For Enock Mangezi cow dung was just another form of manure and floor polish. But a new biogas digester at the home of this 46-year old resident of Pahlela, a village in Zimbabwe's south eastern Chiredzi district, is starting to put a price on the waste matter.
"We had no idea that we could get fuel from cow dung," said Mangezi, pointing to a series of concrete tanks in the ground, which produce the biogas, a clean burning fuel extracted from decaying matter.
With the share of fuel wood in Zimbabwe's energy mix at around 61 percent, according to Government data, the devastation of the southern African country's forests has become almost unstoppable.
According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Zimbabwe lost 327 000 hectares of plantation forests and natural woodland on average each year between 1990 and 2010, mostly to feed the hunger for household energy needs, tobacco curing and agriculture development.
That's the equivalent of between 50 and 60 million trees annually. Today there are only 15,6 million hectares of forests remaining, FAO says.
Chiredzi, a dry, semi-arid, low rainfall area, is particularly vulnerable. Its sparse, thorny shrubs - made worse by too much grazing - mean that firewood collectors, mostly women and girls, would have to go the extra mile to do that, wasting time that could be used for other productive things.
Now, a $4 million project co-funded by the UN Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility is working to end deforestation, and to make farmers in rural Chiredzi energy secure, both as a mitigatory and adaptive measure to climate change.
Titled "Scaling up Adaptation in Zimbabwe, with a focus on rural livelihoods" the four-year project is being implemented by Oxfam in partnership with Plan International, Southern Alliance for Indigenous Resources, University of Zimbabwe and Government across three districts vulnerable to climate change - Buhera, Chiredzi and Chimanimani.
Between November 2014 and October 2018, villagers are bent to action, in partnership with the development agencies, stepping up climate adaptation and mitigation actions such as switching to sustainable energy, reviving and climate proofing irrigation schemes and adopting drought-tolerant crops.
They are also diversifying crops and livelihoods, reclaiming wetlands, promoting soil and water conservation, improving post-harvest storage facilities as well the use of climate information. The aim is to boost production and incomes, according to project manager Dr Leonard Unganai.
In Chiredzi, at least six model villages that are climate smart have been established.
The models combine renewables such as biogas to power cooking and lighting; solar energy to pump water for the production of an array of vegetables, from tomatoes to onion, cabbages to carrots, and cook stoves that utilise only a fraction of the average rural household daily fuelwood use, among others.
For biogas, Enock Mangezi fit the bill as a model household with his eight cattle. Project staff have worked out that a constant supply of fresh cow dung is key to maintaining high levels of biogas production.
And with Pahlela villagers chipping in with labour, sand and bricks, a small biogas digester was built at Mangezi's homestead at a cost of $1,500. After that, life has never been the same.
"When we heard about the biogas digesters, we were sceptical and thought it would never work because the only uses of cow dung we were familiar with were manure and plastering floors for huts without cement floors," said Mangezi's wife, a mother of three.
"I am so excited about the biogas digester because it has reduced my walking distance to fetch firewood. Food preparation time has reduced and there is no black smoke on pots making washing pots easier", explained Mrs Mangezi, beaming with joy.
The process of producing gas at the household level - using a series of purpose-built tanks tucked away into the ground, and fed with animal slung and water - generates significantly lower emissions compared to fuelwood, the predominant energy source in rural Zimbabwe.
Biogas is a cheaper and better fuel for cooking, lighting as well as good quality manure to supplement the use of fertlisers. By comparison, firewood decimates forests, depleting a major natural sink for climate change-causing gases like carbon dioxide.
Its burning produces soot and the smoke can lead to a range of health complications for mothers cooking on inefficient cookstoves in poorly ventilated kitchen huts, say experts.
As a result of household pollution, about 5,3 percent of children under 5 years in Zimbabwe suffer from one form of respiratory disease or another, while one in every five babies is born with low birth weight, according to the 2014 Zimbabwe Multiple Cluster Survey.
The Mangezis said they had seen significant reduction in firewood use as costs for lighting through frequent purchases of candles or fuel for paraffin-based lamps had been cut almost completely, thanks to biogas. The family now uses about 7 times less firewood than it did before the Project.
Spokesperson for Plan International, which led the biogas project, Auxillia Gombera hailed biogas as a smoke-free energy source that was friendly to forests, as Dr Unganai, said "forests were critical in recycling moisture", warning of the vicious cycle of too much cutting down of trees leading to droughts.
The number of people using firewood rises dramatically going into rural areas compared to those in towns and cities. About 96 percent of rural households in Zimbabwe use fuelwood to cook and heat, says the country's Energy Ministry, with zero use for liquefied petroleum gas.
Much of the cooking and heating takes place on inefficient, conventional stone cookstoves that consume an inordinate amount firewood, the deforestation driver, with substantial amounts of household pollution.
To further reduce firewood consumption the UNDP/GEF project supported the construction of an energy saving cookstove at particular homes, which it hopes to replicate elsewhere.
The cookstove, built with brick and mortar onto the ground, with two fire holes above, uses tree branches instead of tree trunks encouraging pruning of trees instead of cutting them down.
It achieves its efficiency by trapping heat and concentrating it towards a specific object cooking at the time. So, unlike the stone cookstove, heat is not lost. And then there is lesser amount of firewood it uses.
Water from solar
The Scaling up Adaptation in Zimbabwe project is harnessing solar energy to provide water for growing an array of greens all-year round, both for household consumption and for sale.
Brian Madzinga, a technician with the Zimbabwe Government's Agriculture and Mechanisation Ministry, said six solar panel-powered gardens had been set-up across six villages in Chiredzi under the Project, with additional financial support from UNDP through the Supporting Enhanced Climate Action for Low Carbon and Climate Development Resilient Pathway (SECA) Project.
Installed on 2-metre high pillars, the solar panels connect to submersible pumps, drawing water using the sun's heat converted to electrical energy, and into a reservoir. A tap is installed for ease of watering the gardens, Madzinga said.
Solar, a clean energy source, has saved labour for between 30 to 45 households per installation, most of hem women producing a variety of vegetables.
Where hitherto mothers walked between 15 and 20km to fetch water - a perennial headache in Chiredzi - to nourish their crops, sheep, goats and cattle using buckets, today they simply connect a hose to the water tap.
Kerisina Makasini, secretary Tiyani Varimi Group Garden of Chikombedzi said that the latest innovation had saved women about two thirds of their time, now used to engage in other productive activities. And with solar, production in the gardens had doubled, she said.
God is faithful.