On this particular day, a team from SEI Africa and World Vision is visiting the home of mzee Lekanta, fondly referred to as “Strong Lekanta”, and his wife Katerina in Isiolo County North of Kenya. Their home is one of the households selected for a biogas pilot under the Integrated Management of Natural Resources for Resilience in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (IMARA) SIDA Programme. This initiative, currently in the last phase of implementation, is run jointly by World Vision Kenya , Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT) and SEI Africa.

“The IMARA programme has been running for over two years and has demonstrated the potential for managing natural resources for climate change adaptation in arid and semi-arid regions,” says SEI Africa Deputy Director for Research and Energy and Climate Change Programme Leader Dr Rocio A Diaz-Chavez, who leads the SEI team involved in the project. The teams were in Samburu for a three-day partners’ review meeting to assess the progress of projects in the areas. As guests at mzee Lekanta and Katerina’s homestead, they gained a greater understanding of the huge potential of the IMARA programme.

Katerina

Ms. Katerina explains to a team of SEI, World Vision, and Nothern Rangelands Trust how the biodigester works. Photo: Lawrence Nzuve / SEI

Challenging traditional gender roles

Arriving in the sweltering mid-morning heat, the team members are warmly welcomed and introduced to the family by Mr. Lekanta. He speaks fluent English and Kiswahili, and our very able driver translates what Katerina says for the team.

Mzee walks the team around the homestead, an abandoned stone kraal, evidence of the community’s nomadic lifestyle. We are informed that only a few goats inhabit the stone structure which otherwise would be full of both cattle and goats. Shortly after, Katerina joins us and mzee, pointing to his wife, says, ‘’she is the one in-charge.’’

Taking her cue, Katerina takes the lead in inviting the team to her house, a modern manyatta with a cool microclimate inside which offers a welcoming contrast to the intense heat outside.

Katerina is a local hero among women for taking the lead in making energy decisions for the household that are geared towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7 of “ensuring access to affordable reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.” The gender parity upheld in this household is remarkable for a community that traditionally has a large gender disparity. But Mr. Lekanta is open to his wife being the decision maker on energy use and the installation of the biodigester on their land. The support that he has extended to his wife was obvious throughout the team’s visit with mzee taking a backseat and only coming in to compliment his wife’s work.

Once inside, we begin to understand the extent of the technology used in the home. At a corner of the house is a gas stove; this stove is fed from a biogas plant which has been constructed a few metres outside the house. Lighting the stove to demonstrate that the flame is indeed hot, Katerina recounts the benefits it has brought to her family of ten children. Cooking has been ‘modernized’ in this household, an unusual occurrence in such a rural part of the country.

The cost of the biodigester and its installation has been subsided by the IMARA project from KES. 70 000 (USD 700) to KES. 30 000 (USD 300) in total with a payment plan of KES.1250 (USD 12.5) per month. Katerina’s household is one of the 30 involved in the biodigester pilot project. The future plan is to have biodigester systems in close to 100 homes.

Since the biogas plant was installed at her homestead, Katerina says it has saved more than two hours each day, time that is usually spent walking to the hill nearby to collect wood for fuel. She has even managed to open a kiosk in the vicinity of her homestead where she sells food and other small items which has generated income, something she could not do before. Katerina has been able to socially engage in activities with other women, which previously was difficult.

“She does twelve things in a day,” says mzee Lekanta pointing to his wife with a wide grin, attesting to the myriad of activities that fills her days.

Katerina biodigester

The biodigester that Ms. Katerina uses to produce clean energy from domestic animal waste. Photo: Lawrence Nzuve / SEI

Meeting the challenge head-on

The biogas plant has not been without challenges. Were it not for Katerina’s patience and perseverance, she would not be enjoying the benefits of the intervention. Due to the nomadic nature of the community, young men seasonally move with cattle in search of water and pasture. Cow dung produced by the cattle is one of the main feedstocks of the biodigester, meaning an alternative had to be sought. With no cows in the area, Katerina resorted to using waste from the goats which not only required more quantities to be fed into the biodigester, but also her creativity in grinding the pea-sized waste to more usable materials. Additionally, access to water is a challenge due to the arid nature of the area.

Katerina says she almost gave up initially as it required a lot of feedstock for the biodigester to be of capacity to release the gas. But her relentlessness in putting feedstock into the biodigester to produce gas to fire the stove eventually paid off. The flame produced from goat waste is not as hot as that from cow waste, says Katerina, but she is still able to cook seamlessly.

A few of us hunker down in the house for Katerina to demonstrate how the biogas stove works. She asks her husband to switch on the biodigester from outside the manyatta, which he is unable to do, prompting a hearty muttering under her breath, as she jokingly tells her husband that ‘he was growing old’. She then goes outside the manyatta to help him. We learn quickly that it is Katerina who fully operates the biodigester.

Katerina has given demonstrations on how to use the biodigester not only to delegations and visitors from Nairobi, but also to primary and secondary school students within the community. She proudly pointed out that she can train those more educated than her, despite not having any formal education herself. She demonstrated the use of the biogas to the team very passionately in her local Samburu language with a colleague from the World Vision team translating her every word.

“Katerina has influenced the people around her, including her family’” says Sammy Leseita of the NRT, one of the consortium members. “Working with her was easy and she is not just a beneficiary of the biogas programme, but also a member of the Kalama Community Conservancy and she is also in microfinance in a women’s loan programme, all of them under NRT and the conservancy, and she is one of those people who are easy to work with, explaining why she got a biogas installation even before other people had accepted it.”

It is not uncommon for interventions of this kind to be abandoned shortly after development partners have left the community due to several reasons. Technology, infrastructure development and systems have been left unused or unexplored after heavy investments were made because the users could not wait any longer. Katerina’s story offers a compelling example of how positive change can be achieved with enough patience and resolve.

Katerina demonstrating how the biodigester works

Ms. Katerina explains in great detail how the biodigester works, flanked by her husband Mr. Lekanta: the biggest challenge is the lack of feedstock for her biogas plant. Photo: Lawrence Nzuve / SEI

Looking forward

SEI Africa has played a fundamental research role in the IMARA programme. SEI is currently working on a sustainability assessment of the interventions brought by the three-year long project with a focus on linking this to climate adaptation and climate mitigation goals. SEI plans to produce scenario-based reports on water, energy, and natural resource management demonstrating the impact of the project in rehabilitating the natural environment of the arid and semi-arid areas.

The initial visits by the SEI Africa team to Samburu County and witnessing Katerina’s role as a clean energy hero offer strong grounds for optimism that the project can help achieve transformational change in communities. “It is inspiring to witness the potential of such projects to transform the natural, social and economic environment of the communities in the short and long-term,” Ms. Carol Mungo, a Research Fellow at the Energy and Climate Change Programme at SEI Africa says, “The evident impact of the project and the collaboration between the project partners and the community is progressive and full of promise.”

The SEI Africa team will conduct a second survey of the project later this year focusing on the biogas intervention to inform the next steps for the project.

Proud end user

Ms. Katerina demonstrates how the biogas stove works in her kitchen: She has saved time from long walks to fetch wood fuel and now can run a small shop. Photo: SEI/Lawrence Nzuve