Zimbabwe's quest to improve economic development and reach a middle income economy by 2030, can be catalysed by improving energy access for rural communities.
Biogas energy, which is derived from human and animal waste, can be a panacea to energy challenges bedevilling Zimbabwe's rural communities.
In Silobela and Lower Gweru communal areas over-reliance on firewood has led to massive deforestation in the area. Clearing trees for agricultural purposes has also compounded the situation.
There is now a massive shortage of firewood in these communal areas.
Faced with this challenge, local communities in partnership with the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) are now promoting the use of household biogas projects to enhance access to green energy in rural areas.
The adoption of biogas energy in most Silobela households as a smart alternative has improved their living conditions and greater access to alternative energy.
Spearheaded by EMA, the biogas project has enabled the people of Ward 18 Gobo area and Ward 24 Mslahobe in Silobela to use the energy for cooking and lighting purposes helping to reduce deforestation.
EMA official Annastancia Mangisi said they have completed a pilot project in the two wards where households are now using the energy from livestock waste.
"We trained 15 builders who will be constructing the household digesters around Kwekwe and Silobela areas. We want the household biogas projects to cascade to the other wards in the province.
"So far 30 youths have been trained to spearhead the same project in Lower Gweru."
Mangisi said the biogas project has been a resounding success helping to reduce pressure on forests in the area.
Biogas is an alternative form of energy that can substitute traditional fuels like firewood for cooking, heating and lighting.
Energy experts say some naturally occurring microbes are able to break down organic material in the absence of oxygen to produce different types of biologically created gas - "biogas" that consists primarily of methane and carbon dioxide.
They say renewable energy from biogas has the added benefit of being able to produce a consistent source of power, "base-load'"rather than just when the sun shines or wind blows.
The organic material that is required to produce biogas is available in a wide range of forms in most rural communities in Zimbabwe.
This includes biogas from dumpsites - landfill gas, biogas from human waste - sewage gas and biogas from food wastes or agricultural materials.
Biogas is a gas that is formed by a variety of anaerobic micro-organisms. These microbes feed off carbohydrates and fats, producing methane and carbon dioxides as metabolic waste products.
This gas can be harnessed by man as a source of sustainable energy. Biogas is considered to be a renewable fuel as it originates from organic material that has been created from atmospheric carbon by plants grown within recent growing seasons.
Biogas projects in Silobela and Lower Gweru are now benefiting most smallholder farmers.
Sithembile Munodawafa of Silobela said biogas energy has enabled her to scale up her chicken rearing project due to the availability of improved lighting and heating services.
"We are grateful for the new innovation as we are now able to derive energy from livestock waste. I have since expanded my chicken rearing project and am optimistic that I will grow my business."
Biogas is an energy product derived from organic material that can be used directly for cooking and lighting or for generating electricity.
About 70 per cent of the country's 15 million people live in rural areas and are dependent on fuelwood as their principal source of energy.
The potential range of household biogas and bioslurry use in African countries is at least 18 million households, according to a Hivos Energy and Climate Change report of 2016.
However, energy experts say household biogas still remains an unexploited source of renewable energy in Zimbabwe and most African countries.
The use of biogas from organic waste can significantly reduce dependence on grid energy, which is marred by limited and unreliable supplies, making it difficult for thousands of households to access affordable clean energy in rural areas.
Many settlements throughout the country are now receiving less than seven hours of electricity per day from the national grid, pushing up demand for firewood and charcoal in both urban and rural areas.
Most families are increasingly relying on firewood and charcoal as prices for imported liquefied petroleum gas continue to rise.
Charcoal syndicates operating in Hwange and Muzarabani have emerged as the major commercial drivers of deforestation, according to the Forestry Commission.
The Forestry Commission and EMA estimate that tobacco farming has been contributing about 15 percent to the loss of indigenous forests annually due to tobacco curing.
Apart from tobacco curing, the opening up of land for agricultural expansion, infrastructure development, charcoal making and use of firewood for heating and cooking has also compounded the problem.
As a result, the agencies say about 330 000 hectares of trees are lost every year due to these factors.
Zimbabwe has lost vast tracts of indigenous woodlands, and environmental agencies estimate that local forest cover for the country is now at 45 percent -- a critical level which now requires massive tree planting programmes.
"We are losing about 50 million trees a year here in Zimbabwe and widening energy options to cleaner energy can help the country to reduce deforestation," said Mangisi.
"The rolling out of biogas projects here in Silobela and Lower Gweru is a positive step for the local communities and over time this should help alleviate overdependency on firewood."
Overdependence on fuelwood contributes to massive deforestation and respiratory diseases associated with indoor air pollution.
Further, energy poverty directly affects the viability of forests, soils and range-land.
Energy challenges are not only peculiar to the rural dwellers but urban ones too. Urban dwellers are now relying heavily on woodfuel and charcoal as power shortages bite in the country.
Zimbabwe Environmental Organisation (ZERO) director Shepherd Zvigadza said the country should invest increasingly in cleaner energy production systems such as biogas generation from municipal solid waste.
"Local authorities should explore ways to harness biogas energy through utilising solid waste at dump sites and sewage treatment plants," he said.
"Biogas is becoming increasingly more popular as a form of energy to power rural communities in Africa especially for people who live far away from the main electricity grid. Biogas could be a low-cost solution to the energy poverty facing the majority of people in rural areas.
"Energy poverty in Africa is real, severe and widespread. Appreciating this reality is necessary and represents an important starting point for devising lasting solutions that ensure energy access is reliable, sustainable and affordable for all."
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), about two-thirds of the African population, equivalent to nearly 620 million people does not have access to electricity and almost 730 million depend on traditional solid biomass for cooking.
In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the household electrification rate in 2016 averaged 42 percent according to a World Bank Energy Outlook report.
Sustainable, reliable and affordable energy access should be seen as a co-requisite to the fight against poverty in Africa and as an important part of the bundle of products needed to drive economic growth and inclusive development.
With a sustained campaign to promote biogas use, Zimbabwe can help provide millions of its rural people with access to reliable and affordable energy that could heat and light up homes, schools and hospitals.