With farmland in north-eastern Benin growing maize, cotton, soya and rice, plus a herd of oxen, Sare Bifico Yaya has plenty of agricultural waste that could be put to good use. Thanks to a biodigester, recently provided as part of the Piloting Biogas in Benin towards National Scaling programme, implemented by Energy 4 Impact in partnership with SNV, Sare has been doing exactly that, bringing in additional income and meeting the energy needs of his family more sustainably.
Every day, the family feeds manure and other organic matter into their biodigester, which in turn produces precious biogas that can be used for cooking. Aside from providing the power to prepare two meals a day, Sare believes the biodigester has brought many other practical and economic benefits for his business and family. He explains:
In a neat twist, there is also a waste product from the biodigestion process — bioslurry — which makes an excellent natural and nutrient-rich fertiliser. Sare now uses the bioslurry on his crops, increasing his maize yield by one tonne, and the okra and tomatoes he grows have also become larger and healthier. As a result, the family’s income has risen by 30%.
Furthermore, Sare has sold his excess bioslurry to a compost manufacturer, earning him more money. The farmer adds:
Boosting biogas across Benin
Sare is just one of 80 farmers enrolled on the programme, a collaboration between Energy 4 Impact and SNV, a leader in biodigester technology market development, with the government of Benin, which began in March 2021 with funding from the Swedish Postcode Lottery Foundation (SPLF). Its aim is to support and enhance the sustainability of Benin’s National Biogas Program, which tackles a number of challenges whilst taking advantage of a unique opportunity.
Around 80% of the rural and peri-urban population in Benin rely on firewood for cooking. With forest areas being rapidly cut down for fuel and farming, the local environment is under threat and the population increasingly at risk of energy shortages. As a predominantly agricultural country with largely untapped agricultural waste, the market potential for developing the biogas sector is high.
This would not only reduce deforestation and provide access to a sustainable source of cleaner energy, but also help eliminate the indoor air pollution that has serious health implications for the women and children who spend many hours in smoke-filled kitchens. Meanwhile, spreading bioslurry on their fields means farmers, like Sare, can boost their farm’s profitability by improving the yield, health and quality of their crops. This also reduces their dependence on expensive chemical fertilisers, which farmers increasingly rely on to overcome issues related to soil degradation and nutrient depletion, which in turn affect crop quality and yield.
However, while the Benin government estimates there is potential for more than 150,000 biodigesters to be installed on farms across the country, low-income farmers typically cannot afford the construction and maintenance costs for biodigesters themselves, and the National Biogas Programme draws heavily on limited public funds. Improving the technology’s economic viability could also improve the government’s prospects of raising funds from external donors. Against such a backdrop is where this joint programme comes in.
Building a market for bioslurry
The Piloting Biogas in Benin towards National Scaling project has been supporting the government in its strategy to make the biogas programme more financially viable. The pilot aims to show that uptake of biodigesters on a national scale could be achieved if driven by the economic opportunities offered by the monetisation of the bioslurry alongside the creation of a successful market for processed organic compost. This in turn would reduce the level of subsidies needed from the government, build a more sustainable biogas market and help secure funding from external partners.
Energy 4 Impact and SNV have adopted a systems-orientated approach that looks at the challenges faced by key market players – farmers, biodigester manufacturers, composting plants, businesses selling agricultural inputs, lenders and more. It also leverages the well-established trading and financial mechanisms that already exist to make biodigesters and organic compost markets mutually beneficial and more financially rewarding for all parties over the long-term.
Since the start of the two-year programme in 2021, 80 4-6m3 biodigesters have been installed or rehabilitated, and are up and running on 80 low-income farms in Kandi and Tchaourou. Farmers have been trained in the operation and maintenance of the biodigesters, as well as the collection and use of the bioslurry on crops. Working closely with the farmers has enabled the team to identify the challenges and technical gaps they face, whilst also allowing them to track the results of using bioslurry as a fertiliser, its impact on yields and cost savings.
The first major hurdle the implementing partners had to address were the challenges around the seasonal practice of livestock transhumance, moving cattle from pasture to pasture due to the lack of food source for the animals at certain times of the year. This meant there was not enough manure available on farms to adequately feed the biodigesters during the dry season, resulting in a shortage of biogas and bioslurry.
As Matar Sylla, Energy 4 Impact’s Country Manager for Benin, explains:
So, in collaboration with a local NGO called ALAFIA, Energy 4 Impact and SNV distributed seeds to participating farms so they could produce sufficient fodder year-round, reducing the need to herd all livestock to far-flung pastures for grazing during the dry season.
The implementing partners also worked closely with a Beninois organic compost manufacturer, BioPhyto, to help set up operations in the area and start producing its own brand of compost using the bioslurry purchased from farmers in the programme. BioPhyto is one of the few companies in Benin to offer approved organic fertilisers and agricultural biopesticides on the national and international market, and this stable supply of locally sourced bioslurry has real economic potential.
With seed funding from SPLF coming through in September 2021 and April 2022, BioPhyto raised the finance needed to acquire a site in Kandi as well as the equipment for collecting and processing the bioslurry. The company subsequently started producing compost in June 2022, segmenting the market by introducing both ‘enriched and ‘ordinary’ brands of organic compost at different price points. The benefit of the improved variety over the ordinary version is that farmers can use less and reach the same results.
Digesting the achievements
Now as the pilot is nearing completion, promising data is emerging. Like Sare, farmers are already seeing tangible benefits in terms of biogas usage for cooking. Meanwhile, the use of bioslurry as fertiliser has improved their crop yields, and reduced farmers’ dependence on expensive store-bought fertilisers. This intervention is particularly timely as the war in Ukraine is creating shortages of chemical fertilisers, pushing prices beyond the means of smallholder farmers. The commercialisation of bioslurry and the derived organic compost are also generating a rise in revenue for both farmers and composting companies. Between June 2022 and January 2023, the 80 farming households together produced 123.7 tonnes of bioslurry, with around half this amount sold on to BioPhyto.
At the same time, BioPhyto had already sold 28 tonnes of compost with a turnover of approximately €10,000. Preliminary testing shows that both the ordinary and the enriched composts result in up to 30% increase in yields for farmers in comparison to chemical fertilisers. Such results will inform Biophyto’s marketing strategy aimed at raising awareness of the cost-effectiveness of organic fertilisers, with research from Energy 4 Impact contributing valuable data on the price farming communities are prepared to pay, and their preferred methods of payment. The output of bioslurry is also expected to rise significantly once more farmers feed their biodigesters adequately during peak season in which all the livestock are kept on the farms.
Matar underlines the programme’s importance:
Meanwhile, farmer Sare is also busy making plans. He wants to install a second, bigger biodigester so that his family can produce the biogas they need for all their cooking and lighting. Sare wants to drill a borehole, produce all the compost for his crops and settle more oxen on his farmland. It’s likely that he won’t waste time, either.
According to Edouard Fagnon, Energy Sector Manager for SNV in Benin, the programme is already providing partners and stakeholders with valuable insights: