Cow dung & wedding cakes: an unexpected business opportunity

Cow dung & wedding cakes: an unexpected business opportunity

How do you make wedding cakes on an open fire? Well, the answer is straightforward, you can't.

But let me start at the beginning. A small farmer in the developing world may have three or four cows. They provide meat or milk and are the farmers' biggest asset. In times of distress, selling them might be their last resort. Many small farmers also grow crops on a few hectares of land, to eat and sell.

To cook their food they roam the ever more retreating woods in search of fuel for their simple stoves. The stoves are sometimes no more than three bumps of clay, with a blackened pot on top. Starting such a fire is a big deal, so you only do it when necessary.

For some decennia now, SNV has been promoting biogas installations - self-contained systems converting cow dung into both biogas and fertiliser. The fertiliser helps grow the fodder cows chew on, so they will continue producing dung. This is the bio-cycle.

The dung that feeds a biogas installation flows into a big underground dome where it begins to bubble, thus forming gas. From the top of the dome a pipeline will lead the gas to the farmer's kitchen. Don't think of the gas generated by a few cows as insignificant. Cows produce gas in abundance, much more than people will ever need just for household cooking. It is for a reason that our growing consumption of beef is pointed out as one of the big emission drivers in the world. A biogas installation enables us to do something useful with some of this unwanted by-product.

I recently visited a Kenyan farmer, an elderly widow with four cows and two acres of land. After showing me the ins and outs of the biogas installation, she invited me into her modest house, crude bricks covered with iron roof sheets. I stepped into a square kitchen, with a blackened chimney in one corner.

Modified LPG stove with oven, now powered by biogas.

Modified LPG stove with oven, now powered by biogas.

"This is how I used to cook," she nodded at the chimney.

"My kitchen was always filled with smoke, especially when firewood was damp. I only prepared meals twice a day. But now I have this!" A broad gesture towards a regular stove, sitting on a table. She took a match to light up a strong blue flame. The gas sounded forceful.

"Nowadays I make myself a cup of tea every morning," she sighed with visible delight. "You know, it was never worth the trouble. But it can be quite cold out here, and as I get older my bones protest when I get up in the morning. This tea is my small luxury now."

Then she beckoned me further into the house. We passed through a living room where I noticed a couch, a low table, curtains in front of small iron-barred windows. The small signs of being a little better off than mere subsistence.

And there it stood. In the corner of a storage room. A proud oven annex stove.

"Here I bake my wedding cakes," she declared with satisfaction. "The gas allowed me to use an oven and I taught myself to bake these cakes. From all around the countryside they now order their wedding cakes with me. Too much even! I earn some extra money these days, thanks to my biogas cows."

Sometimes the charm of innovation does not lie in the explicit goal, but in the unexpected business opportunities it opens up.

By Karin Bokhove, SNV Marketing Strategist. The post was written after a field visit to the Africa Biogas Partnership Programme (ABPP) in Thika, Kenya. The rural customer in this blog uses cow dung in order to produce biogas for cooking. She uses the resulting bio-slurry to increase the yield of her banana trees.