Biogas Innovation in Developing Markets: It Takes a Village

In Uganda, where men tend to be the decision-makers and women the homemakers, how do you integrate into society an innovation that impacts the family but is traditionally a female chore – cooking? This was a question faced by Manasi Parvatikar, an engagement manager at Sattva Consulting. Sattva works hand-in-hand with the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program in sub-Saharan Africa on technical assistance. The innovation is biogas, and it is bringing clean fuel to parts of the country under the initiative of a company called Green Heat, which markets what its founder, Vianney Tumwesige calls the “Big Stomach.”

This is the term Tumwesige uses for his digester that turns organic waste into fuel and fertilizer. It’s a for-profit company with a mission to help Ugandan farmers improve their crop yield while bringing clean-burning fuel to their homes. In Uganda, the use of biogas resources means that citizens don’t have to purchase wood for fuel, which is expensive and can be scarce. Wood is used in 90 percent of the country’s households. Organic waste, on the other hand, is waste from any biodegradable organism, from banana peels to corn stalks to human and livestock waste. It is all fed into Tumwesige’s “Big Stomach.”

As a part of SWFF’s pool of technical support vendors, Sattva, an Indian-based social impact company and lead consultant, Ms. Parvatikar, were called on to work with the company and help take Tumwesige’s dream to another level. The opportunities for growth were unlimited, and the Ugandan entrepreneur had dreams of expanding to nearby countries and has even planted a Green Heat flag in Haiti.

However, it would take a solid strategy and the ability to pivot in pursuing a growth plan. That’s just what SWFF’s technical advisors and consultants do to help create a sustainable and scalable company.

When you work with social innovators, you find they are extremely passionate and have a propensity to take risks. They push the boundaries of what can be done. 

“What we wanted to do was to get more women involved in the Green Heat model,” said Ms. Parvatikar. “Traditionally, the men tended to make purchasing decisions for the house, we wanted women to also participate in decision-making. We wanted women to become advocates of the Green Heat systems.”

The obvious message, of course, was convincing women that biogas was a clean and efficient cooking method, and would prevent their daily trips to gather wood and water. However, to relay this message, Ms. Parvatikar said her team utilized young, female volunteers to carry the gospel of biogas to the women managing the domestic household duties. Tumwesige’s digester is airtight, so it gives the right conditions for bacteria to produce gas that is fed through a pipe into a family’s kitchen. A by-product from the decomposed waste is a natural fertilizer that doesn’t harm or deplete the soil. It can be put directly onto the farm fields. The cost of this know-how and equipment ranges from a one-time charge of $1,000 for a family of six, which provides about six hours of cooking a day. The larger models cost $500 more. 

“We suggested to Green Heat, in essence, to kill two birds with one stone,” said Ms. Parvatikar. “We recommended a strategy to enlist volunteers from nearby colleges, which were young girls. They could go into the communities and talk to the women—it was women talking to women about the benefits of cooking with biogas. In this way, we enlisted even more supporters.”

How did the Ugandan men—the usual decision-makers—greet the more active role of their wives?

“Interestingly, I think there was more hesitation from women. They worried about how safe the product was and would it be too technical to use—would they understand it,” she said. “The men became very supportive, and they would let their wives converse and have a dialogue.” It was, in essence, a cultural breakthrough and progress for gender equality in Uganda.

How does this make Ms. Parvatikar feel? It’s one of the reasons she is in the business of helping to solve development problems in some of the poorest regions of the world. “This is absolutely rewarding,” said Ms. Parvatikar, who has been working with SWFF innovators for nearly three years. “When you work with social innovators, you find they are extremely passionate and have a propensity to take risks. They push the boundaries of what can be done. 

“No one had previously thought of getting volunteers from colleges to reach out and mobilize women in the community,” she added. “This becomes sort of a low cost, highly effective pilot with impact.”

She described her work as different from working with governments where “it’s not easy to push even the smallest ideas. We are able to develop approaches that can be replicated in similar situations.”The new version of the “Big Stomach” uses about 80 percent less water in the mix than previous installations, which is one of the goals of the SWFF program.

With the support of the SWFF program, which is funded by USAID and the governments of the Netherlands, Sweden, and South Africa, Green Heat has more than 1,200 digesters in operation in various countries. 



USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.

This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water