Solar and wind energy projects have been praised as potential ways to reduce global poverty. But German start-up organization B-Energy is promoting efficient use of another form of renewable energy to improve life in the developing world.

B-Energy has supplied households in Africa with biogas balloon backpacks, digester systems and stoves to help them convert organic waste into harnessed biogas. The energy that the bags and digesters produce can serve as cooking fuel and provide people with a source of income.

Developing countries have struggled to supply stable forms of energy to many of their inhabitants. According to the World Energy Outlook, approximately 80 percent of people without electricity live in rural areas in Sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia. With no other alternative for energy, many people rely on biogas and struggle to efficiently transport and store it.

Founded by German entrepreneur Katrin Puetz, B-Energy serves as an innovative and affordable system that offers a reliable source of energy from human and animal waste and agricultural residue. B-Energy’s method revolves around its ‘B-pack’, which is an inflatable balloon backpack that holds methane gas produced from waste in a biogas plant or digester. People without their own plant can refill their B-packs at a nearby digester.

According to the BBC, each bag comes with a metal pipe, which users can attach to a gas-cooking stove. The bags hold 1.2 cubic meters of gas—enough for about five hours of cooking—and spare households from relying on wooden fires to prepare food.

Another key aspect of B-Energy’s system is that it creates entrepreneurial opportunities. As a “social business venture,” Puetz’s start-up encourages individuals with biogas digesters to sell their biogas to households. People with B-packs can also profit from supplying their leftover gas to others. B-Energy even provides aspiring entrepreneurs with a beginner’s kit—which includes a biogas digester, B-backpacks and stoves—and professional training to help them launch their biogas business.

Since its inception in 2014, B-Energy has steadily grown, establishing franchises in Sudan and Ethiopia. Puetz refused to accept grants from global charities in order to prove that her enterprise can be self-sufficient.

Moving forward, a significant obstacle for B-Energy is to determine how to lower the cost of its system. The Inter Press Service has reported that Ethiopians have to pay approximately 12,000 birr—equivalent to $600—for a biogas plant, two backpacks and a cooking stove.

Puetz hopes to make the B-Energy systems more affordable by allowing franchises and households to pay in installments. This change would expand access to his innovative energy solution and assist countless more in need.

Sam Turken

Photo: Geographical

Mobile Technology to Provide Energy in AfricaKenya’s national energy grid reaches less than 20 percent of the country’s population, leaving millions of people in remote locations without access to energy in Africa. Because of this, many turn to alternatives sources of energy that are much more expensive and harmful to the environment, such as kerosene and diesel.

Developers have strived to solve this problem with solar micro-grid technology. However, in remote areas, it is difficult to keep a system working reliably and keep customers paying regularly. Recognizing Kenya’s utilization of mobile technology, the founders of SteamaCo have created technology that eliminates the necessity for constant outside intervention. SteamaCo’s development allows remote-management capabilities of monitoring, control, and payments for micro-grid owners via mobile technology.

This technology allows micro-grid operators to monitor grid performance via SMS updates on their cell phones and allows customers to manage their payments over mobile payment plans. Over 1,000 households and businesses currently depend on this technology, which is used at 25 sites in East Africa. The company’s software, Steama, facilitates 100 mobile payments and 4,000 messages regarding data per day.

While the company initially focused on the production and installation of renewable energy systems, it strayed to micro-grids in order to increase electricity access on a broader scale. Micro-grid owners buy the hardware and then SteamaCo licenses them the software on a monthly basis.

The company’s hardware switches on and off services remotely, while the operators can watch and control the system remotely in real-time using the cloud software. Steama processes monitoring information and payment notifications from mobile-money providers, updating the hardware accordingly when payments are made.

The software allows operators to view their micro-grids and extract data from the Steama dashboard, which provides them several options to observe and analyze system performance. Steama sends data regarding individual power usage, overall system performance and individual payments. It can also be programmed to send custom alerts. SteamaCo sends data via SMS messages because it is known to be one of the most reliable forms of communication off the grid.

These features allow micro-grids to function much more efficiently. The technology allows micro-grid owners to troubleshoot problems before they grow too serious, therefore saving companies time and money. It also helps them better analyze system capacity to see how they can expand the services they provide.

The technology provides consumers a cheap and reliable energy alternative to diesel, kerosene, and other popular systems. While in-home solar energy platforms are available to provide lighting and charge mobile phones in many locations, it is too expensive for most individual users to manage these off-grid systems. SteamaCo provides flexibility for customers who can prepay using mobile money programs in small amounts. The software also provides free balance checks and reminders when credit is low, all via SMS.

Payment depends on the micro-grid owner, but most customers pay a connection fee of approximately 10 U.S. dollars and then pay between two to four U.S. dollars per kWh used. By enabling customers to provide prepayments for small increments of power using mobile money, SteamaCo is opening up many possibilities for poor people in remote locations.

Along with increasing household convenience, increased access to energy in Africa also opens up many new business opportunities in remote areas. The technology allows high-power equipment to be used, including music systems, televisions, irons, and hair-dryers. The increased access to power has enabled local entrepreneurs to open up hair salons, electrical repair shops, and night clubs, all boosting the economy.

Not only does this technology bring more reliable energy to current users in Africa, but this reliability also provides a solution to a large issue seen by many potential investors in micro-grid technology. Because of this, Ashden International awarded SteamCo the Ashden International Gold and Business Innovation Awards for the company’s success in building technology that helps investment in micro-grids, therefore expanding the potential reach of electricity access significantly.

“SteamaCo’s innovative product is helping to take energy access in off-grid rural areas to the next level,” the Ashden judging panel stated. “By developing hardware and cloud-based software to remotely monitor energy use and payments, it has overcome one of the key barriers to making micro-grids investable.”

In its two years of installing these systems, SteamaCo has partnered with several micro-grid investors to increase grid efficiency. The company designed the hardware to be used with various types of technology, so several SteamaCo management systems are used in many off-grid areas. The company is looking to expand its opportunities in other remote areas to increase its reach and impact.

Arin Kerstein

Sources: Ashden, Global Energy Network Institute, The Guardian, Reuters, SteamaCo
Photo:The Sunday Times