“Heifer’s mission is to end hunger and poverty, and to care for the earth. There’s no part of our mission that says anything about livestock,” said Elizabeth Bintliff, Heifer’s vice president of African Programs.
Of course, livestock is what most people automatically associate with Heifer International, the Little Rock-based non-profit that has made a name for itself helping people in countries around the world.
To be fair, livestock is a large part of what Heifer does. It gives farm animals to needy families around the world, but it also trains them to get the most out of what they have. It’s that focus on maximizing potential that has led to a rather simple and ingenious project centered around biogas.
“Biogas is a technology that is produced from the waste, the feces, of animals,” Bintliff said.
The waste is then digested, or broken down, by bacteria in a special compartment. The resulting by-product is pure methane gas, which burns cleaner than wood or charcoal, and can be controlled using a stove or a lamp. On a small scale, this has the potential to answer many problems families in most African countries experience.
“Biogas, the way it’s utilized, really reduces the risk of smoke exposure and in-house pollutants,” Bintliff said. “Women do a lot of cooking in open fires, and they’re usually toiling all day, and children are running around.”
With biogas, she said, children no longer risk falling into a fire, and women breathe cleaner air as they work.
There are other benefits. Most homes in poorer African countries, like Uganda, don’t have electricity. Children are largely responsible for bringing home firewood so families can prepare dinner and have a source of light at night. In homes outfitted with a biogas unit, the focus has dramatically changed.
“It helps with education, because you have lighting in the house, so children can read at night, which is tremendous,” Bintliff said. “From a gender perspective, it cuts back on the time women need to cook, so they’re able to cook in the house in the evening, and that means men are more likely to help.”
Bintliff also noted that the process that produces the methane biogas also produces slurry, which is a rich fertilizer for crops.
Another benefit of the Uganda biogas project has far-reaching, long-term implications. Because of the vast dependence on wood and charcoal in Uganda, deforestation has become a pressing problem. Uganda’s Environment Management Authority said the country’s forestlands were cut by 30 percent between 1990 and 2005. According to the Authority, at this rate, Uganda would lose all its forests by 2050. Most of the deforestation is attributed to farmland and rapid population growth.
That is a key reason why Heifer is developing such a large biogas project in Uganda. “It is supposed to install 12,000 units in the next couple of years. It’s huge,” Bintliff said. “We have done it on a small scale in many countries. We’ve received grant funding from several different agencies to do usually 12, 20 and 50 biogas units. But this is the first time we’ve done it on this scale.”
To receive a biogas unit, families apply through agencies that work with Heifer. If approved, the family shares in the cost of the materials needed to build the unit on their property. That can be hard to ask of a family that is already struggling. Families must also help with building the unit.
“It’s quite an investment for them,” Bintliff said. “Obviously the reason we’ve had 12,000 families make that kind of investment is because they know what the return is. They may not always be able to do the arithmetic, but they know long term this is something that is best for their family.”
There is one aspect of the biogas project that can’t be expressed with numbers. The quality of life for families who participate in the project has dramatically increased, according to Bintliff.
“It’s really tremendous to hear them talk about what this means to them, to hear a woman talk about being able to, in the evening, go and sit at home with her family. Those are the types of metrics we can’t capture; it’s the quality things,” Bintliff said. “To be able to sit at home with her family instead of being outside in an out-kitchen toiling over a stove trying to cook for them … knowing that her children are safe sitting under a lamp reading at night instead of by candle, where they may fall asleep and something catches on fire. The quality of life benefits of biogas is something we can’t always capture in data terms, but when you hear people talk about it, it’s just really a huge impact.”
Heifer is working on similar projects in Cameroon and Senegal and has begun negotiations with Zambia for a biogas project there. It also hopes to start programs in other African countries. It is part of an all-encompassing approach to ending hunger and poverty, and Bintliff hopes people begin to understand that her work is about much more than livestock.
“Heifer’s work really is beyond just the animal and beyond feeding people. It’s really about looking at the totality of their lives and what they need and meeting those needs as an organization.”
Editor’s note: Talk Business contributor Steve Shuler is the author of this report.