Celebrating one million biodigesters globally

In 1992, SNV embarked on a transformative journey in rural Nepal, introducing biodigesters—a technology that has now scaled to 27 countries, reaching a milestone of one million units. This success story is not just about biodigesters; it's about creating sustainable markets through public-private partnerships, a true system transformation.

The creation of a market, the technical expertise to locally adapt existing designs, and the trust of our partners together have led to this achievement. As we reflect on our next steps to accelerate this work, we call on all of our partners to keep innovating and focus on access to finance. We know what works, so let's use that knowledge to scale our initiatives.

The benefits of a biodigester.

A biodigester is a fascinating technology. Simply put, it transforms cattle dung and human faeces into two essential products for development: clean and renewable energy (biogas) and a potent organic fertiliser (bio-slurry). It does require considerable upfront investments to build it, especially for those with low incomes. But the fact that even without any form of subsidy, the payback period is less than four years, and the lifetime of a biodigester is between 15 and 30 years, it does provide excellent value for money.

There is simply no parallel to the biodigester - No parallel in terms of benefits with similar costs.

Saroj Rai – SNV Global Technical Advisor for Biodigester Market Development.

In order to reach this milestone, we had to overcome many hurdles. It has required the best technical experts, long-term governmental and private sector partnerships, and even the spinning off and setting up of new entities to guarantee a sustained and continued market.

The real game-changer, therefore, is not so much the one million biodigesters but the fact that we were able to achieve this through establishing sustainable markets in public-private partnerships. This is what we call system transformation.

Saroj explains, 'When we go to a country and start a biodigester programme, we usually start from scratch. The work then is not just about building capacity or constructing biodigesters, but we develop a complete ecosystem that continues even when SNV exits. Of the 27 countries where biodigesters are disseminated, SNV has managed to exit two-thirds of these countries effectively. We are happy to see the markets continue, thanks to the private sector's efforts, an active role of government, occasionally new donors and increasingly with carbon finance'. Our goal is fundamental system transformation that can be sustained.

This doesn't mean that all is smooth and without challenges. Sometimes, we may return to a country to meet a specific gap or respond to a request. For instance, in Vietnam, SNV went in again to support accessing carbon finance and other innovations. As a knowledge partner with global reach, we bring in expertise and best practices from other countries to find solutions to the challenges.

Many put this exciting technology in a box, and most often, the box of 'clean energy technology'. But this categorisation does not do justice to the immense socio-economic and environmental benefits it brings along, including gender, sanitation, health, agriculture, and climate.

Saroj explains this deep societal impact, 'A biodigester company in Nepal told me this story that, in my eyes, captures it all and inspires me still. A client had installed a biodigester and called a few months later, frustrated, saying:

Why did you come to me so late? If you had come 20 years earlier, my life would not have been spoiled like this.

Biodigester customer, Nepal.

Cumulative biodigester installations in SNV-supported countries till 2022.

However, so many opportunities in the market make us hopeful that it will not take us 30 years to reach another one million. Now, we can expand and accelerate through the already established markets.

These developments make us optimistic:

  • Prefabricated biodigesters: leveraging the work on biodigester market development in low-income countries, many companies have entered the market with prefabricated biodigesters. We happily support them, linking them with technical know-how.

  • Carbon finance: the high amount of carbon credit per unit has greatly contributed to making biodigester programmes move towards financial self-reliance. Eight out of the 27 countries now have carbon finance as a major source of revenue. Just like carbon finance, we also feel that the other positive impacts that biodigesters have (on gender, health, sanitation education, etc.) need to be properly quantified and sold to impact buyers. So far, only one clean cooking impact finance instrument has been piloted in Kenya on biodigesters.

  • Digital Innovation: technologies that allow for remote sensing can greatly improve after-sale services and biodigester functionality, particularly in hard-to-reach areas. Such technologies also allow Pay As You Go and online carbon finance platforms.

The future is looking bright, and we estimate the market for biodigesters to be over 150 million units (100 million in Asia, 30 million in Africa, and 20 million in Latin America).

On to the next one million - we will keep you posted on our progress!

Learn more about SNV's biodigester initatives