Feature Story

South Africa biogas project continues under new COVID-19 guidelines

May 4, 2020

Constructed biogas digester
A new domestic biogas digester constructed by trainee technicians, ready for commissioning and use by the recipient household. Photo: Sabrina Fassbender/UNIDO

Across South Africa, the COVID-19 induced national lockdown measures have had an immediate and dramatic impact. Since March 27, there has been a total border closure and non-essential workers have been asked to stay at home in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.

At the time of writing, South Africa has the highest number of novel coronavirus infections on the continent, with 4,793 cases and 90 deaths.* Whilst the country’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, recently warned that South Africa was still in the early stages of the pandemic and that this would last for the "foreseeable future," the country’s response, characterized by swift action and widespread screening, has drawn praise from the World Health Organization, amongst others.

The South African government has also moved quickly in an attempt to stem the economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis, recently announcing a $26.3 billion stimulus plan, equivalent to around 10% of the country’s GDP, which includes significant subsidies for businesses and wages.

Since 2016, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and Global Environment Facility (GEF)-supported Waste-to-Energy South Africa project has been working to improve awareness and capacity surrounding the benefits of biogas, with a focus on harnessing energy produced from organic waste, mainly from agro-processing industries.  

While the project targets industrial biogas projects operated by the private sector, it also has a component that deals with domestic biogas in rural settings. To that end, the project has been training youth to construct and maintain domestic biogas digesters, in turn helping to catalyze youth employment and strengthen rural economies in South Africa.

The project was in the midst of training, constructing, and commissioning domestic biogas digesters, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Along with the rest of the country, the biogas project staff had to quickly pivot to salvage the progress that had been made to-date, in order to comply with the South African government’s lockdown measures.

Although the training and construction component of the project had to be temporarily suspended, the commissioning of biogas digesters - loading the digesters with organic digestible materials (feedstock) - has continued according to the original schedule, albeit now under remote supervision.

Professor David Tinarwo from the University of Venda, who is coordinating this part of the project, has been able to remotely guide households which have installed digesters through the biological commissioning process.

Detailing how he is helping to adjust the project to the new situation, he explained, “I communicate with project participants through voice, text, and still and video footage. A video is made of the feedstock as it is prepared, and then prior to pouring into the digester, and this is then is shared with me. Then I indicate whether it is ready for pouring. We go through iterations of sending the videos and discussions via phone, until the right sludge viscosity is achieved. The household is then left to prepare the rest up to the required level.”

“A week or so after loading the digester, the production of the digester is then tested by igniting the gas at the end of a conveying hosepipe leading to the point of use, normally in the kitchen.”

This process is also filmed and shared with Tinarwo for his assessment and further advice. If the flame is present, the hose can then be connected to the burners (or gas appliance).

Outlining the challenges associated with taking this part of the project online, Tinarwo conceded that other challenges faced in training and construction remain unresolved, but investigations are underway on how training can be conducted online with recipients at their respective residences.

“Basically, the limiting factors are the bandwidth of the recipients’ connectivity situations and equipment such as computers,” he said.

Reflecting on how COVID-19 was affecting project implementation, Nokwazi Moyo, National Project Manager, acknowledged that the lockdown had slowed down the interaction between the project and beneficiaries, but that, in response, “the project staff and participants have been quick to embrace modern technology to fill communication gaps and, as they are not able to rely on face-to-face interaction, they have instead embraced social media, also connecting virtually through WhatsApp.”

“COVID-19 has revealed just how resourceful and adaptable our contracted service providers, biogas digester operators, and the project steering committee can be to keep the implementation of the project moving ahead under the lockdown conditions. Most of the communication systems established during this period are bound to remain in use even after the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

*This piece was originally published by UNIDO on April 28.