Biodigestion systems for small-scale ventures: Enhancing low-carbon food value chains

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Biodigestion systems for small-scale ventures: Enhancing low-carbon food value chains

To enhance low-carbon food value chains in the Guatemalan highlands

Guatemala's deep cultural heritage and vast natural resources are facing severe environmental and social threats, such as accelerating deforestation rates and prohibitive access to alternative energy sources. The situation is even more acute in the Highlands, the most densely populated area of the country. Most rural households live in subsistence economies that involve growing crops (corn, beans and other green vegetables) and owning backyard animals (cows, pigs, poultry). Within this context, Alterna aimed to demonstrate that biodigestion technology could be a sound alternative for micro and small entrepreneurs who are part of food value chains. The basic principle was to use local, freely available resources that have low added value (manure, food scraps etc.) to enhance food processing units by generating high value products (biogas and organic fertliser) within their production processes. To that end, Alterna's strategy comprises three main features: a) partnership-building with existing organisations who actively support small food processing units (umbrella organisations); b) in-depth assessment of the socio-economic characteristics of potential adopters; and c) intensive training and follow-up of every individual adopter, the so-called FPU's (food processing units).

After the initial project phase, WISIONS supported Alterna in realising an upscaling strategy, which was part of the original contract. More information can be found at the bottom of this page.

Technology, Operation and Maintenance

In order for the technology to be affordable to everyone, specifically in rural areas, the proposed biodigesters were small-scale. A total of 11 tubular digesters of 8 m3 and 3 floating drum digesters of 0.8 m3 were put into operation. Once the sites were approved by the technical team, umbrella organisations and the entrepreneurs themselves committed to prepare the site (e.g. dig the required trench for a tubular digester) and collect the manure needed for filling the digester by a fixed installation date. The work for each installation was jointly undertaken by the entrepreneur themselves, their family and neighbours, the technical staff from the umbrella organisations and Alterna's technical team. Alterna's approach was to fill 100 % of the system on the day of the installation. After installation and during the first 6 months, the Alterna team visited each site every 6 - 8 weeks. When it was possible, technicians from the umbrella organisations were involved in these visits in order to gain a better understanding of the technical services required after installation. In addition, each entrepreneur was contacted on a weekly basis to check on their system utilisation and to answer any queries. The questions asked on a regular basis were tracked, organised and developed into a troubleshooting and maintenance guide.

Financial Issues and Management

At the outset, Alterna created links with several ‘umbrella organisations' (UOs). These were particularly relevant for the selection of the demonstration sites, for providing logistical support to individual entrepreneurs in preparing for the installation, for covering part of the material costs of each system and, to some extent, for providing after-sale services. On average, UOs and single entrepreneurs contributed Q3,320 (€ 320) for materials. This represents 45 % of the average total material costs for tubular systems. Based on data collected during the implementation, on average each biogas plant resulted in around € 190 energy savings during the first year of operation. Depending on variables such as what cooking fuel was traditionally used, the climate, operation practices and the production system it is estimated that the installed biogas plants could result in energy savings of up to € 400 per year.

Environmental Issues

During the implementation period the installed biogas systems provided fuel for around 1,300 hours of cooking. The related reduction in wood usage mitigates local deforestation and reduces the risk of respiratory illnesses associated with firewood usage. The use of biogas by the food producers involved resulted in the avoidance of about 8,800 kg CO2 per year. In addition, in the first 7 months of operation after the installation of the systems, around 290,000 litres of organic fertiliser was produced. Initial qualitative results using these effluents as a substitute for commercial fertilisers have been positive.

