When I was about 13 years old, I decided to enter the local science fair. It was my third year entering the competition and I was intent on having a unique project—so intent that I didn’t mind getting a little dirty (literally) to do so. At my father’s suggestion, I began the assembly of an anaerobic biodigester in our basement. A biodigester captures methane gas produced by decomposing animal feces, which can then be burned as an alternative energy source. In the end, this project earned me first prize at the local science competition and would stink up our basement without disciplinary recourse for well over 4 months. It was decommissioned at my family’s unanimous request sometime after New Year’s Day.
Flash forward to 2013. I am now 24 years old and serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Paraguay. My work here has been with composting, bio-intensive gardening, and other projects to help improve household production, nutrition, and sustainability. This work is rewarding, but I felt as if there was some next step that I might be able to take with my community members to give them a better appreciation of the potential contained within their small parcels of land.
My idea was simple, although nothing new: I wanted to build a biodigester with members of my community. In reality, this was almost the same project I did when I was 13, except now it could be put to use helping impoverished farmers provide for their families instead of just stinking up my parents’ basement.
I began the long process of applying for a micro-finance loan to help fund the project in my community. While a biodigester can be built relatively inexpensively (about $125) with local materials, such up-front costs are out of reach to the people in my community. After receiving the money, we held educational sessions with 15 adult members of my community in which we discussed the basic steps of constructing a biodigester. Through this, we successfully installed two biodigester systems with two different families in my community.
In a country such as the United States, which has access to an abundance of cheap fossil fuels (natural gas, petroleum, coal, etc.), most of us wouldn’t waste the time handling animal manure if we could help it. But in parts of the world where manure is more accessible than disposable income, alternative energy sources can make a huge difference.
The biodigester serves to produce biogas, a methane-hydrocarbon mixture that can be burned to cook food or heat a home. This fuel source means that families do not need to use their limited financial capital to buy propane gas or be forced to slowly deforest their small properties to cook over wooden stoves. Additionally, and just as importantly, the biodigester produces a super-charged organic fertilizer that helps to boost garden production. The fertilizer itself is actually so strong that it can be diluted one part to 20 with water and still be extremely effective. Other secondary benefits include human and animal disease reduction and cleaner water supplies, a byproduct of proper management of animal wastes.
I can already tell that this project did as much for the sense of pride and motivation of the two families than it did for their material disposition. No doubt, it has helped them in a number of tangible ways, but more than that, it has given them something else to be proud of; it has planted a seed of inspiration in their minds. For people who have been farming and subsisting the same way for generations, the simple idea of the biodigester has opened their eyes to future possibilities that had never before been considered.
In developed countries, it might seem silly to think about what proper animal waste management and simple technologies can do for us. Something like the biodigester might seem a good solution for a poor rural farmer in some far-flung corner of the globe, but the reality is that we are facing a lot of the same problems right here at home.
As a kid, such alternative energy possibilities fascinated and intrigued me. A decade later, they have done the same thing in an isolated, rural Paraguayan community. It might just be a smelly mixture of manure, but in the right hands, with the right mentality, it can make a huge difference.