The Uganda dairy digester project (Waste to Fuel: Improving Agriculture and Livelihoods in Uganda) aims to curb greenhouse gas emissions while fostering tangible co-benefits for local communities. Over a 10-year period, the project plans to distribute small-scale digesters to over 10,000 farming households. These digesters will produce biofuel and organic fertilizer, leading to cost savings, higher crop yields, health benefits, and improved incomes.
Rural Haven: ‘Rich Tapestry of Agriculture’
One might struggle to imagine a rural landscape where households and dairy farms are closely integrated, surrounded by palm trees, banana trees, and large fruit trees. Just an hour’s drive from Uganda’s capital of Kampala, Alexander Eaton recently embarked on a journey to this agricultural haven.
“It’s a very bucolic and beautiful, rural scene,” Eaton recalls.
“There’s a beautiful polyculture of different fruit trees and different bushes, but not particularly orderly as you would manage a farm. And if you start to look closely, you’ll see that you’ve got this very rich, dense, tapestry of agriculture happening.”
At the center of this verdant landscape are cows, providing nourishment and livelihood for countless families.
Environmental and Health Impacts
However, traditional farming practices in this tropical environment come with certain drawbacks. During his visit, Eaton, the CEO of Native’s implementation partner Sistema.bio, personally witnessed the challenges confronted by these communities, especially during the rainy season.
“There’s kind of a manure in the air type smell, and you’re dealing with a situation where, when it rains, this manure could be flowing anywhere,” Eaton says.
When organic waste is left to decompose, it releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Additionally, reliance on firewood and charcoal as fuel sources poses a significant public health concern, amplifying indoor air pollution levels.
Alexander recalls entering a home, and being overpowered by the “delicious” aroma of wood cooking. “But then, one cannot help but notice a woman cooking over the wood fire, inhaling the smoke, which over time can result in significant health consequences.”
Transforming Waste and Livelihoods
By introducing biodigesters to smallholder farmers and their families, organic waste that was previously left to decay is converted into biogas and organic fertilizer. This closed-loop system brings numerous benefits to both the farmers and the environment. Eaton saw this transformation in action during his visit to a farmer who had installed one of the digesters.
Instead of manure and waste scattered throughout the compound, it all went directly into the digester.
“In this particular case, the woman was selling organic fertilizer to her friends and neighbors. So she had all of these bottles that were recycled, filled with the liquid effluent. So now, the organic waste has a value.”
In a kitchen once choked by smoke, Eaton proudly recalls this woman’s pride, as she showcased her biogas-powered grill.
Despite all that has changed, the powerful aroma of Ugandan cuisine still wafts from the kitchen.
“Often it’ll be a big pot, and there will be meat inside, kind of wrapped in banana leaves. And they’ll be slow-cooking something mixed with beans and ugali, a sort of mashed corn of some sort.”
When Eaton visited, it was the coffee season, and he observed large walls of coffee plants adorned with clusters of red fruit.
“And you can see that they’ve been adding organic fertilizer to the crops and have just had a bumper harvest. Some of the coffee fruit had been collected and was in the process of drying,” Eaton recalls.
“This one change of adding the digester really makes an incredible difference in terms of what they’re able to do.
“And so just seeing a household so deeply integrated into an agricultural system is really exciting.”
A Circular System at Work
Native’s Client Strategy Director Kevin Hackett recently had the opportunity to see the digesters in action and was struck by the impact the technology was having on people’s lives.
“When you actually get to see it in person and really understand directly the impact that is happening, it really makes the project that much more real,” he said.
During a visit to Kenya, Hackett visited a family that had five or six cows at the back of their home and grew crops for their own consumption.
“They showed me how they were taking manure from their barn area, bringing it down through the system they had built into the digester, and then showing me the pipe coming back up into their house,” Hackett recounted.
“To see it in a holistic setting where their animals are feeding the digester, the nutrients coming out of the digester are going on to the crops, the gas and the crops are going back into the house where they’re cooking food. It’s a circular system that is working really nicely.”
HelpBuild Climate Projects: Removing Financial Hurdles
Money can be a major obstacle, preventing these projects from being deployed. Funding from supporters through Native’s HelpBuild program provides upfront capital and enables the construction and installation of biodigester systems.
“Putting that burden on the local smallholder farmers to have to purchase that system really means that you have limited ability to deploy them,” Hackett explains.
“So we can step in and provide a portion of the money that is needed upfront in order for them to be able to take that step in order to commit to using the system.
“So it’s a really catalytic and causal role that we and the companies we work with get to play by providing that upfront funding.”
As part of his visit to Kenya, Kevin Hackett visited a local school teacher who had leased a biodigester, and had almost completed her lease payments after two years.
“This woman would then have a system free and clear for the rest of its life,” Hackett explained.
“The payments are comparable to what the woman would have spent on purchasing fuel. But now she essentially has a source of free fuel for the remainder of the estimated ten-year lifespan of the system.
“Needless to say, she was delighted by this.”
Co-benefits in Action: Empowering Farmers, Reducing Emissions
Kevin explains that Native’s engagement in this project is driven by the opportunity to make a meaningful difference at the household level, while also contributing to a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions.
“Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas and these projects are taking that methane produced by animal manure and using it in a digester for beneficial use.
“The co-benefit that this project has, and the help it is providing to smallholder farms throughout Uganda, is a great way for something tangible to come from the support of this project.”
Alexander Eaton is genuinely excited about the potential impact and scale of the Uganda Dairy Digester Project.
“We have an opportunity to show that an advanced low-carbon technology can fit into traditional agricultural practices and fit with values that have been present in Uganda for millennia.
“By integrating the technology with practices that farmers are already using, it improves the efficiency of these dairy farms, and provides clean energy, and organic fertilizer, moving toward a carbon-negative agricultural system.”