Thinking differently: generating renewable gas out of household waste in Cambodia

Australian Aid
By Ben Jeffreys, CEO of ATEC Biodigesters
Monday, 20 March, 2017


Atec 1

There’s no escaping talk about the energy crisis facing Australia at the moment. Watching on as an Australian living in Cambodia, it’s baffling as to why renewable energy in Cambodia is so straightforward yet seems anything but back home.

I spend a lot of time in rural Cambodia talking to farmers and it always surprises me when they talk about climate change. The surprise isn’t because they bring it up, but how clearly they understand how climate change will directly affect their livelihoods. For Cambodians, they also see simple solutions, such as using resources they have readily available to generate their energy needs.

One such solution is the one we work with at our social enterprise, ATEC Biodigesters. A biodigester is a simple technology that transforms animal manure and kitchen waste into renewable biogas for cooking and fertiliser for farming. We sell and distribute these system to farmers across the country.

It is a simple technology, but often, the hardest things to get right are the simple things.

It started almost 7 years ago with Engineers Without Borders and Live and Learn working together, with vital assistance from Australian Aid. These two Aussie NGOs worked hand in hand with local communities to determine how to better address their energy and farming needs. This is how we created the first biodigester that was truly designed to Cambodian conditions.

While the gas and fertiliser are obvious benefits, more importantly, we’ve seen the incredible impact biodigesters are having in helping Cambodians to transform their lives. In Cambodia, cooking with wood kills more people than traffic accidents each year and globally, it kills more people than malaria. Reality is, cooking with wood is a common occurrence for people living in struggling communities — around 3 billion people still cook and heat their homes using solid fuels (including wood, crop wastes, charcoal, coal and dung) according to the World Health Organisation. Inefficient cooking fuels/technologies produce high levels of kitchen air pollution, which causes debilitating health effects not dissimilar to smoking cigarettes.

The strain placed on households using these traditional cooking methods is very real, resulting in:

  • 1.5 days each month spent collecting wood;
  • 3 hours a day spent on chopping wood and preparing the cook stove;
  • a reduction in household expenses with bottled gas costing Cambodians $274 per year on average.

Further to the health and income effects, these traditional cooking methods also translate to environmental degradation. In Cambodia’s case, wood comes from unsustainable, illegal logging, including for domestic cooking use. This places a significant amount of pressure on its forests — Cambodia has the third highest deforestation rate in the world.

With this simple technology, Cambodians can improve their health, their livelihoods and support the local ecosystem on which they rely.

But the benefits aren’t limited to Cambodia. We see that we’re only at the start of using waste on a global scale, or as we cheekily refer to it, the Brown Revolution! We know there’s a significant untapped market for international use of ATEC biodigesters, both in areas that are similar to Cambodia’s rural landscape, as well as in developed countries using kitchen and backyard green waste. In Australia, we’re literally throwing away highly valuable organic waste that could be used in the household, both for gas for cooking and fertiliser for your veggie patch or garden.

That ATEC can support thousands of Cambodians and even talk about a global waste revolution is thanks to Australian Aid. Support going back many years in the technology design phase helped ATEC get to where it is today. So as we sit at the lowest Australian Aid levels in our history, ATEC is a reminder that it’s not money flushed down the toilet. That Australian Aid, through utilising talented Aussies combined with our knowledge and resources, can take our own country, and the world, forward.

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