Elgeiyo Marakwet — Most of Kenya's educational institutions depend on firewood as their main source of energy for cooking, contributing to deforestation and placing a financial burden on schools and universities due to rising prices for their fuel.
In response, the Kenya Forest Service and the African Development Bank (AfDB) have initiated a project dubbed "Green Zone Development", in which biogas technology is being introduced as an alternative energy source to learning facilities in the Rift Valley.
"Boarding schools and day schools use a lot of firewood for cooking, (so) this project will reduce the dependence on the forest, and hence ease pressure on the ecosystem," said Solomon Mibei, head of conservation for the Kenya Forest Service in the North Rift Valley area.
St. Agatha Mokwo Girls' Secondary School in Kaptarakwa, Elgeiyo Marakwet County, is among the schools that have benefited from the initiative.
"The projects have worked very well in our school - in fact, we are now used as a demonstration centre and we have received several visitors from different places," smiled Margaret Chebaskwony, the school's principal.
"Apart from acquiring the gas for cooking, we also use the bio-effluent as fertiliser since it is safe for production of crops, and hence boosts food security," Chebaskwony said.
The school's small-scale biogas plant consists of a large digester, in which bacteria convert animal dung into methane gas through the process of anaerobic digestion. The biogas is used for cooking and lighting.
Thanks to their efforts to protect the environment, the school was awarded a Prestigious Green Award (PGA), the first for a biogas project in Kenya.
The award was created in 1999 by the National Environment Trust Fund (NETFUND), a non-governmental organisation, to recognise innovation, groundbreaking research, ideas and extraordinary grassroots initiatives in Kenya. It aims to promote sustainable use and management of natural resources by rewarding the best examples.
St. Agatha Mokwo is also used by athletes during school holidays as a training centre. Both the bakery and fish pond, built with support from the Kenya Forest Service, have been a major attraction for athletes who want to improve their home science skills.
So far eight schools have installed biogas plants under the project, and more are at different stages of deploying the technology across the 17 counties where Green Zone Development operates.
LESS NEED FOR FUELWOOD
Introducing biogas technology in schools does appear to improve environmental protection in the local area.
David Kipyego, chairman of the Eldoret Educational Resource Centre, a school in Eldoret town, said that since the biogas project began there, use of fuelwood has been cut by half.
"We have reduced the use of firewood for cooking from 24 tonnes to 12 tonnes per term (of three months), which is an added advantage for the conservation of the environment, as well as being economical for the school," Kipyego said.
Apart from the biogas, the organic waste material used to produce the gas can serve as manure, which is more beneficial to the environment than chemical fertilisers, Kipyego said.
David Chemweno, executive director of Save Kenya Water Towers, an organisation set up in 2010 to rehabilitate degraded water catchment areas, said each of 20 schools visited by his staff consumed an average of 20 tonnes (20,000 kg) of firewood per term.
Schools are licensed to harvest dead wood but end up cutting down trees in order to get the amount they need for cooking, he added.
His organisation has also spearheaded a separate programme called the "Green Ribbon Initiative", which involves bringing biogas to schools located near indigenous forests.
"We are targeting more than 20 schools... with subsidised biogas, where the schools will contribute 60 percent of the project while we contribute 40 percent to cover the cost of the technical knowhow," Chemweno said, adding that Save Kenya Water Towers will also donate cows to assist in biogas production.
Minimising the use of firewood by schools will also contribute to climate change mitigation, experts say.
"Harmful greenhouses gas emissions can be reduced and the forest can now act better as a carbon sink," said Mibei of the Kenya Forest Service. The local climate had changed due to massive deforestation in the area, with rainfall becoming less frequent, he noted.
The school biogas project is inspiring communities living nearby, and a number of them have adopted the same technology at household level.
"Most of our neighbours living around the schools have embraced the technology - some other educational institutions have also visited with a view to copying this worthy initiative," Chebaskwony said, adding that some have come from as far afield as other parts of East Africa.
Local leaders are also backing the project, urging people to embrace the technology in order to protect the environment.
"This is the way to go - as leaders we totally support the project, we are going to rally behind it so that every household living next to the forest can hold to the idea," said Thomas Kigen, a member of the county assembly for Kaptarakwa ward in Elgeiyo Marakwet County.
Recently, the county's governor, Alex Tolgos, called for an end to cutting down trees. "The harvesting of the forest must stop immediately to give room for the forest to grow. Let's support biogas technology," he said.
"We are in the process of recovering the degraded forest by planting more trees - as many as we can to reclaim the vanished forest," Mibei said. The forest service has planted 10 million trees in the Rift Valley alone, he added.
Kipyego, chairman of the Eldoret school, said people should take care of natural resources for their own benefit. "A well-conserved, kept and maintained environment equals good health, long life, economic growth and reduction of crime," he argued.
Caleb Kemboi is an environmental and climate change reporter based in Eldoret, in Kenya's Rift Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org