The student blog based on the research made by master students Julie, Kathinka and Gudrun and the following design work made by Julie can now be found at:



The first step towards full energy coverage

Instead of starting at the endpoint, the ideal situation we pictured, I started with the starting point. How could a first step on the timeline give value to the refugees? The first step can also be the ultimate test where lessons can be learned for the further development of the system.

So we start with the biogas digester, where the size can range from just a few cubic meters to several thousand. In general the biogas produced from a small digester will more expensive  than from a big one, but the initial investment will also be lower. How price varies in Ethiopia is also different from how we are used to in Norway, since manual labor is relatively cheap compared to the use of machines. And a lot easier to come by, at that. So all in all it is more feasible to start up a quite small digester as a first step. To distribute biogas to each and every refugee is also somewhere down the road. A system to distribute the gas needs to be built, and of course the refugees must also be able to burn the gas somehow, which calls for a new stove or an add-on to the Cleancook stove Gaia have provided. Every step could in itself have a simple solution, but the system of putting this in place for 16 000 refugees would take some time to put up, regardless. And with one small-scale biogas digester it would of course not be enough for all of them anyway.

So for the first step I chose a different approach. I will not choose a few refugees to benefit, but I will use the biogas production to provide the refugees with a choice. The produced biogas will be used in an Injera bakery run by refugees. All the refugees eat somali injera (Also called anjeero and lahooh) for breakfast, and they use up to half their total energy consumption in making them.

The women in the camp use several hours making injera for their families, a period of time where many of them are sitting in a kitchen hut full of smoke from firewood because they have run out of ethanol. The bakery will give them the opportunity to “buy” the injera instead. Money is not part of the rations these refugees get from the UN, so the money they might have is from working for an organisation in the camp or sent from relatives that have been resettled in other countries. Therefore I have included the possibility of trading commodities for injera instead, such as flour. The flour that would otherwise be used to cook injera could be traded for the readily prepared injera, and the bakery could use that flour to make more injera.

The production of biogas is in itself self-run after adding feedstock and the right mix of anaerob bacteria, but by monitoring and controlling some key factors in the digester, the process can be optimized and more gas be produced. This could also be run by refugees, either as a part of the bakery business, or as a separate business. Either way it should the organisation should give incentives to optimize the process, through a payment per litre gas produced or similar.

The input/feedstock for the biogas digester is still from the same sources, but it is now defined that the digester itself is placed in Kebribeyah itself, and the feedstock should be retrieved locally. This fits very well with the system Kathinka and Gudrun designed, which provides an easy way to bring cow dung to the digester. The collected cow dung is a value in my system, though it at the moment is seen as a waste. By offering payment for the cow dung I exclude the collection itself from my system, instead offering a chance of self-employment to the refugees and people from the host community. There are already herders walking around with the animals, for which this could be an important opportunity to raise their income.

Another possible source of feedstock is human waste. The biogas digester will be connected to communal toilets, actually hitting two birds with one stone. There is no proper sewage system in the Kebribeyah area, nor in Jijiga, and the toilets are mainly holes in the ground. When these holes get full, the contents is dumped somewhere far of from people. Problem solved. Although the water quality in the area is very bad, and diseases resulting from this are common.

The last source of feedstock is organic waste, which also has a very positive effect on the biogas process because of the very high carbon/nitrogen ratio. The amount of organic waste from the refugees themselves is negligible, but there are several fruit farms not too far from the camp where organic waste could be bought.
The fruit farms is also a potential customer for the bi-product of the biogas production: bio-slurry. This fertilizer is 13 times more nutritious than the artificial equivalent, which today is imported to the country, and not readily available in these parts. The bio-slurry could also be used in the UN-sponsored reforestation projects or sold cheaply to the surrounding farms.


About Brita Fladvad Nielsen

I'm a Postdoctoral researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. My focus is on Smart Energy Communities in urban settings as well as design of energy-devices for emergency settings and design for humanitarian markets, especially for refugee camps in rural areas of Africa. I blog about my research approach Design Thinking on and about humanitarian design at . I am also a mother of a child who is deaf, and I blog about her language development on
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