Five Renewable Sources of Energy for Farmers in Developing Countries

By Isaac Hopkins and Jenny Beth Dyess

According to the United Nations, access to reliable and sufficient sources of energy will be critical to meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of reducing poverty and hunger by 2015. Many of the world’s poorest people are rural farmers with no connections to power grids or large-scale energy sources. Most of their day-to-day energy currently comes from the burning of wood and charcoal, practices that contribute to air pollution, deforestation, and the loss of precious time and energy collecting firewood.

A farmer in Nairobi, Kenya displays his home-made fuel briquettes. (Photo Credit: Bernard Pollack)

Today, Nourishing the Planet introduces five sources of renewable energy that are meeting the demands of poor farmers and allowing them to improve their harvests and their lives.

1. Solar Energy: Solar energy is widely harvested in two basic ways. The first is the use of solar panels, which use photovoltaic cells to convert solar radiation directly into electrical current. Such installations are efficient and versatile but have high start-up costs. The second is solar heating, which harnesses the heat of direct sunlight to boil water and cook food, activities which often constitute more than 25 percent of a household’s energy use.

Solar Energy in Action:  The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) is a non-profit organization that is working in more than 20 countries to install solar energy systems in rural and poor areas. One of their projects is an innovative drip-irrigation system in Benin that is powered by photovoltaics. Farmers are able to grow crops throughout the long dry season, greatly improving their food security, and SELF hopes to provide solar-powered water and lighting for all 44 villages in the district.

Solar Household Energy, Inc. (SHE) provides rural farmers, often women, with solar cookers, called HotPots, and the training to use them effectively. These cookers are less expensive than photovoltaic arrays, and can heat to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to boil beans. Nearly all of Africa, and much of southern Asia and Latin America, are considered prime locations for using the ovens, with plenty of sunshine. One project in Chad decreased household wood usage by up to 40 percent in only two months.

2. Wind Energy:  Small-scale wind turbines typically have capacities up to several hundred kilowatts (kW), which in some cases is enough to power an entire village. Wind power can often be used in regions where solar is less effective, and can generate power at night or during storms. This makes wind energy a viable way to generate energy, and an excellent complement to a solar system.

Wind Energy in Action:  The organization Practical Action helps provide many forms of renewable energy to poor residents of Asia and Africa, and they have several projects based on wind energy. They have helped villages in Sri Lanka install a wind turbine that provides electricity for the entire community. This has had benefits beyond simple access to power. Villagers pooled their resources to install and manage the turbine, they received technical education from Practical Action and as a result a number of steady jobs are created. Installing a local turbine also means people no longer have to travel long distances and pay large amounts to recharge batteries that they regularly use.

3. Biogas: Biogas can be an excellent source of free, renewable energy for poor farmers. Biogas is mostly methane that is released from any organic matter that is decaying in the absence of oxygen. Biogas can be captured from animal manure, vegetable scraps, and even human waste, and used as a clean source of energy. The sludge leftover from biogas can be used as safe organic compost because  pathogens that may be harmful to humans have been inactivated by the heat.

Biogas in Action: A project run by the International Fund for Agricultural Development has been changing farmer’s lives in rural China. Farmers in Fada, a village in China’s Guangxi province, each built their own plants to channel waste from household toilets and nearby shelters for animals into a sealed tank. As the waste ferments, gas is captured and used in cooking. Forests are being protected because pressure for firewood has been reduced, saving 56,000 tons of firewood per year. Over five years, area farmers increased tea production from 400 to 2,500 kilograms a day and average income in the village quadrupled to more than $1 per day.

4. Micro Hydropower: Micro hydroelectric power is different from typical hydroelectric power because it doesn’t attempt to significantly interfere with the flow of the river. Typically rated at a maximum capacity of 300 kW hours, the micro hydro systems don’t dam rivers, but instead divert a stream of water that flows downhill through a pipeline dropping into the turbine. The turbine then generates electricity which can be stored in batteries and transported to where villagers may need it most.

Micro Hydropower in Action: The Tungu-Kabri micro-hydro power project was the first of its kind in Kenya. Rural families in Kenya use at least one-third of their income on kerosene for lighting and diesel for the milling of grain. With funds from United Nations Development Programme and development assistance from Practical Action East Africa and the Kenyan Ministry of Energy, the village of Mbuiru built a micro hydropower system that generates about 18 kW hours of electricity and benefits about 1,000 people.

5. Biomass Briquettes: Biomass briquettes are made of readily available waste materials, including potato peals, banana peals, dry leaves, and paper that shredded and pounded together into a fuel briquette that burns longer and cleaner than charcoal.

Biomass Briquettes in Action: Charles Onyoni Onyando, a farmer with NEFSALF (Nairobi and Environs Food Security, Agriculture, and Livestock Forum), is helping provide this clean, long-lasting fuel to people in his own community. Charles collects waste from his neighbors and uses a crank-powered shredder to make the briquettes. Each briquette lasts six to seven hours and is enough to cook two kilograms of dried beans. Charles isn’t just saving the environment, he’s making a profit. To make one 70-80 kilogram bag (100-200 briquettes) costs him about 400 Kenyan shillings (5.34 USD) which he then sells for about twice that much.

The Legacy Foundation is providing training and support for briquette makers all over the world. They have ongoing partnerships with individuals, groups, and institutions in more than 30 countries. They are even selling kits to teach people in the U.S. how to heat their home by making briquettes out of junk mail!

To read more about farmers gaining access to energy in renewable ways, see: Innovation of the Week: Harnessing the Sun’s Power to Make the Water Flow and Afterthought for some, daily struggle for others.

Isaac Hopkins and Jenny Beth Dyess are research interns with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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