Waste energy now powers rural Uganda

A ground pit where waste is mixed with cow dung and plant leaves, fermented for three to five days and the end result is methane gas which is harvested and transported to homes using pipes.

Waste energy now powers rural Uganda

Mukhwana Isaac and his team of 15 have made clean energy accessible to hundreds of families in villages across East Uganda. Their mantra is simple yet innovative, “Trash is an asset.” Across dozens of villages, Mukhwana and his staff at Elgon Renewable Energy have reduced the long, tiring treks for firewood that continue to dictate so much of the daily lives for millions of women and girls across the continent. In the past two years, more than 400 rural homes in Eastern Uganda, which previously depended on kerosene for lighting or firewood for cooking, have been lit by recycled waste. For Mukhwana, one of his proudest moments is when he installed energy in Butiru’s primary and secondary schools so students could have light at night.

Elgon Renewable Energy uses organic waste, mostly from nearby public markets, mixed with cow dung and plant leaves. Then, the team ferments the mix for three to five days in a ground pit or septic tank. This mix will produce methane gas, which is transported through pipes connected to houses to light lamps and allow for cooking. Elizabeth Mbabazi, a biogas project participant from Makerere University, said the energy from biogas is 100% organic, creating no environmental pollution during the production process. Furthermore, she highlighted that by-products of this process can be used as fertilizers in agriculture and in some cases, mosquito repellents when mixed with cow dung.

“In fact, all the byproducts from the process of biogas production are environmentally beneficial,” added Mbabazi.

Mukhwana and his team mixing material for the construction of a new biogas pit at a rural home in Mbale district.

Mukhwana and his team mixing material for the construction of a new biogas pit at a rural home in Mbale district.

Transforming waste to energy creates ripple benefits throughout Uganda’s economy. The country’'s National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) highlights safe and clean energy alternatives, such as biogas as the way for environmental conservation. As a result, energy alternative choices curbs lung-related diseases caused by inhaling toxic air from the burning of kerosene, which is used in traditional lamps in rural Ugandan homes. In addition, the policy also states that energy alternatives provide employment and practical skills to hundreds of youths in the country. Mukhwana affirms this.

“We have many students sent to us here at Elgon Renewable Energy plant to do internships, especially graduate and postgraduate students in electrical engineering. Sometimes we even receive international students,” he added.

New emerging companies in the renewable energy sector have resulted from Mukhwana’s project. A few examples are MECOD in Soroti, TECH R in Kapchorwa, Mbale Renewable Energy, and E&A renewable in Pallisa. On their website, Uganda’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development indicates that the country’s national biogas program aims to have 13,600 biogas plants constructed in households to curb indoor air pollution. In addition, they aim to reduce the rate of deforestation attributed to firewood harvesting. Uganda also issued its first energy policy in 2002 and created a renewable energy policy five years later.

In the long run, Mukhwana said he would like to see Uganda take on biogas on a larger scale, as an alternative to petrol and hydroelectric power. Despite the country’s dam development projects, more than 50% of Uganda’s population still have no access to electricity produced by hydroelectric power plants. These plants have also caused environmental damages like flooding in areas where waterfalls have been cleared. In this sense, biogas as an alternative energy source would make a more environmentally friendly option for power generation in the region. It’s time all of Uganda joined Mukhwana in turning trash into treasured energy.

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