A Biofuel Revolution Transforms Slaughterhouse to Powerhouse

How red meat is leading to green energy and big money for Uganda's livestock industry

Image by Thomas Bjørkan via Wikimedia Commons

Over the past few years, Uganda (like many nations in East Africa) has made huge strides in its attempts at expanding its agricultural processing facilities. Part of a wider strategy of economic growth and diversification, the idea is to boost the value of existing farmland by helping farmers to store, package, and ship en masse. Yet while this gambit has worked wonders for GDP and job creation, it’s also come with a fair amount of ecological backlash as these new facilities guzzle down power and spew out noxious byproducts into a nation without the facilities to handle them.

In the Ugandan capital of Kampala, the prodigiously productive Kampala City Abattoir, the nation’s largest slaughterhouse, has become a particularly contentious source of foul pollution. A massive facility in the Port Bell region at the city’s southeastern fringe, the abattoir runs 24 hours a day, relying on heavy diesel generators up to half of the time to compensate for the city’s frequent rolling blackouts. And every day they manage to dismember and package up to 700 heads of cattle, 300 chickens, and 200 sheep and goats. But that process produces gobs of blood, hair, skin, and fecal matter as waste, which until recently was just dumped into Lake Victoria’s Murchison Bay, messing with the local ecology and creating a putrid smell that hovered over the entire neighborhood to the chagrin of locals and city planners alike.

Yet rather than just despair or fall into the NIMBY pattern of trying to shutter this otherwise developmentally valuable industry, a local researcher has found a way of harnessing the abattoir’s byproducts, diverting them from dump sites and turning them into a source of self-sustaining and clean power.

Dr. Joseph Kyambadde, head of the local Makerere Unversity’s Department of Biochemistry and Sports Science, outlined his innovative project last month at a local round-table on agricultural waste recycling and sustainability. A few years ago, he theorized that most of the organic waste in the abattoir could be stored and then incinerated into biogases like methane—30 to 40 percent cleaner and more efficient than butane or propane—which could in turn be used to displace the fossil fuels that power the slaughterhouse. With a grant from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), which funds bio-innovation across East Africa, (especially in the agricultural industry), he slowly developed systems to make his vision a reality with the cooperation of the abattoir’s owners.

And he succeeded. As of last month, Kyambadde and the abattoir had managed to integrate recycling systems into the slaughter process, creating between 10 and 25 cubic meters of gas per day to power security lights, freezers, and refrigerators, as well as producing fertilizer-ready byproducts. The recycling process itself relies on solar panels to heat water in biomaterial digesters, converting organic material into methane. At present, the gas has cut diesel bills by 90 percent per month and reduced their overall monthly energy expenses by up to $2,800—a fair sum in the local economy. And that’s with just 40 percent of the facility hooked up to the system. Kyambadde and others believe they can soon scale up to 100 percent integration, taking the slaughterhouse off the grid and even producing excess energy that they can sell off for profit.

Kyambadde’s not the only one to experiment with this bio-waste to biogas process in Uganda or even East Africa. Earlier this year, another Kampala slaughterhouse, the Wambizzi Abattoir, which specializes in pork products and renders 75 to 150 pigs per day, launched their own internal biogas facility. A joint venture by the International Livestock Research Institute, the Wambizzi Cooperative Society, and Green Heat Uganda Ltd., this smaller abattoir managed to reduce its reliance on firewood (much of which is illegally logged) to the tune of $100 to $250 per month, lessening waste and general environmental strain. Meanwhile in Kenya, the push for biogas is even stronger, with a 2.2 megawatt corn waste power plant set to join the national grid soon. And since 2012, two Kenyan slaughterhouses founded by members of a Maasai tribe have built up a biogas conversion system generating up to 600 cubic meters of fuel per day—that may even triple as they plan to expand their bio digester facilities in the future.

These savvy Maasai businessmen have even found a way of spreading their clean fuel throughout nearby communities at a profit, selling six-kilogram canisters of biogas for $8 apiece—half the price of the same amount of less efficient and dirtier fossil fuel-based gases. Kyambadde hopes that when his abattoir reaches 100 percent system integration, they’ll be able to do the same, spreading their benefits and yielding extra incomes for local workers.

The promise of this technology has been recognized by the national governments in Kenya and Uganda as well. Kenya has worked with the International Fund for Agricultural Development to help spread household biogas-generating systems to rural households (about 1,000 as of 2014), which lie off the gird and rely on wood, coal, and other smoggy and destructive fuels at present. Now Uganda, like Kenya, hopes to soon get small generators and canisters of excess biogas energy out to small homesteads, recognizing the value of getting people clean energy without having to expand an aging, inefficient national electrical grid.

Marabou storks looking for scraps outside a slaughterhouse in Kampala. Image by SuSanA Secretariat via Flickr

At the same time, Ugandan meat producers and regulators are pushing to move abattoirs out of Kampala and other big cities and closer to livestock-raising communities. The primary goal of this shift is to increase the quality of meat, which presently suffers due to the poor and stressful transit conditions for overcrowded cattle and sheep. It also gives the industry a chance to build new facilities built with more efficient and hygienic procedures. If these new abattoirs build in biogas producing facilities, they’ll be able to disseminate cheap and relatively clean energy and biogas technologies throughout these more rural communities, helping to spread the gospel of waste-to-energy systems far and wide.

Summing up the elegant value of Kyambadde’s project and the abattoir biogas movement, Dr. Julius Ecuru, an assistant executive secretary at the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology, recently told the local Observer, “This is one of the success stories to prove that bioscience innovation can be turned into economic sense, and contribute to the development of our country.”

Julian Meehan

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