How Can "Biogas" Improve the Health of Rural Women in Egypt?

Two biogas units on muddy ground
Al-Ain News
Aswan, Egypt
How Can "Biogas" Improve the Health of Rural Women in Egypt?

For over two decades, Hanaa Abdul Sattar, a 37-year-old woman from the village of Al-Samaha in Aswan Governorate in upper Egypt, has dedicated her time to drying animal dung in order to create circular dung tablets known as "Gella Tablets'' in Egyptian folk culture. These tablets serve as fuel to fire up the oven for baking bread for her family.

Throughout this period, Hanaa endured heavy emissions and intense smoke resulting from igniting animal dung tablets for her family. She later paid the price for it from her health, as she was diagnosed with severe respiratory sensitivity, rendering her unable to sit in front of the stove again.

Hanaa is not the only one; she is like most rural women in the villages and Upper Egypt, as a research article indicates that 76.4% of the total energy consumed in the Egyptian countryside comes from crop residues and dung tablets.

A study published in 2021 confirms that approximately 2.4 billion people worldwide still rely on traditional biomass, such as firewood, agricultural waste, and dried dung, for their cooking and heating needs.

The incomplete combustion of biomass in these stoves also leads to the release of toxic and harmful emissions, such as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, methane, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and other organic compounds.

Long-term exposure to these emissions, specifically airborne particulate matter (PM), increases the rates of acute respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cancer, according to a research article published in the Journal of Particle and Fiber Toxicology.

A double invoice

Zainab Ali, a 32-year-old residing next to Hanaa Abdul Sattar, encountered respiratory inflammation caused by the utilization of dung tablets for culinary purposes. Furthermore, both women grapple with severe skin allergies resulting from their usual habitual practice of gathering animal dung, melding it with water and straw to make cow dung tablets, all without protective measures.

Spyros Foteinis, Researcher at Nireas-International Water Research Center, University of Cyprus who analyzed rural Egypt in a study with a group of researchers from Cairo University in Cairo, said that domestic or indoor air pollution is a life-threatening problem for women in low- and middle-income countries, including Egypt, because traditionally females in rural Egypt do the cooking and other housework in small, poorly ventilated rooms using polluted fuels such as animal dung, which greatly affects their lives, health and well-being.

Not only that, but the shaping and processing of dry animal dung fuel is primarily carried out by women using their bare hands, exposing them to disease-causing agents and leading to poor health conditions.

Yet, a year ago, Zainab and Hanaa stumbled upon a solution for their problem. Upon learning that the Cooperative Agricultural Association in their village was accepting applications for complimentary biogas units for free for the village's women and that the application conditions aligned with their circumstances, they swiftly submitted their applications. 

An infographic of how biogas is made
Stages of biogas production/Credit: Eman Mounir.

Engineer Shimaa Omar, the founder of Biomics Company for Renewable Energy Solutions, explains that biogas is a natural gas produced through the anaerobic decomposition process of organic materials such as agricultural, animal and industrial waste. This process takes place in specialized reactors called bioreactors or anaerobic reactors, where organic materials are converted into methane gas, carbon dioxide, and other gases. Biogas is used as an eco-friendly alternative to natural gas for generating thermal and electrical energy. Additionally, biogas units provide high-quality organic fertilizer that can improve soil health.

At the onset of 2023, Hanaa and Zainab achieved a partial breakthrough by reducing their reliance on burning animal dung to fuel their bread-making ovens. Moreover, they have partially substituted gas cylinders with biogas units that offer them a clean and secure source of gas. 

Hanaa states that, "Instead of monthly reliance on three traditional gas cylinders, I now only require a single one, as the biogas unit has effectively replaced the others." In addition, the biogas unit has provided Hanaa with a solution for the insects that had plagued her home for years due to the presence of dung. The process has become much easier now, as she no longer needs to gather the dung with bare hands every morning, dry it, or transport it to the farmland. By feeding the dung into the biogas unit, a fermentation process occurs, and within a few hours, both gas and organic fertilizer are produced. 

