This article was contributed to TechCabal by Tiwonge Kampondeni/bird story agency
29-year-old Clement Kandodo still has very vivid memories of his farmer parents’ support for a family of 5 children. Kandodo himself spent many happy days in the fields with his father and mother and to this day holds his parents up as role models.
“My father was a successful farmer in our community, earning the moniker ‘lead farmer.’ This made me proud as a child because I would brag about my father’s success wherever I went, and I was regarded as a hero among my peers,” Kandodo recalled.
Growing up and being involved in farming, Kandodo, realized at a young age however that ‘not all that glitters is gold,’ as there were significant challenges to his parents’ success.
“I realized my father was having difficulty obtaining fertiliser.” It was very costly for him. “He would sometimes sell some of the livestock to buy the fertiliser bags,” Kandodo explained.
Kandodo credits his current course in life with a desire to find solutions to those challenges. Setting his heart on attending the Bunda College of Agriculture (now part of the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, or LUANAR), his wish was granted in 2012 when he was accepted to study agronomy (majoring in crop and soil science).
“Studying agronomy was like completing the puzzle. Just as I was yearning for low-cost farming methods, one of the lecturers brought up a topic about how to make organic fertiliser and cooking gas from waste, during one of my classes. This was a huge inspiration for my career,” Kandodo explained.
His interest in agriculture, environmental conservation, and concerns over youth unemployment figures drove Kandodo—now a YALI fellow—to launch his own company, EcoGen, shortly after graduating in 2016.
Situated in Lilongwe’s Falls Estate, EcoGen specializes in providing biogas technology that allows people to convert available food waste, animal waste, or farm waste into fertiliser, cooking gas, pesticides, and animal feed. The backyard of the office premises is used as a demonstration site, displaying how the technology works, starting with the digester and a garden of different crops.
EcoGen touts its technology both as a solution to Malawi’s waste management problem as well as a solution to deforestation.
Biogas technology employs biodigesters, which function as bins into which all organic waste is disposed of and which is then “digested” (in a process known as aerobic digestion). Fertiliser and cooking gas are produced as a result of the process.
Kandodo has dubbed the ‘waste’ from this process ‘brown gold,’ as it is a very efficient fertiliser. He is overjoyed that the technology allows him to kill more than two birds with one stone.
“I am ecstatic about this technology. Even in the backyard, this system can be installed. The digester consumes food scraps or livestock waste. So, while it can produce cheaper organic fertilizer, it is also the most efficient way to manage waste.”
According to the United Nations Development Programme, Malawi faces a number of waste management challenges, with city councils managing on average only 12% of the waste created in their areas, with private waste collectors filling the void. Poor coordination among waste generators (households and institutions), waste collectors, and recyclers makes the problem worse.
According to the country’s 2017–2027 Charcoal Strategy, more than 97% of Malawian households rely on illegal and unsustainable sourced biomass (charcoal and firewood) for domestic cooking and heating energy.
“Another significant advantage of using this technology is gas production. It is an answer to women like my mother who used to walk long distances in search of firewood, because once this technology is installed, that household will be able to not rely on charcoal or firewood for cooking but gas—and in the process they are no longer walking long distances to fetch firewood or spending more on charcoal, thereby preserving trees,” Kandodo said.
EcoGen’s target population is diverse and includes farmers, households, and organizations such as hospitals and schools.
The company has won awards for assisting farmers like Yohane Chawoloka of Malawi’s central region district of Dedza. His family now cooks with gas and uses bio fertilizer instead of chemical fertilizer, which he makes from chicken, cow, and pig waste.
Chawoloka cultivates maize, beans, groundnuts, potatoes, and cassava, but he also produces milk and has livestock. To Chawoloka, organic waste has become a source of multiple solutions to the problems he faces as a farmer.
“I am sorry because I have been discarding waste for over 30 years, allowing it to decay in the air and pollute the environment. But after hearing about this technology from EcoGen, I knew I had to have it installed in my backyard,” Chawoloka said.
“I am now saving a lot of money because I now use organic fertiliser that I harvest from the biogas technology,” he continued.
The Dedza-based farmer would previously use 16–17 bags of chemical fertiliser for his crops, spending over K400,000 (U$390) on a 4-acre plot of land. Now he spends almost nothing on fertilizer and his yield has actually increased. Producing organic fertiliser may look like a filthy task, but Chaoloka’s facial expression tells you otherwise; he appears to be in love with what he is doing.
“You can check it out for yourself. I anticipate having over 200 (50 kg) bags of maize. Furthermore, I am no longer spending the 1,000 kwacha I was spending on firewood every day because my wife now cooks with gas,” he explained.
The biogas system is long-lasting and Kandodo explained that the EcoGen system comes with a ten-year warranty and a life span of more than 20 years. It costs K987 500 (US$987) with the option of paying in installments for up to 2 years.
“In Malawi, people typically spend 20,000 to 30,000 kwacha per month on cooking, and the majority of people spend 120,000 to 150,000 kwacha on fertiliser. So, having our technology means that one will be able to save enough to pay for the system while saving millions of kwachas in subsequent years. Our premise is that once you have our technology, you will begin saving money and, as you save, you will be repaying until you finish. As a result, the technology will become more affordable,” Kandodo explained.
EcoGen is one of only a few companies in Malawi promoting organic fertiliser and the use of biogas for cooking. While other African countries like Nigeria, South Africa and Algeria have inorganic fertiliser manufacturing plants, Malawi is yet to have one – yet the country uses over 500,000 metric tonnes of inorganic fertiliser annually on commercial and subsistence farms.
Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson Gracian Lungu said that farmers are encouraged to produce organic fertiliser, which farmers complement with the inorganic fertiliser to maximise their production, pointing to deficiencies in a purely organic option.
“The nitrogen percentage doesn’t reach the needed 23% in basal dressing and 46% in top dressing. The most benefits one gets from organic manure is that they are cheap and they restore soil fertility,” he said.
While Malawi’s government is doing feasibility studies for the viability of a fertiliser manufacturing plant, the government is pledging support for viable innovations.
The country’s National Energy Policy of 2018 has prioritised biogas and the government has supported a number of biogas projects – and is also promoting the use of biogas at institutions such as schools, hospitals and prisons.
“The government is promoting using technologies that are clean, modern, affordable and efficient. These include mini-grids and large-scale power plants.” Ministry of energy’s Public Relations Officer Upile Kamoto-Lali said.
Wellam Kamthunzi, a lecturer in agricultural engineering at LUANAR, believes biogas technology to be both economical and environmentally friendly.
“By using animal waste to produce biogas, you do not lose the fertiliser value, but you improve the fertilizer value while gaining energy in the form of natural gas for cooking and even running engines,” he explained.
Kamthunzi suggested that cities, municipalities and towns use digesters for waste management and that large livestock producers be encouraged to produce biogas from livestock waste.
“All organic waste that ends up in landfills—like those run by the cities of Lilongwe and Blantyre—can be used to produce biogas,” he said.
EcoGen has installed over 60 systems, with a goal of installing over 10,000 biogas systems by 2026 to provide more people with access to clean cooking, waste management, and sustainable farming.