Elizabeth Joseph wakes early each morning to prepare for a busy day ahead—cooking, cleaning, farming, and caring for children and livestock are all in a day's work. So is theft.
She steals because it’s the only way to collect the fuel wood she needs for cooking. Although a few other families in Karatu District, Tanzania, cook using a biogas system that extracts methane from biomass, completely bypassing the need for wood for fire or charcoal, most families still cook over an open fire using wood harvested from nearby forests. As the Tanzanian population grows, increasingly the only forests left available are within protected conservation areas—areas where it is illegal to collect wood.
Individual firewood collection, like Joseph’s, is only one of many sources of deforestation in Tanzania, but it is one that has numerous consequences. Collecting firewood in the conservation area risks punishment and uses time that could be spent on more prosperous activities. Deforestation has serious implications locally and globally. Not only does it contribute to global warming because there are fewer trees to act as a carbon sink and absorb excess carbon dioxide, but it also fuels human-wildlife conflict as habitats are destroyed. It harms rural livelihoods that depend on forests for food, fuel wood, and medicines, and reduces land productivity due to the loss of soil fertility.
But individual firewood collection has an available solution: biogas powered by livestock manure. The conservationists’ challenge is how to get people like Joseph to install it, to be more like Elizabeth Yoram.
Yoram, a lively senior citizen of Bashay Village, just outside of Karatu Town, installed biogas in her home four years ago. Yoram sold five cattle to be able to afford the system, but has nearly made her money back because of the garden she planted in her newfound spare time. Banana trees grow tall around her property. She estimated an additional 100,000 Tanzanian Shillings, approximately $45 USD, of income for 2015 alone from selling bananas. However, she also grows and sells lemons, avocados, and papayas, all of which, including bananas, she said has made her an extra million Tanzanian Shillings, or almost $500 USD, over the four years she has had biogas.
Previously she said she would walk eight or nine kilometers over the high country’s hilly terrain and spend roughly five hours each day collecting firewood, sometimes from nearby Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
“I went stealing in the forest but because of my age, I can’t run,” she said, laughing. “Young people are running, but I can’t run.”
Although her age slowed her down, she said she was never caught because she knew when to time her excursions into the forest.
After collecting the firewood, Yoram said she would still have to do all the cooking, washing, cleaning, and animal care. She said she decided to get biogas because her age made it increasingly more difficult to walk all the way to the forest and carry enough wood. The smoke was another factor.
Yoram’s cook fire kitchen, like most other houses in the area, sits in its own building, separate from the main living area. Built of hardened mud and thin wood, there is only a small vent in the roof for the smoke to escape creating a hotbox effect that stings the eyes of anyone brave enough to stay inside for more than a few moments. Most women cook over open flames or charcoal in this way, and have to constantly tend the fire to keep it at an appropriate temperature. Often times these women experience lung problems later in life, just like Yoram.
Joseph doesn’t have the option to install biogas like Yoram. The biogas system is expensive, and her family can’t afford the investment. She still spends over three hours and walks as much as 10km each day to fetch firewood for cooking—firewood she often collects and cuts illegally from Ngorongoro. Her kitchen is similar to Yoram’s, complete with poor ventilation and coughing fits. When she’s not cooking or collecting, Joseph tends to the fields or the children.
In Joseph’s village, Kambia Simba, the best burning wood is nearly gone except within protected areas. This is true across the county, with the population growth rate over 3 percent in Tanzania, resources are depleting rapidly. Community forests are increasingly unable to support people’s demand for fuel wood. United Nations’ 2010 Forest Resources Assessments ranked Tanzania sixth in a list of countries with the largest annual net loss of forests cover between 1990 and 2010.
With as many as 12 relatives living in the family compound at a time, Joseph is depended upon to collect the wood necessary to cook. Sometimes it’s a pot of Ugali, a maize flour dish similar to porridge, for her grandchildren, like 1 1/2-year-old Glory. Sometimes it’s afternoon chai for the adults.
The trek to the fire line that defines the conservation area’s border is not far, only a few kilometers from her home. Ngorongoro Conservation Area is home to the Ngorongoro Crater, one of the last sanctuaries for the critically endangered Black Rhino, and shares a border with Karatu District to the southeast. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has many rules regulating who can enter and for what purpose, yet the conservation area is a popular place for firewood collection.
Many women in the area risk fines and sometimes even beatings to collect the wood. Joseph’s husband, Joseph Gichro, said she has never been caught, but that neighbors have. He said he is aware of instances in other villages of women being beaten by the rangers when found inside the conservation area, but that it doesn’t happen in Kambia Simba. Not only are these women risking encounters with rangers, but also with wild animals—Ngorongoro is home to over 25,000 large mammals.
Elvis Paul, an Ngorongoro Ranger, said that he finds about 10 women per week stealing wood. His procedure includes a meeting with the village elders and a fine, but repeat offenders are taken directly to the police. He said he estimates 50 percent return even after being caught.
