PHOTOS: The power of poo: How biogas has become a cleaner alternative fuel in Rwanda — but is still out of reach for most

Yana Paskova
Freelance Photojournalist
Etiene Twagirayezu, 60, lights his biogas digester in his home on November 18, 2017 in Rutabo, Rwanda. Twagirayezu says that before his digester, he'd spend up to 3 hours a day gathering 10 kilograms of wood, and saw kids get injured climbing trees and be late to school doing the same. He added he was happy his workload at home was reduced due to being able to use his cow's and pig's poo instead of wood as fuel, as well as about the resulting decrease of deforestation. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)

Nearly half of Rwandans live in poverty, relying on small-scale farming for survival and without gas or electricity. With so many people spending hours foraging for wood for cooking and light, often damaging their eyes, lungs, forests and the atmosphere, a little inventiveness helps. Enter cows and pigs — not just as a source of food but also for the heat needed to cook them. Or more specifically, their droppings — the fuel fed to a biogas digester, a tank that converts organic waste into methane gas.

Driving through thick smog in Kigali, Rwanda, on November 14, 2017. The land-locked African nation relies on hydropower and wood-burning for its energy, emissions from which combine with automotive and bike exhaust to form a blanket of pollution. While Rwanda is making an effort to source more climate-friendly fuels, like biogas, the country has already experienced temperature increases higher than the global average, which are projected to continue to rise by 2.5 degrees Celsius from its 1970 temperatures, by the 2050s. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)

Even human waste can be put to use this way. All of Rwanda’s prison kitchens reuse waste from inmates, mixed with cow dung. Some prisons have cut their use of firewood and consequent damage to soil and air by 75 percent.

Twelve-year-old Sandra Gihozo cringes as smoke rises from a pot of beans, stoking the wooden fire beneath it in Mount Kigali village in Rwanda, on November 12, 2017. Her aunt Ruth Uwamahoro says Sandra's eyes and throat often hurt from the smoke, and that wood gathering sometimes makes her miss schoolwork. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)

Replacing more firewood and charcoal, which is used by at least two-thirds of Rwanda’s population for cooking, with biogas could free people from long hours otherwise spent gathering wood. This would in turn improve their health and the economy, along with mitigating environmental damage from deforestation, soil erosion, particulate pollution and carbon monoxide from cooking fires.

Marie Claire Nyirahabumufasha, 31-year-old mother to Nayituriki Bienvenu, holds her one-year-old as she cooks potatoes in a small hut near her restaurant in Kigali village in Rwanda, on November 12, 2017. Marie Claire hires others to bring her wood for cooking, and says her eyes and throat often hurt from doing so over smoke. She added she would definitely prefer using biogas over firewood if she had the option. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)

There's no cost, complicated instructions or unpleasant scent in operating the clean, blue biogas flame, and whatever manure the system does not use can be utilized as extra fertilizer. Despite its advantages, adopting biogas in Rwanda has been slow; there are about 11,000 digesters in the nation’s prisons, schools and homes. The obstacles include having enough waste (one or two cows or pigs, or approximately 400 human beings) and access to water to fuel digesters, unfamiliarity with the technology and a shortage of skilled maintenance personnel. Additionally, there is a poor marketing campaign and the limited buying power of the beneficiaries of biogas systems — which, despite government and NGO subsidies, remain unaffordable for the majority of Rwandans.

A child carries wooden sticks by a road snaking through Mount Kigali, Rwanda on November 15, 2017. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)

All of this to say that despite growing biogas use worldwide over the past two decades, biogas for fuel is still a young concept in Rwanda.

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Photographs and reportage for this project were supported by a fellowship from the International Women's Media Foundation.

Kamana Jean, 56 years old, carries wood by a road snaking through Mount Kigali, Rwanda on November 17, 2017. Jean said he'd be more happy to use something else - like biogas - to cook with, adding that wood smoke flavors his food and it is hard on the body, creating problems with eyesight for him and his eight children and wife. (Shortly after gathering this particular wood pile, Jean was surrounded by a group of people who demanded he surrender their wood to them.) (Photograph by Yana Paskova)
Terrace farming, which helps decrease erosion and surface runoff, is seen on November 15, 2017 in the Rulindo District, Rwanda. Wood gathering causes much of the deforestation and soil erosion in the country. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)
Nyiranzabanita Emeliane, 42, carries wooden sticks used for cooking on November 14, 2017 in Shyorongi, Rwanda. She says she sometimes spends hours per day, at times in faraway corners of the woods, to find what she needs, usually using it to cook sweet potatoes and cassava. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)
A neighborhood child plays with the Oxfam biogas digester of Jean Claude Niyibizi, 30, and his wife Christine Manirafasha, 26, on November 16, 2017 in their home in Gakenke, Rwanda. Manirafasha says it is easier and quicker to cook with biogas, and that smoke had become a problem while cooking with wood. Her only adjustment, she says, was to remember to turn the gauge to the off position. Having the digester has also allowed her to develop other activities, like a chicken farm and tailoring business. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)
A pair of pigs owned by Christine Manirafasha, 26, and her husband, Jean Claude Niyibizi, 30, rest in their yard in Gakenke, Rwanda on November 16, 2017. . (Photograph by Yana Paskova)
Mwizeneza Winfrid, 62, traverses her yard, where she raises cows, pigs and goats, on November 15, 2017 in the Rulindo District, Rwanda. Winfrid has been a recipient of a biogas digester by a government-financed private company, and says she wishes everybody had access to biogas - not only to drastically reduce cooking time that is otherwise much lengthier when using wood, but also to reduce damage to the environment. She uses the poo discarded from the digester as soil fertilizer. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)
Jean Claude Niyibizi, 30, sweeps up pig poo as his wife, Christine Manirafasha, 26, (not seen,) cooks food with a grill connected to a biogas digester received via Oxfam, on November 16, 2017 in their home in Gakenke, Rwanda. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)
The animal poo inside Etiene Twagirayezu's biogas digester, seen in front of his home in Rutabo, Rwanda on November 18, 2017. Twagirayezu says that before his digester, he'd spend up to 3 hours a day gathering 10 kilograms of wood, and saw kids get injured climbing trees and be late to school doing the same. He added he was happy his workload at home was reduced due to being able to use his cow's and pig's poo instead of wood as fuel, as well as about the resulting decrease of deforestation. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)
Etiene Twagirayezu, 60, talks about his biogas digester in front of his home in Rutabo, Rwanda, on November 18, 2017. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)
(C-R) Christine Manirafasha, 26, and her husband, Jean Claude Niyibizi, 30, who are the recipients of an Oxfam biogas digester, prepare to eat some eggs they've cooked with it on November 16, 2017 in their home in Gakenke, Rwanda. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)
Prisoners rest in between cooking food via peat and biogas at Rwamagana Prison in Rwamagana, Rwanda, on November 18, 2017. All of Rwanda's prisons use their prisoners' waste - in addition to that of cows - to fuel their kitchens via biogas. At Rwamagana, biogas is used to cook corn, and peat cooks rice and beans. Many prisoners say they can usually tell when biogas is used due to the lack of smokey flavor in food. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)
Prisoners cook corn at Rwamagana Prison in Rwamagana, Rwanda, on November 18, 2017. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)
A prisoner stands near a biogas digester system (within the cement containers) at Rwamagana Prison in Rwamagana, Rwanda, on November 18, 2017. (Photograph by Yana Paskova)

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