In addition, Zainab states that their biogas units supplies them with approximately two barrels of organic fertilizer every week. The use of this natural fertilizer, instead of chemicals, has resulted in an increase in land productivity. Furthermore, it offers natural gas that can sustain the gas stove's operation for three consecutive hours each day.

Dr. Mohamed Fathi Salem, a professor in Biotechnology at Sadat University in Egypt, explains the operational stages of biogas units, stating: "The majority of biogas production processes involve specific stages, including preliminary treatment of the raw materials, which entails the preparation of raw materials, such as dung, which may involve procedures like chopping, grinding, or shredding to enhance surface area and optimize the efficiency of the anaerobic digestion process."

Subsequently, the anaerobic digestion process takes place, serving as the pivotal stage in biogas production. During this stage, microorganisms decompose the organic matter in an oxygen-depleted environment, resulting in the production of biogas. 

Following that, the purification of the produced biogas takes place during the anaerobic digestion phase, where any impurities like water vapor, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide need to be removed before utilizing the biogas as fuel. 

Then, there is the utilization phase, where the purified biogas is used as a cooking fuel. Lastly, there is the post-digestion treatment stage, where the remaining byproducts after fermentation can be repurposed as soil fertilizer. 

An infographic showing what biogas contains
What does biogas contain?/Credit: Eman Mounir.

In January of last year, biogas units were installed for Zainab, Hanaa, and eleven other women in Al-Samaha village as part of the "SAIL" project, which is a sustainable agricultural investment initiative implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation and funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Dr. Magdy Allam, the Coordinator of the Climate Change Program within the Sustainable Agricultural Investment Project (SAIL), says that the primary aim of the program is to offer funding and assistance to small-scale farmers and rural women. Consequently, the key project collaborator is the cooperative associations operating in 30 Egyptian villages, entrusted with the execution of the biogas initiatives. These associations bear the responsibility of selecting beneficiaries, coordinating with them, and installing the biogas units.

The project commenced in 2019 and is ongoing until mid-2024. It has successfully constructed 22 biogas units to date, which have been provided free of charge to women in the villages, the women are only responsible for the maintenance fees.

A biogas unit being constructed amongst dug up earth and trees
A biogas unit under construction from By SAIL project/Credits: Magdy Allam.

Dr. Spyros Foteinis, a contributor to the study looking at the lifecycle of biogas production in Egyptian households, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production in 2020, said that the substitution of dry dung fuel with biogas has positive environmental implications while also enhancing the health and well-being of women in rural regions of Egypt. By channeling livestock dung directly into the biogas system, women are relieved from the necessity of drying and handling it to produce dry dung fuel. This transition not only has ecological benefits but also contributes to the overall welfare of women in these areas.

Hence, it has the potential to enhance the health conditions of rural women in Egypt as they will be relieved from the direct handling of animal waste, thereby reducing their exposure to a diverse range of disease-causing microorganisms present in the waste.

Other initiatives

In 2020, Hajj Mashhur and his wife installed a biogas unit in the village of Qawghreb in Sohag Governorate, as part of a program by the Egyptian Ministry of Environment in cooperation with the National Bank of Kuwait.

The project proved to be highly beneficial for his wife, as it provided her with biogas for cooking purposes. Instead of relying on three gas cylinders every month, they were able to completely depend on the biogas generated by the project, using only one cylinder as a backup. This resulted in saving them approximately 160 Egyptian pounds per month.

Their most significant advantage, however, was derived from no longer needing to purchase fertilizers and pesticides for their agricultural land. The installation of the biogas unit enabled them to obtain sufficient organic fertilizer to cover two acres, saving them approximately 3,000 Egyptian pounds. This natural fertilizer played a vital role in enhancing the productivity of Hajj Mashhur and his wife's land.

A man and a woman looking at a biogas unit
One of the beneficiaries of the SAIL program in Upper Egypt/Credit: Magdy Allam.

