Researching biogas powered by coffee in Kenya
Blog by Kevin Vical, Renewable World Volunteer, Kenya
I am currently studying for a Masters Degree in Energies at The University of Montpellier, France. For the award of a diploma, I had to complete two internships. After my first internship at The International Energy Agency, I was keen on getting experience in an NGO that uses renewable energies to boost development in less developed countries. This is because I saw it as doubly meaningful: putting efforts in sustainability and development. Plus I have always seen less developed countries as territories with a huge unexploited potential in renewable energy.
After getting in touch with Renewable world in the UK, I was informed of a project in Nairobi, Kenya dubbed ‘Low Carbon coffee’, whose feasibility study I was to carry out. The project is aimed at reusing waste from coffee processing to produce biogas.
Kenya is one of the leading coffee producers in Africa. Coffee processing generates a lot of waste, mainly pulp and waste-water, that can be polluting when released into nature but which also has a high nutritional value and therefore an unutilised potential for biogas generation. Biogas generation is basically the creation of an energy emitting gas rich in methane (around 60%) via anaerobic fermentation of organic waste.
For this feasibility study, it was agreed that I will spend 3 Months in Nairobi at Renewable World East Africa regional offices, after which I will spend one month finalising my report in France.
I arrived in Nairobi on 3rd of March and started working on the project at the Renewable World office the very next day! I spent the first few weeks carrying out intensive research on the subject, looking for similar existing projects, familiarising myself with the topic and compiling all the data to make preliminary estimations .
I also started seeking potential partners and people that can help us on the project. I met Kenya Coffee Producers Association’s representative Humphrey Wafula who gave me lots of information on coffee processing in Kenya.
My research on the internet saw me visit the biggest biogas plant in Kenya, Tropical power Ltd, located in Naivasha town.
I strategically chose to visit this plant on Friday so that I could spend the weekend over in Naivasha, and this was a brilliant idea, I spent a weekend I will remember forever. The weekend started quite bad, actually, even with the help of a Kenyan friend who helped me get a sea in a matatu (public buses) to go to Naivasha, I ended up in… Nakuru, another city farther from Nairobi! The Matatu people had cheated me and put me in the wrong matatu. But I finally got to Naivasha, obviously much later than I had planned, and visited the factory. But the rest of the weekend was amazing, with my friend Mercy who joined me in the evening from Nairobi we have been immersed in a traditional Kenyan artist family that I contacted via the couchsurfing website, and we visited Lake Naivasha and Hellsgate national park where we could spot a great diversity of wildlife including Giraffes, zebras, warthogs, buffalos, hippos gazelles… I remember being rapt with wonder when I could get so close to these giraffes by the Naivasha lake.
As part of my research, I also held a meeting with Samwel Kinoti, the director of Skylink innovators, a Kenyan company specialising in biogas production. During our meeting, Samwel expressed his interest in producing biogas from coffee pulp. The meeting was very fruitful and certainly the beginning of a cooperation.
After discussions with Wafula (Kenya Coffee Producers Association’s representative), I planned my first field visit during the 4th week of my stay. Wafula had identified two cooperatives eligible for the project in Bungoma county, western Kenya.
This visit was very interesting for the project because I was able to better understand coffee processing step by step and gather data from the cooperative. I also begun to understand better the energy uses and needs of rural households. Furthermore, this being my first experience in rural Kenya (and even Africa!) this was an emotional experience that I will remember forever. None of the farmers I met had access to electricity or hot water. They mostly cook using firewood which is harmful to their health. Meeting with people with so little material comfort looking at me with so much respect and hope was very touching.
As I was in western Kenya, a few tens of kilometres from Ugandan border, I decided to extend a little bit the adventure by crossing the border and going to Kampala, capital city of Uganda. When I was back to Montpellier I had a flatmate who had lived several years there and had told me a lot about it, which probably accentuated my curiosity. She put me in touch with some friends of her there with who I spent a great weekend, enjoying the nightlife, playing some football tournament and meeting nice people. I found Ugandan very laidback and humble, and they like to party…
After I had gathered all the research and could start making realistic calculations on the amount of biogas that could be produced from coffee pulp, I had to compare the different options for using this new fuel. Producing electricity and distributing it via a micro-grid for example, can be a good option but the efficiency is very low (around 2/3 of energy is lost). Piping the gas to nearby households and infrastructure is a good option in urban and peri-urban areas but coffee cooperatives are located in remote areas. At some point I got seduced and started digging into the idea of packaging the biogas and selling it to households. This idea combined so many advantages: healthier cooking for households, fight the deforestation due to widespread firewood and charcoal use, new income for the cooperative.
This can be made via compressing the biogas and bottling it in gas cylinders (like LPG cylinders), that can be refilled once empty. To know more about this system, I got in touch with the only project doing it in Kenya: Keekonyokie slaughterhouse located at Strathmore University’s Kenya Climate Innovation Centre (KCIC). I held a meeting with Michael Kibue who is the brains behind Keekonyokie project. Our meeting was very informative and I shared my ideas with him.
To broaden my knowledge and diversify points of view for the project, I went to visit Biogas International. Biogas International is a Kenyan company that develops innovative and efficient biogas digesting system that they call ‘Flexi Biogas technology’. Their Eco-Resource Center located in Nairobi is full of digester models, packaging experiments and piping system. The meeting with their director Dominic was very fruitful due to his wide knowledge and experience in the subject.
I also went to Muranga County to meet Hannes, a biogas specialized entrepreneur, where he is now developing a biogas plant at an avocado oil factory, using the huge amounts of avocado wastes produced. Hannes had experience the generation of biogas from coffee waste in Kenya, and even though his trial wasn’t successful, I had a lot to learn from his experience. I realised how important it is to cross points of views because experienced people have different views about biogas generation systems. I also enjoyed going to a very green region of Kenya showing beautiful landscapes.