To help tackle the risks associated with cooking, an Australian social entrepreneur has manufactured a ‘biodigester’ product that is being used in Cambodia to help improve the livelihoods of poor women in rural areas.
Ben Jeffreys, ATEC Biodigesters CEO, observed the health risks faced by women cooking in rural areas, the most prominent of which is smoke inhalation.
“If I said to you that we could remove all deaths from traffic accidents around the world. Would that be something of interest? The incredible fact is that cooking with wood kills twice as many people as traffic accidents around the world each year. The majority of them are women.
“So once you know something like this, it is strong motivation to act and do something towards trying to solve this problem and help people around the world,” he said.
To find a solution, Jeffreys has turned towards the one thing that is in abundance in rural Cambodia.
“There are over millions of cows in Cambodia and they all produce this,” Jeffreys said pointing to a field of cow manure.
“This manure contains methogenic bacteria, so that when you put it into the biodigester you’re then able to produce biogas, which is just like LPG [liquefied petroleum gas] that can be used for cooking.
“This means they don’t have to use wood, the smoke from which is one of the leading causes of death in Cambodia.”
The biodigester, which can also process pig or buffalo manure, also acts to improve household and village sanitation.
Jeffreys established ATEC Biodigesters as a social enterprise in 2016, but he has been cooperating with NGOs since 2009.
“We use a social enterprise model for our biogas systems for two reasons. The first reason is that it gives us scalability. You’re able to wholesale and distribute the product through multiple channels across the country at scale. The second thing is around empowering the household in the decision.
“By seeing the value of the system and deciding to actually purchase it, it empowers individuals to decide whether they want it or not.”
Designed in Australia and made in Cambodia, the product so far has been distributed to 1,300 households in all provinces throughout the Kingdom except Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri and Koh Kong.
The biodigester comes in one size that is suitable for household use, according to Cheng Socheat, ATEC Biodigester’s General Manager.
Right after installation, it needs 60 buckets of manure (each weighing 20kg) mixed with 60 buckets of water. Users then have to wait between five days and one month for the first production of biogas, depending on the type of manure or waste.
When filled with animal and human waste, the 2m by 1.5m tank can produce biogas consumed by cooking in the kitchen, while the leftover waste can be used as a natural fertiliser on the farm.
“The biodigester can produce the first biogas after five days to one week of installation if households use animal manure which is formed through a natural diet. Some others take a longer time, from three to four weeks, because users fill the biodigester with manure from animals that are fed on processed commercial food,” said Socheat, who leads a group of sixty staff across the Kingdom.
After the biodigester is fully functioning, households need to refill the bucket of manure and mix it with water daily. In doing so, they will have enough biogas for around three hours of daily cooking.
“It’s like your car and motorbike that needs to be refilled for it to keep running,” Socheat said.
Biodigesters can also be connected to a toilet to treat human waste. The biogas then runs through an underground gas line into the kitchen where cooking pots are heated on a stove.
Turning the gas on and cooking with a smile, Biodigester user Hut Savon from Prasat Bakorng district in Siem Reap province is happy that she can ditch the firewood, saving money on wood and butane gas.
“I observed other people use this biodigester and found it beneficial and economical, so I thought that I want one too. We save time on cooking and we produce fertiliser for our crops,” Savon said.
Another villager in the same district, Bean Yok, who raises pigs and grows aubergine, is similarly happy with the innovation.
Pouring a muddy mixture into the mouth of a blue tank, Yok said: “I take manure from the buffaloes, cows and pigs and then mix it with water. I pour in four buckets of the manure mixture at one time only.
“It’s quite convenient to use. It saves time and it produces both gas and natural fertiliser. It also saves us money because we don’t have to spend cash on firewood like we did before,” he said
A biodigester set costs $700. It comes with a tank, biogas storage, pipe, double burner gas stove, rice cooker and a two-year warranty.
By using a renewable energy source, households are also contributing to the fight against deforestation in the Kingdom.
Despite all its advantages, Jeffreys recognises that it may not be affordable for many rural farmers.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is people’s ability to be able to pay for the system. That’s where you need to look at innovative financing models. Things where you can pay as you go, much like we do with mobile phones in Australia. Through this, you’re opening up accessibility to technology, enabling people to buy an asset that can improve their overall lives, both now and into the future,” he said.
“For us, Cambodia is just the start. We want to introduce new technologies that open up scalability internationally with a target of one million users by 2030 across five countries.”