As a Louis Dreyfus Scholar, I was offered a chance to visit one the projects supported by the Foundation. Choosing one was a difficult task, as the Louis Dreyfus Foundation’s footprint in supporting local communities was spread far and wide on the World Map- from my native province in India to South America, from Mongolia in Asia to many countries in Africa. I finally zeroed in on the Biogas project in Rwanda only to realise that I could also visit the project’s Head Quarters (HQ) in Kenya. So I clubbed my visit to both countries in my week-long sojourn to East Africa.
I landed in Nairobi where I met with Biogas International (BI)’s Project Manager Josephat and Founding President Dominic at the Airport itself. They briefly explained to me the Flexi Biogas project (FBP) that LDF funds for them- pointing out the inherent advantages of using biogas for rural communities, how it has helped minimize the use of firewood by families to cook their meals and how the bio-slurry serves as organic fertilizer in their fields.
After a detailed inspection of their demo-project sites in Nairobi, I travelled in adjoining areas to interact with users of the technology to find out if the theory was as rosy in practice. Users I interacted with were very happy with the FBP technology. They enthusiastically took me to their kitchen to show me the blue color of the flame, they told me about how this had saved significant resources for them and they felt healthier and happy. It was pleasant to see first-hand the impact of the project in touching the lives of not just the direct beneficiaries but of their children, their cattle and their communities.
I then travelled to the foothills of Mount Kenya in Karatina where I assisted team BI install a FBP in a school. I continued user-interaction to find out how successful was FBP in areas away from BI’s HQ in Nairobi. In Karatina one user directed all his gratitude towards me. I felt embarrassed and told him that I was also supported by the LDF and I have not done anything for him. But for him I was LDF’s representative and he wanted me to know how LDF has transformed his life, it is only fair that I share his sentiments with everyone at LDF so that his gratitude reaches the right place.
The second leg of my trip was in Rwanda’s Kirehe District. I was accompanied by BI’s trained technician Alfred, who helped translate my questions and users’ answers. The success of FBP in Rwanda is much limited, in contrast to its performance in Kenya. Almost half the families we visited had either removed their FBP project or the installations were non-functional. Alfred did fix some of the systems that had minor hiccups, but overall the situation was grim. In rural Rwanda, we commuted far and wide right up to the Tanzania border on local motor-bike taxis (motos) on roads of mud that flooded when it rained, so it was heartening to find a functional system and heart-breaking to find one in dysfunctional conditions.
User-interaction with the Rwandan populace revealed that they were very happy with the FBP and their experience was on the lines of what users said in Kenya. In households that no longer used FBP and reverted to firewood usage, not one of them shunned the FBP out of choice or thinking of it as a
nuisance. They had different reasons but the common thread was the lack of awareness among them on how to fix their system. They did not know whom to contact for assistance (since Alfred was also only a part time technician). The lack of after-sale services in Rwanda was profound and in contrast to Kenya, where BI apparatus swiftly swung into action to make repairs and had frequent interface with users.
In my user-surveys, I could also see another difference, the footprint of the genocide in Rwandan communities. It was difficult to find a complete family- almost everyone I spoke to had lost someone they loved. In this challenging context, FBP has been a praiseworthy effort in enhancing sustainability among local communities. If we can somehow address its challenges, which have been identified in detail in my narrative report, the project can optimise its potential.
Overall, the experience exposed me to the vast potential of sustainable growth in East African communities. The best part of the FBP is how its operation is community owned. Its functioning is not alien to its users and right from its feed to the by-product, there is scope and potential for productive usage. Governmental interference and community attitudes also have a bearing on the success of FBP. Direct involvement and training of local individuals can help the project do even better.