As more people crowd the boundaries, the scarcer forest resources become and higher numbers of people enter the protected areas, illegally, to obtain the necessary firewood for survival. This puts pressure on forest resources necessary for both people and animals, which can eventually hurt the Tanzanian economy if high profile animals that draw tourism undergo local extinction—where a certain species disappears from a specific area it once inhabited. The Southern White Rhino—kin to the now extinct-in-the-wild Northern White Rhino—was once locally extinct from its native habitats in Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe before it was reintroduced.
“A lot of destruction in forests and the remaining public forest reserves is people looking for fuel wood,” Karatu District Natural Resources Officer Stanley Mruma said. “This destruction has entered into our national forest reserves like Ngorongoro Conservation Forest Reserve and the Manyara Forest Reserve, which is the Lake Manyara National Park. This has increased forest degradation which has led to the destruction of water sources and the other areas which are very sensitive in our environment.”
Mruma works to educate locals on environmentally friendly practices like planting replacement trees for the ones they cut down and installing a biogas system to avoid the need for firewood altogether. Zero-grazing—keeping the cattle in the home compound instead of herding them around—is encouraged in order to prevent land degradation from overgrazing. It also enables biogas use because it is easier to collect the manure if the cows don’t roam. Mruma said there hasn’t been an educational program on biogas since 2006 due to a lack of funding.
Karatu District, home to more than 230,000 people as of 2012, currently has over 700 biogas plants, the individual systems that are located in peoples' homes, up from the four they had in 2006, according to Mruma. The initiative has been supported by a number of NGOs including the Dutch non-profit SNV and the local Karatu Development Association. Marjin Veen, an energy sector leader with the Netherlands’ non-profit SNV, said that more than 12,000 have been installed at the country level.
SNV, via its Tanzania Domestic Biogas Programme, has plans to increase the amount of biogas systems all over Tanzania during 2016 and 2017 with a $1.6 million USD contribution from Tanzania’s Rural Energy Agency and the Norwegian Embassy. That funding will be used as discounts for household discounts on the system.
“With REA funding that started this year, the programme expects to cover all regions of mainland Tanzania by next year,” Veen said in an email. “The target for 2016-2017 is 10,000 additional households.”
A biogas plant can cost from 1.5 to 2 million TSH, or $500 to $1000 USD, depending on the size of the tank. Although funding fluctuates, the program has historically been subsidized to reduce the burden of cost that falls on the families. Often an NGO provides the materials for building and the family is responsible for paying a craftsman to build it, which still tends to cost upwards of 700,000 TSH.
“If you consider the income of these people of Karatu it is not a lot [to purchase biogas] because their land is good for agriculture so if you time them after harvesting it is very easy to get money from them after understanding the importance of the biogas,” Mruma said. “But for those very poor it is difficult so you can find that these biogas are situated to medium income families.”
Biogas is primarily methane generated from the anaerobic digestion of feces by bacteria. Manure, most often from cattle, and water enter the biodigester through a large pipe that connects to a dome 15 feet underground. Once the dome is full, it takes about two weeks until the gas rises over top of the slurry and can be extracted through a smaller pipe connecting the dome to the areas of the house in which it will be used. The extracted methane gas mixture feeds burners used for cooking, which work just like gas stoves in the western world. The methane also powers gaslights for lighting, a tempting option for some as only 15 percent of Tanzanians have access to electricity.
As the gas rises and more manure mixture is added to the dome, the digested material is pushed out the opposite side of the dome through the output pipe, which expels it out onto the ground to be used as fertilizer.
For biogas to be sustainable for most families there must be multiple cows contributing to the system. Pig and goat feces work as well, although most people stick to cattle. Prisons across Rwanda have installed biogas systems fueled by human feces, and there are some small-scale dairy farms in the US using biogas.
Mruma said that the goals of the program are to reduce environmental degradation and increase family income. He said the time women spend collecting firewood is wasted, and could instead be used on development activities for the family like additional education for children or increased gardening and farming like Yoram chose to do.
While biogas isn’t the only gas-powered option for people’s homes, KDA worker Rafael Tatock said it’s the best because of its additional economic benefits primarily stemming from fertilizer use.
“We need people to take care of the environment, and the way for us to conserve the environment is using biogas energy—there are many energy options but the biogas energy is easier because farmers, they have the cattle so they can use the cattle manure to conserve the environment,” Tatock said. “Because many people here are farming, they can use that slurry from the biogas to boost their farms.”
Fertilizer use remains low in many African countries and actually declined in Tanzania from 2011 to 2013, which hinders agricultural productivity. Yoram uses the bioslurry on her garden and other farmers with the biogas system transport the fertilizer to their fields. Tatock said that an additional concern stemming from deforestation is soil erosion and disruption of the water cycle because a large portion of rural Tanzania survives on agriculture.
“So if we cut all the trees, if we destroy the environment, it means then that we can’t get enough rain and people will starve,” Tatock said. “When we destroy the forest here then they will lose water—for all people here the source of water is in the forest—so if that forest will be destroyed, there is no life here in Karatu.”