replace firewood, charcoal, LPG, and even electricity.

Additionally, there are biofertilizers. It's a broken-down organic fertiliser, and the feedback we get is that it really helps boost farming activities and reduces overreliance on chemicals. The end goal here is for a farmer with a biodigester to complete the circle of self-reliance.

What economic benefits does this biodigester have for farmers?

Our goal is to displace the fuel you use. The way we have priced our products, if you were spending Sh3,000 on charcoal or firewood, you would use that money to pay for the unit if you bought it on a loan plan. About 95 per cent of our clients buy on a loan plan. The longest loan period is 25 months. We price it in such a way that you can pay between sh2,000 and sh5,000 monthly within two years.

It is not an extra expense for your household; you are just displacing what you were spending before. After that, it has a lifetime of 25 years.

We have farmers running full-scale commercial farms with 30 cows, people making yoghurt and cheese, and you are unhappy about power bills and frequent blackouts. We can work on larger systems for them to boost the appliances.

The system can also be bought in cash for between Sh60,000 and Sh160,000.

How many cows or chickens should be enough to run a biodigester?

We have a product line of seven different sizes of biodigesters. In the smallest system, you need two cows, while in the largest system, you need 16. They should be on zero grazing; if not, then you need twice the number. For chickens, you need about 200 chickens for the smallest unit, and for pigs, you need 10 to 15.

Can it run other appliances?

I would say we have 50 very large systems installed in Kenya. It means they produce 20 cubic metres of biogas every day. We have a range of products, including chaff cutters, water heaters, engines for water pumping, and 15 generators in Kenya as well.

What role do you see Sistema.bio playing in the ongoing push for renewable energy and the climate change debate?

The role I see Sistema.bio playing is regenerative farming. Think of the challenges ordinary farmers in Kiambu face, like the high cost of inputs and the high cost of living, and when we come in with a biodigester, it affects every aspect of their lives. It transforms the way one farms, cooks, and saves the environment.

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