By Pius Sawa
Two young Zimbabwean men have started a program to provide affordable cooking energy to rural households in the country, saving rural Zimbabweans from walking long distances to fetch firewood from diminishing forests.
Households have to cook meals at least three times a day, but families across Zimbabwe, especially those in the rural have only one source of energy: firewood. Not only is it dangerous to human health because of the carbon emitted, it is also harmful to the environment and contributes to climate change.
“Our target is Zimbabwe’s rural population. These communities mainly use firewood to cook. A few years ago, it used to be easy to access firewood, but because of massive deforestation, people now have to travel very long distances just to get firewood,” said Nicholas Toronga.
Nicholas and his partner Tinotenda Makuvire met in 2016 as Mastercard Foundation Scholars at McGill University, selected for the scholarship for their academic talent, social consciousness, and leadership qualities. As engaged students, the fellow Zimbabweans started discussing how they would use their education to benefit their community. Nicholas, who is pursuing his studies in finance, and Tinotenda, who is studying engineering, are building a low-cost bio-digester that will harness animal waste to produce biogas for household cooking. Their initiative, ZimDigester, will provide biogas to low-income Zimbabwean households.
In the past, it was women and children who would go to the forests to fetch firewood, but that is no longer the case.
“People are now relying on buying the firewood from local men who have seen this as an opportunity to make money and charge exorbitant prices for it. People have no other option but to buy this firewood. In a community where unemployment is high and people are already struggling, this just makes life extra difficult,” said Tinotenda.
According to data gathered by Global Forest Watch, Zimbabwe lost 373,000 hectares of tree cover from 2001 through 2012, which is about two percent of the country’s total forest cover. These losses are attributed to the use of forests as the main source of fuel in rural areas.
Nicholas observes that few measures have been put in place since the report was released, to protect forests. According to him, clean energy is the way to go of the future.
Since almost every household in rural Zimbabwe and semi urban, owns an animal, waste will be a readily available raw material for the generation of biogas.
“Most people in rural areas have domestic animals that they rear, and we are going to leverage that to power the bio-digester. So, in essence, everyone controls the source of fuel. If they purchase a bio-digester, they will have one less headache to deal with,” said Nicholas.
He said the bio-digester is easy to use and the only thing that the user has to do is to feed the animal waste and water into the bio-digester and let the digester do its work.
ZimDigester will first seek to sell 30 bio-digesters. Depending on early sales during the initiative’s initial rollout in the first two months, the project will continue to sell more bio-digesters to low-income families.
“We have developed our bio-digester and we are still iterating it to make it as efficient as possible, while also putting in place infrastructure on the ground for the project. This involves talking to the communities about the importance of preserving their forests. Our aim is to cover most of rural Zimbabwe in one year, but that depends on the success and feedback from the first phase of the project,” said Tinotenda.
The cost of one bio-digester is estimated to be around $85 US, with a lifespan of three years and with no repairs, meaning if every household can have a bio-digester, many forests will be saved as fewer trees will be cut down.
ZimDigester won the Resolution Social Venture Challenge in 2018, a competition that rewards compelling leadership and promising social ventures led by youth. These young leaders earned a fellowship that includes seed funding, mentorship, and access to a network of young global change-makers to pursue impactful projects in their communities. A collaboration between the Mastercard Foundation and The Resolution Project, the Resolution Social Venture Challenge provides a pathway to action for socially responsible young leaders who want to create change that matters in their communities.
Nicholas and Tinotenda are optimistic that they will overcome all the challenges to change people’s perceptions of the new, affordable, and clean energy solution.
“The opportunity we have been awarded through the Social Venture Challenge is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give back to my community, something I have always been passionate about. We have been given an opportunity to change the lives of people in a meaningful way — and this is just the start of the change we can affect in our communities,” said Nicholas.