BAFUT, Cameroon - Starved of electricity but with plentiful methane-rich manure, rural livestock farmers in this heavily agricultural nation have become unlikely heroes and beneficiaries of Africa’s fight to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Take 46-year-old Juliana Mengue, who was widowed five years ago and has to care by herself for 40 cows on her a one-and-half acre farm in Bafut village in northwest Cameroon. A government program set up with the help of the Cameroon branch of global nonprofit Heifer International has turned her animals’ manure, more traditionally used only as a fertilizer in crop-farming, into fuel, boosting her family’s income.
As a result of the cheap bio-gas she produces, she is now able to spend more on medical care, education and on increasing her animal stock.
“We also use (the bio-gas) for lighting and heating, replacing our local bush lamps and the use of wood fuel,” she told reporters during a trip organized by the government to view demonstration bio-gas production centres set up in her village and two others nearby.
Mengue said her family has not only gained financially from the project but has also grown in understanding of the environment and climate change.
“We were not aware how much destruction the decomposing dung was doing to the environment. Now we have been told it releases tonnes of methane gas that is very harmful, she said.
Methane, released from manure, is a potent driver of climate change, and efforts to curb its release around the world now focus on everything from capturing the gas to produce biofuel to changing the diets of livestock so they produce less of it.
Jean Kuete, Cameroon’s agriculture minister, told reporters that the bio-gas effort is just one of a range of government initiatives aimed at improving the lives of livestock farmers and their communities through innovative, sustainable and low-cost projects.
With combined technical and financial support from a specialized service in the Ministry of Agriculture that educates farmers about new techniques, farmers from the villages of Bafut, Bamendakwe and Santa have begun bio-gas production alongside cattle rearing and farming, generating new jobs, said Abel Kemba, an expert working on behalf of the agriculture ministry to help farmers learn new techniques in the northwest region.
“The biogas energy production technology is relatively low cost, therefore permitting many livestock farmers to embrace it, integrated with their traditional farming, without any big financial assistance,” Kemba told Alertnet during the visit to Bafut.
Many of the farmers say the new technology has brought meaningful changes in their lives and to their community, especially given the spiralling cost of fuel.
Henry Njakoi, country director of Heifer International Cameroon, says the construction of bio-gas digesters in demonstration farms can generate enough gas for whole communities. Farmers pay only about a quarter of the $120 cost of a manure biodigester, with Heifer International and the Ministry of Agriculture footing the rest of the bill.
Heifer International works internationally to donate livestock, seeds, trees and other support to small-scale farmers with the aim of giving them a sustainable source of long-term support.
To produce bio-gas, farmers collect dung from their livestock - cows, pigs, goats or sheep – and carrry it by wheelbarrow to the tank of the biodigester. They then mix the manure with an equal amount of water and stir. The mixture is left to decompose for some time with the resulting methane gas settling in an upper compartment of the tank.
The biodigester has a capacity of 18 cubic metres and is reinforced with earth bricks and, if possible, cement to ensure it is airtight.
At the end of the decomposition process, the manure is removed and dried into pads that are later transported to local fields to be used as fertilizer, Njakoi said.
A second biodigester pioneer, Micheal Mbu, who breeds pigs and goats as well as caring for 50 cows, says the process is simple enough for any farmer to understand and assures consistent profit, especially for those who use this new source of energy for other income-generation projects.
“I have piped and connected the methane to 10 cookers with two burners each to ensure a constant supply of fuel. This is because I use the energy to bake potatoes and flour cake and bread. This cottage baking industry employs five persons,” he said.
The manure generated by the biodigestion process is high in urea and other nutrients needed by plants, Njakoi said, and is an effective fertilizer.
Eugene Ejolle Ehabe of the government-owned Institute of Agricultural Research and Development (IRAD) Bambui- Bamenda in northwest Cameroon said in an interview that bio-gas production from manure and other waste matter, be it from animals or humans, if replicated nationwide would save the country large volumes of fuel wood lost to domestic cooking and could significantly boost development.
He noted that only a fifth of rural households have electricity and, in urban areas only 40 percent of homes have access to power. Every year in Cameroon, thousands of trees are cut down for wood as well as charcoal, the main source of cooking energy for rural dwellers who constitute over 65 percent of the population according to official figures from the Ministry of Economy, Planning and Regional Development, he noted.
“The production of bio-gas will reduce emissions of greenhouse gas, reduce deforestion,help preserve the forest and soil fertility, and above all improve the livelihood of farmers,” he said.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.