Social Issues

Cooperation with the local umbrella organisations was key for the realisation of the project. However, communicating and coordinating with them effectively was often challenging. The reasons for this were twofold: on the one hand there were cultural differences in aspects such as meeting deadlines and action plans and, on the other hand, the organisations often lacked the skills and clear strategies needed to deal with the different challenges faced by their associates. In order to better understand the business model of each entrepreneur a daily monitoring register was designed. However, despite this initiative and the frequent follow-up of every individual adopter, it was still not possible to obtain full and accurate data. As a result, quantitative information was cross-checked and supplemented by informal talks and interviews with adopters and technicians from the umbrella organizations. The significant time required for the daily operation and maintenance of the system was a challenging aspect for securing adoption. However, this concern was alleviated once users became aware of the correlation between daily effort and biogas production. Results & Impacts During the project implementation phase, 14 micro entrepreneurs integrated biogas technology into their production systems. These comprise products such as roasted peanuts, tomato sauce, fried carrots and milk, and services such as an eco-lodge and a coffeehouse. The technology provides two main strands of financial benefit – the biogas and the effluent. In the case of the biogas, users assign an immediate value to it as energy savings are noticeable in the very short term. In the case of the effluent, the perception of the benefit is not immediate and this represents a larger challenge. Many producers have begun experimenting in replacing chemical fertilisers with the effluents. The results from these trials, along with more scientific experiments, will provide clear evidence on the nutritional and financial value of the effluents.


Replicating the concept is both relevant and feasible. On one hand, it was demonstrated that integrating biogas technologies into micro enterprises can lead to significant socio-economic improvements. On the other hand, based on the data collected, it was estimated that repayment of the full price of a biogas system could take between 1 and 3.2 years. However, during project implementation it also became clear that the micro entrepreneurs are not sufficiently mature as business units and that the food value chains of which they are a part are rather weak. Additionally, most of the population takes a rather short term view of their economic activities and many small entrepreneurs in the rural context do not belong to the formal economy. For these reasons, further attempts to promote the uptake of biogas technologies by micro entrepreneurs in food value chains in the region should consider supporting the commercial aspects of the value chains. In particular, this should include measures for enhancing the commercial strategies and capacities of umbrella organisations. Based on the results, an up-scaling project was agreed on (01-09/2014).

Lessons Learned

The partnership approach with umbrella organisations and individual entrepreneurs proved to be effective for achieving a high degree of satisfaction and acceptance. Strengthening this cooperation will be needed for the further dissemination of the technology. The intensive follow-up strategy was decisive for achieving the high degree of acceptance of the technology by individual adopters. This, in turn, provides a solid basis for further dissemination. The use of the effluents as bio-fertiliser can potentially provide the greatest value to the adopters; however, it takes longer for adopters to recognise this impact as opposed to the energy cost savings, which are immediately noticeable.

Upscaling Strategy

After the successful implementation of the original project phase from 2012-2013, WISIONS supported Alterna in an upscaling phase to develope effective business models and suitable financing mechanisms with selected NGOs to replicate the success of small scale biodigester systems within these organisations through sustainable self-financing schemes.
Below are some of the aspects that have been realised during the upscaling phase:
  • Alterna created an integrated communication plan to demonstrate to relevant stakeholders (i.e. potential NGOs, funders, local governments, etc.), which includes a biodigester outreach program in which Alterna participates in events and fairs, increasing its presence as an alternative energy option
  • As a result, new partner organisations to provide biodigesters to more users could be found (CEIPA, FEDEPMA, ACGJ, COPROLECHE, CHIVALAC)
  • Together with financing specialists, Alterna created upscaling and financing plans with the partner organisations by using insights gained from the initial project phase
  • Working plans with banks, microfinance institutions etc. have been prepared to finance biodigester expansion in Guatemala
  • By systemising information processes and accumulating know-how and lessons learned, Alterna has set up a detailed catalogue for designing the best suited technical, economic and financial solution for implementing a biodigester
  • Since mid 2014, Alterna and Viogaz S.A., an organisation originally from Costa Rica, are forming a social venture and working as strategic allies. They are the first socially and environmentally responsible company specializing in biodigestion technology, biogas, and bioslurry in Guatemala