Making A Difference With Cow Dung, by Lisa Curtis

People always talk about “making a difference.” It’s a catchy phrase to use, “Make a difference, call your Senator” or “Make a difference, recycle your bottle.” Personally, I find it a phrase that is all too easy to say and much, much harder to do. But then today it suddenly hit me that I might actually make a tangible difference in people’s lives.

CurtisL 1- with caption.JPGOkay, so a little background. Community Action for Rural Development (CARD) the organization I am interning for, focuses on sustainable development in Western Kenya. My first day at work, Felix, my supervisor, told me that CARD is looking into starting a biogas project. He told me that they saw biogas as a means to decrease pressure on the Kakamega Forest and to improve the livelihoods of the communities that live there. Many members of the community rely on the forest as a source of wood fuel for cooking and lighting. Not only is this activity rapidly degrading Kenya’s only remaining rainforest, it is also wrecking havoc on the quality of life for the people that rely on wood fuel. In many families, the women will leave their houses as early as 4 a.m. to go to the forest. Once they get there, they have to contend with poisonous snakes and spiders, malaria carrying mosquitoes, arrest and even, as one woman told us when we visited, rape. Once they get the wood, some spend all day carrying it in heavy loads on top of their heads. The tragedy doesn’t end there; the smoke from using wood fuel to cook has lead to chronic chest pain and other respiratory problems for many of the women.

CurtisL 2- with caption.JPGAll of these problems could be fixed if CARD was able to train community members on how to make biogas. From hours of research on the internet I’ve learned that biogas is naturally produced from decaying organic matter such as manure or vegetable waste. It can be harnessed for cooking/lighting through the amazingly simple construction of an anaerobic digester. It’s currently been done all over the developing world, there have been 3,000 digesters constructed in India alone in the past couple of years. My research gave me hope that this is something that could actually happen.

Then today, I went visit the forest communities, I realized that it is something that has to happen. I saw women, and even children, carrying impossibly heavy loads of tree branches. My colleague Alfred and I had made a survey to determine the need and interest in biogas. What we found was astounding; everyone wanted it and their reasons for their need (such as getting raped or skyrocketing fuel prices that use up what little money they have) took us aback. A few of those we spoke with knew about anaerobic digesters and said they wanted one but couldn’t afford it.

CurtisL 3- with caption.JPGSo here’s where CARD and I come in. Tomorrow we will begin writing a grant proposal. In it, we are asking for funding to set up a demonstration anaerobic digester in one of the schools that we visited near the forest that has two cows. A part of the money is to go towards training CARD staff on how to construct an inexpensive and practical digester. The idea is that once we are trained on how to make the digester and we assist in the construction of the digester at the school, we can then hold a community wide workshop on how to construct digesters.

It was an amazing sight to see the hope in some of the eyes of the women when we told them that we might have an inexpensive solution to their problems. As Alfred said, “if we can do this, we will change lives.”