There is evidence that biodigesters, which convert organic waste into biogas and fertilizer, date back to the 10th Century BC and were used to heat bathwater. Today, biodigester initiatives like the U.S. program AgSTAR, which started in 1994 to reduce methane emissions from livestock farming, clearly have a positive environmental impact. But biodigesters also create value for farmers by reducing energy and fertilizer costs, which is particularly significant for farmers in the developing world. While there seems to be great promise for this technology in development, experts explain that commercial success of the technology has remained elusive due to insufficient system maintenance and repair.
Sustained use of any technology depends its return on investment. Successful biodigester programs require a source organic waste, a use for the energy and fertilizer, and a dependable conversion system. A dairy farm in the developing world would definitely have a source, a use for the output, and the typical conversion system is a concrete dome. Sistema Biobolsa has developed a different model of the same technology.
Sistema is a business that produces, distributes, installs, and maintains biodigester systems designed for small and medium scale farmers primarily in Mexico. It has updated the conversion process with its prefabricated anaerobic digesters, designed for small and medium-sized farms. Farmers can install the system in a few hours, while concrete dome installation typically takes a few weeks and the work of skilled masons. This quick installation allows Sistema Biobolsa to concentrate on training to help farmers see a return in under two years. The company trains farmers in the proper usage of the biogas and fertilizer to optimize their use of system output. Sistema Biobolsa believes its training program is as important as its technology. Other biodigester programs have focused on training in concrete dome installation, rather than training people to use biodigesters after installation, which may have caused systems to be abandoned over the years.
Justiniano of Puebla, Mexico is a success story: A small dairy farmer with 12 cows and 1.5 hectares of corn and alfalfa, Justiniano purchased a 12 cubic meter Sistema Biobolsa digester in late 2011. With training from Sistema, he was not only able to furnish 10 percent of his gas consumption, but he had enough excess gas that his wife began using it to produce yogurt and soft cheese for local sale. Utilizing the liquid biodigester effluent as a fertilizer, he was able to displace 90 percent of the inorganic fertilizer he was previously using, and began selling this biological fertilizer to his neighbors. The total investment in his 12 cubic meter biodigester was US$1,955, and he achieved a direct economic payback in 16 months. Each year, Justiniano and his family continue to reap US$1,600 in economic benefits from the system.
Biodigesters have been around since the beginning of time but have achieved only varied levels of success in agricultural development. Based on Sistema Biobolsa's experiences, these failures have been due to a lack of post purchase training and follow-up. Sistema Biobolsa's long-term training to each customer minimizes investment risk and seems even more valuable than the innovations they have made to the conversion process. Sistema Biobolsa launched in 2010 and has sold more than 1,200 of its patented biodigester systems in Mexico and five other Latin American countries.
Post note: Alex Eaton, founder of Sistema Biobolsa attended Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation’s first AgInvestor Lab in May 2013. The Lab is a workshop that provides coaching on commercialization plans, partnership development, and strategies for attracting investment funding. The workshop culminated in a competition for four $10,000 grants. Sistema Biobolsa received one of the grants and used it to implement four demonstration systems for regional promotion and marketing in Mexico. As a result of this grant, Sistema educated upwards of 172 farmers, which resulted in a number of sales as well as a list of farmers waiting for loan approval who will then purchase the system.
Photos by www.nzdl.org and Buen Manejo del Campo