Reinvigorating 40-Year-Old Biodigester Technology for Success in India

Koushik Yanamandram explains how Sistema.bio is helping smallholder farmers in India adopt technology to become more self-sufficient and environmentally sustainable.

September 08, 2018

Mark Tercek, CEO of the Nature Conservancy, draws a critical link between agricultural practices and environmental conservation: “The role of agriculture in feeding the world, and saving it, has never been clearer,” he writes, “The world’s food supply must double by 2050. If agriculture does not effectively increase productivity, farmers will spill into nature reserves and national parks to find their land. Over a few short decades, agriculture must find ways to use less habitat; to use water more efficiently; and to manage land, soil, and water in ways that strengthen rather than degrade the environmental services they provide.”

It is not just industrial farmers and the large agriculture companies that need to rise to this challenge. Eighty percent of the globe’s food production comes from smallholder farmers. This is why Sistema.bio is on a mission is to provide farmers with technology to derive more productivity from their land in clean and sustainable ways.

Sistema.bio is a B Corp that provides biodigester technology to transform farm waste into liquid organic fertilizer and biogas to run stoves and farm equipment.

The company started in Mexico and has since expanded into new regions, from Kenya to Latin America. Most recently, in February 2018, the social venture started operations in India. Koushik Yanamandram, an Acumen Fellow, is Head of Partnerships for Sistema.bio’s operations in India.

Koushik describes how the process works: “Biodigestion is a very basic natural process; it's basically anaerobic digestion.” In the same way the human stomach takes in food, digests it, and produces energy with a waste byproduct (which happens to be excellent fertilizer), biodigester systems collect organic manure and produces the outputs of biogas and fertilizer.

This video describes the Sistema.bio process in more detail:

In addition to savings and self-sufficiency at the farmer level, Koushik explains, “We're also saving the environment because this is a zero-carbon cycle at the end of the day.”

The Problem

“In India especially we see most of these farmers are marginalized and the schemes from the government do not reach them most of the time. So that's where we wanted to intervene,” explains Koushik.

Koushik first got interested in sustainable rural systems when he was conducting a post-graduate survey exploring the energy situation in small villages. He discovered that energy access was closely connected to associated challenges that came with sustainable agriculture and clean cooking. Women were spending significant amounts of time collecting firewood for cooking, only to feel the long-term effects of smoke-causing respiratory diseases.

These issues coupled with the high prevalence of livestock in rural households led to biogas technology as a promising solution.

Koushik recalls thinking, “Why not use the cattle manure to produce energy, and also fertilizer that can solve issues of clean cooking and sustainable agriculture as well?”

Koushik Yanamandram, Head of Partnerships for Sistema.bio in India

One major obstacle is that biodigester technology has been in India for the past 40 years, but has never been widely adopted. The existing technology has not been easy for farmers in India to maintain and so it often failed, leaving farmers with poor perceptions of the technology.

However, the benefits stand to far outweigh the challenges. With a focus on addressing issues with the design and cost of the technology itself, Koushik spent three years testing and prototyping many types of systems through Sustain Earth Energy.

Today, Koushik and the rest of the Sistema.bio team in India are working to shift the perceptions of biogas digestors.

They’re pairing improved design coupled with proper education and training, and becoming more confident that biodigester technology can be adopted by farmers in India.

The Solution

Learn more about how Systema.bio is making an impact in India:

“Energy becomes a very fundamental thing to human existence. If we can change the way we generate and consume our energy, that can change the way we see our world around us.”

In the Indian context, Sistema.bio serves two distinct customer segments.

The first segment is subsistence farmers who depend on agriculture for their living. As Koushik describes, this segment is, “not very enterprising, but they have sufficient farming to afford to feed their own families, and whatever extra crops they will sell out in the market.” The second customer segment is the more enterprising farmers who grow commercial crops and run farming as a business.

Sistema.bio tailors their offerings for each customer segment. For the smaller subsistence farmers, they provide subsidies with the help of outside fundraising (like government programs). On the other hand, more enterprising farmers can fund the technology with existing cash flows in their business or can access financing through Sistema.bio.

Households utilizing biodigester technology benefit both from fertilizer to increase farm production, plus clean cooking.

You can learn more about the impact this technology is having on cooking in this video:

Koushik shares a quick story about the families: “When we spoke to the women who were using our biogas stoves, they were really happy.” Now cooking a meal is easy and fast, so they can spend more time on other activities, rather than collecting firewood or drying the wood during the rainy season.

Changing Behavior and Finding Early Adopters

Koushik finds that the best way to reintroduce biodigester technology to potential customers is to find early adopters who can then convince their neighbors to test out something new.

He explains, “The early adopters are the influential local farmers; we call them progress farmers. These are the farmers who are ready to experiment with new technologies or experiment with new farm inputs.” Some influencers are the more curious or enterprising in the community, whereas others hold positions of power, like the head of the village committee.

Once influencers are using the technology, it offers a clear demonstration of how a biodigester system helps a farm become more self-sufficient; this example then facilitates interest from other farmers in the community.

The company has found it is also critical to profoundly understand the farmers and their experience.

“It all starts with understanding the users and spending time on the ground,” Kaushik explains, “and that needs to be a continuous process.”

He recognizes that farmers live in rural contexts that are very different from urban environments where you can access energy with the click of a button. “We need to be there, understand the lifestyle, understand the issues, and spend time there. And that's how solutions come.”

Koushik explains how, in the past, technology was “pushed into these markets.” This is likely one of the reasons why biodigester technology has taken so long to take root in rural communities: “These communities are seen as bottom of the pyramid markets, and that's not how it works. We need to really empathize and understand what the issues are for … a solution that will be sustainable in the long run.”

The Sistema.bio team in India is taking a much more personal approach.

“We still go back to these villages and communities, and we spend a lot of time there, understanding the issues, and whether we are making any difference.”

Ultimately, it is innovations like the ones Sistema.bio is pioneering that will be needed to help smallholder farmers sustainably increase crop yield and feed significant segments of the world’s population over the coming decades. Collectively, farmers, social entrepreneurs, and conservation organizations need to identify new ways to help farmers maximize harvests from their current lands while preserving surrounding habitats and ecosystems.

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