Biogas: Clean Energy with Health Benefits

By Aedan Kernan, Greenwell Consulting
March 2012

Lagos, Nigeria faces major waste problems. With 8 million inhabitants and millions more in the surrounding area, Lagos is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Population density is around 4,200 people per square kilometer. This surging population produces 9,000 tonnes of waste daily. Now, a Nigerian entrepreneur’s innovative approach promises a clean energy solution.

While the Lagos State Waste Management Authority is charged with managing the city’s sanitation issues, most families and communities have developed their own solutions for waste. Septic tanks are the primary way communities manage waste, but the city is plagued with poorly constructed tanks that leak into the water system. When septic tanks are drained as a preventative practice, the sludge is often pumped from the sewage trucks into the same lagoon from which the city draws its drinking water. During periods of heavy rain or tidal swells, flooding exacerbates the sewage issues.

Lagos’s sewage problems contribute to typhoid and other illnesses. "Typhoid is a common disease. This could be cured. But people live with it all their lives," says Olatunbosun Obayomi, a microbiologist and entrepreneur. Obayomi sees enormous potential in converting septic tanks into biogas-producing units to reduce water pollution and health hazards associated with sewage.

illustration of green leaf and universal first aid symbol over map outline of Nigeria

Obayomi is the founder of the Bio Applications Initiative in Lagos, which focuses on the production of energy from organic waste. In 2005, Obayomi developed a simple anaerobic bio-waste digester that produces safe, low-pressure biogas for cooking. He also retrofitted one of Lagos’s hundreds of thousands of septic tanks to convert it into a biogas plant.

Obayomi’s ideas and prototypes gained national and international attention. At the age of 26, he received a Nigerian Youth Leadership Award. He was chosen as a speaker for the TEDIndia idea-sharing conference in 2009 and the TEDGlobal conference in 2010. Obayomi was invited to join the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a think-tank that brings together international interdisciplinary teams of emerging talents to work on solutions for cities in areas such as urbanism, architecture, science, technology and sustainability.

Obayomi’s thinking about biogas has evolved over the past two years. He is now unconvinced that cooking is the best thing to do with urban biogas. Human waste is not rich in methane and there is little animal waste available to supplement biogas systems in a city like Lagos, says Obayomi. "If I took the septic tanks of 15 families, all their waste would only be enough to cook for one family."

However, the average street in Lagos could produce 1,720 liters of biogas per day, enough to run an engine so that 50 families could replace the polluted lagoon water in their taps with clean water pumped up from a borehole.

The Waste Management Authority is searching for solutions to the city’s waste problems. It is running a campaign to formalize all refuse storage and collection alongside a public health awareness program. The Authority is also very interested in waste conversion, and it has noted the example of a U.S. company that is successfully collecting large quantities of bio waste and composting it to create fertilizer.

However, Obayomi has not had the opportunity to introduce his ideas to local politicians or business people, and he believes that homegrown talent and perspective are overlooked. "They like to employ someone from the Western world to bring in a technology to solve their problems. They think that because it is from the Western world naturally it will work very well. They are not believing in their own people with technologies to suit their own conditions."

Despite obstacles, Obayomi continues to work on solutions to local health problems and he has not given up on the potential of biogas.

"My philosophy is to make progress a step at a time."