NSINDA PRISON, Rwanda (Reuters) - A prisoner ignites a faint blue flame under one of 10 massive stoves in a prison kitchen in eastern Rwanda to start preparing a maize and bean lunch for the inmates.
Once powered by costly, environmentally-damaging firewood, the kitchen in Nsinda prison now runs on a free, renewable resource - the waste from nearly 8,000 inmates, many jailed for their part in the 1994 genocide, and manure from cows.
Rwanda has installed biogas plants in all 14 of its prisons, one small part of the central African nation’s plan to use renewable energy rather than the charcoal and firewood that provides 85 percent of its energy needs.
It plans to take biogas into Rwandan homes, where just 14 percent of the population currently has access to electricity, the Energy Ministry says.
“Before using biogas, we were using 1 billion Rwandan francs ($1.7 million) to buy firewood each year. After using biogas, we have reduced that amount by 85 percent.” Emmanuel Ndori, director of biogas production in Rwanda’s prisons, told Reuters.
While firewood is still used to provide a quarter of prisons’ power needs, there are plans to phase that with peat stoves in all Rwandan prisons in the near future.
“By 2013, there will be no firewood in prisons,” he said.
Biogas is a mix of methane and carbon dioxide from the fermentation of food, agriculture and animal waste that can be turned into electricity and heat.
Rwanda plans to generate 1,000 megawatts of power by 2020, largely from hydroelectric power, methane gas extraction and renewables, such as biogas
Large investors are beginning to show an interest too.
In September, Egypt’s Orascom Construction Industries announced plans to invest up to $130 million in Rwanda in the next three to four years to build a methane power plant to produce 50 megawatts.
Renewable energy such as solar, geothermal and biogas are seen as a pragmatic solution for a country which lacks a power infrastructure and has no natural oil or gas reserves.
Installed capacity was just 69 MW at the end of 2009. This is expected to rise to 130 MW by the end of 2012.
“Rwanda depends on natural resources, we don’t have petrol. At the same time we are committed to move from poverty and we want to develop sustainably,” said Rose Mukankomeje, Director General of Rwanda’s Environment Management Authority.
At the Nsinda prison, it’s lunch time. A team of eight inmates, dressed in orange and pink uniforms, carry a hand-made wooden rack, laden with a huge vat of boiled maize, back inside the prison walls.
The biogas kitchen is smoke free, unlike the choking wood fire smog of the prison’s other firewood-powered kitchen.
The prisoners’ diet of cassava porridge, maize and beans is not rich enough on its own to create premium quality biogas. So the waste from the 24 toilets inside Nsinda is mixed with cow dung and water just beyond the prison walls.
The combined waste is filtered before arriving in a series of 12, 100-cubic-meter digesters where the gas is created and stored, before it is used in the kitchen.
Beyond cleaner energy, smoke-free kitchens and cheaper prisons, there’s another benefit for some prisoners.
“They did a lot of training and some of them are engineers,” said Ndhiro, standing on a digester outside the prison with six inmates. On the outside, their skills are in demand.
Rwanda plans to increase the number of households using biogas to 12,500 by the end of 2015, from about 1,700 now. As well as offering a source of power, experts say biogas is a cheap way to protect the environment by reducing deforestation in the country of about 11 million people.
“We are trying to provide market-oriented solutions,” said Jean de Matha Ouedraogo, director of SNV Rwanda, a Dutch organization which consults on renewable energy. “It costs around $1,000-$1,200 for a domestic biogas digester.”
SNV started a credit scheme with Banque Populaire du Rwanda to encourage householders to invest in biogas. Rwanda’s Ministry of Infrastructure subsidises about 30 percent of the cost for those who want to build domestic biogas plants.
“It is designed to provide energy for cooking and lighting for a normal house in Rwanda, that means around four people. We think people are saving around 10,000 Rwanda Francs per month,” said Ouedraogo.
Editing by David Clarke and Janet Lawrence