In a scientific article published in the 'Rural and Agricultural Development Network', Dr. Sameer El-Shimi, Head of Research at the Institute of Soils, Water, and Environment, stated that field experiments have revealed an increase in the productivity of crops fertilized with biogas fertilizer compared to crops fertilized with municipal and chemical fertilizers.

According to his findings, there was a significant increase in crop yields when using biogas fertilizer. Specifically, the yield of sorghum increased by 35.7%, wheat by 12.5%, barley by 20%, rice by 5.9%, local beans by 6.6%, cotton by 27.5%, and vegetables by a range of 14.1% to 20.5%.

According to Dr. El-Shimi, biogas fertilizer contains organic matter that is 5-7 times greater than that found in regular municipal fertilizer, So this superiority should be taken into account when utilizing biogas fertilizer for various crops.

Hajj Mashhur's biogas units were installed as part of a program by the Egyptian Ministry of Environment, however there are also many other institutions involved in the construction of biogas units in Egypt, such as the Biomass Energy for Sustainable Development (BASD) which is a non-governmental organization, and has been promoting the implementation of biomass technology applications in Egypt since 2009.

The installation of biogas projects in Egypt is primarily carried out by BASD. They offer installation services to beneficiaries either free of charge or for a fee, and they also have the capability to provide small loans for farmers. The availability of these services, however, varies on a case-by-case basis and depends on the level of support provided by international entities.

Wael Radwan, the Executive Director of BASD, confirms that they has implemented approximately 1,843 biogas units distributed across 15 governorates in Egypt since 2009. These projects have been supported by the European Union.

As stated by Radwan, the smallest biogas unit, with a capacity ranging from 2 to cubic meters, has the ability to generate 3 cubic meters of biogas per day. This quantity can effectively meet the cooking requirements of a family of five, resulting in a monthly saving of around 2 to 3 gas cylinders.

On an annual basis, these units have effectively processed and treated nearly 50,000 tons of waste. As a result, they have generated approximately 1.9 million cubic meters of gas, which is equivalent to around 65,000 LPG gas cylinders. Additionally, these units have produced approximately 45,000 tons of organic fertilizer, providing enough supply to fertilize approximately 6,000 tons each year.

Esraa Abdel-Sattar, the Executive Director of EcoTech, a company specializing in renewable and responsible energy solutions responsible for installing biogas units in villages across Upper Egypt, mentioned that the manure generated by three livestock heads, regardless of their type, has the capacity to produce 3 cubic meters of biogas daily. Furthermore, this amount of biogas can effectively fertilize approximately three feddans of land.

According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, the number of livestock heads in Egypt amounts to 7,996,050 (approximately 8 million) distributed across various governorates. It is estimated that the manure produced by this livestock can generate nearly 8 million cubic meters of biogas.

An infographic showing the livestock population across Egypt according to value
The livestock population is distributed across the governorates of Egypt/Credit: Eman Mounir via Datawrapper, Capmas and OSM.  

Alongside these initiatives, in line with the concept of green recovery after COVID-19, the Egyptian Ministry of Environment has signed a collaboration agreement with the Small, Medium, and Micro Enterprises Development Agency. The agreement aims to launch an innovative financing package worth 1 million dollars, with the goal of providing funding for the installation and implementation of biogas units in Egyptian villages. This initiative is supported by a grant from the Global Environment Facility through the United Nations Development Programme. The implementation of the agreement is supervised by the Bioenergy for Sustainable Rural Development Foundation.

The fund provides a 40% subsidy on the unit price, allowing beneficiaries to obtain a loan covering 60% of the unit price. The loan can be repaid over a period of five years with an interest rate not exceeding 8%.

Infographic showing the conditions for obtaining a supported biogas unit
Conditions for obtaining a supported biogas unit/Credit: Eman Mounir 

A research article published in the African Journal of Biotechnology, stated that livestock is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to enteric emissions, the decomposition of livestock manure in anaerobic conditions is also a significant source of methane.

Livestock waste also contributes to another greenhouse gas, which is nitrous oxide (N2O). Livestock waste, including cattle and feedlots, is responsible for 26% of nitrous oxide emissions.

Based on data from Climate Watch, the percentage of nitrous oxide emissions from the agriculture sector alone in Egypt in 2019 accounted for 67% of the total nitrous oxide emissions from all sectors, including energy, industry, agriculture, waste, and forestry. Similarly, methane emissions from the agriculture sector in the same year represented 22% of the total methane emissions across all sectors.

An infographic showing emissions of the agricultural sector in Egypt over thirty years
Emissions of the agricultural sector in Egypt over thirty years/Credit: Eman Mounir via Datawrapper and Climate Tracker 

Dr Spyros Foteinis states that in anaerobic conditions, manure generates and releases chemical substances like methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, posing risks to the environment and human health.

In addition, Dr Foteinis emphasizes that the ambient air quality is also affected. The noxious odor emitted from manure gases can be detrimental, especially for women who are more prone to such exposure. This is attributed to the close proximity of livestock barns to residential areas or their integration within rural Egyptian households. Given that the responsibility of cleaning the barns typically falls on women in Egypt, coupled with their extended periods of staying indoors, they face a heightened risk of being adversely affected by these odors.

Dr Foteinis confirms that in the short term, individuals who are sensitive to odors will be affected by even low concentrations of these chemical substances emitted from manure. This can potentially lead, among other things, to chronic poisoning.

Hence, biogas projects offer an ideal solution to prevent the release and exposure to these gases, as they operate in a completely closed system, ensuring that biogas is not directly emitted into the air. Consequently, the widespread implementation of biogas production can effectively address the challenges associated with unregulated emissions from livestock waste management in Egypt, particularly the burdens faced by women. Embracing biogas technology on a large scale would greatly contribute to mitigating the impacts of climate change and enhancing energy security.

Challenges

Shaimaa Omar and Esraa Abdel-Sattar agree that convincing rural women to adopt biogas units can often be challenging. This is because most of these women are uneducated and have the misconception that biogas can harm them during the cooking process. However, once one woman in the village is convinced and her experience becomes visible to others, it becomes easier to persuade the rest of the women.

Wael Radwan highlights that the primary obstacle faced in establishing biogas projects in Egypt is the issue of financing, particularly for larger units that require larger amounts of money. However, during the period of COVID-19 lockdown between 2020 and 2022, the institution, in partnership with the Ministry of Environment, seized the opportunity to secure funding from international institutions and raise awareness about biogas projects.

Esraa Abdel-Sattar, agrees that funding can sometimes be a challenge, especially for small-scale farmers who cannot afford the costs of establishing a biogas unit unless there is a government grant available.

Additionally, there are instances where women do not have a sufficient number of livestock to feed the biogas unit, Zainab indeed confirms this, stating that she resorts to collecting manure from her neighbors' barns to fuel her own biogas unit since she doesn't own enough livestock to provide sufficient daily feedstock to the biogas unit.

According to Dr Foteinis, the availability of water can be the main limiting challenge in many areas in rural Egypt, along with financial barriers for their initial construction. Egypt is facing a severe water scarcity crisis due to several factors, including climate change, population growth, and poor water management. The country is facing an annual water deficit of around 7 billion cubic meters, and it is estimated that Egyptians could approach a state of "absolute" water scarcity by 2025.

As for Hanaa, she hasn't encountered any issues with her biogas unit so far. However, the gas produced from it doesn't completely replace the need for conventional gas cylinders. Consequently, she hopes to eventually eliminate her reliance on traditional fuel and avoid the inconvenience and health issues associated with using a regular stove.


This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Arabic in Al-Ain on May 20, 2023. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner Image: Biogas unit in Upper Egypt, implemented by the BASD/Credit: Wael Radwan.

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