September 12, 2015

Biogas for Cambodian Farmers reduces emissions and inputs of agrochemicals

Jakob Assmann, Polarstern

A German company, a Dutch development organization, and the Cambodian government work with smallholder farmers to turn livestock waste into light and fuel.

All around the world, both advocates and opponents of renewable energies are looking at Germany and its Energiewende, German for ‘energy transition.’ Since the late 1990s, the country has embarked on a journey towards sourcing more than 80% of its gross domestic energy consumption from renewables by the year 2050. In 2014, the country reached a level of 27.3%.  People are looking at the German case to evaluate whether a highly industrialized country is able to prove that renewables are not necessarily a hindrance to economic performance.


For each customer Polarstern services in Germany, they fund a micro-finance scheme for a Cambodian family to install a household bio-digester.

We at Polarstern are of the opinion that the Energiewende is one of the most important projects of 21st century Germany. As a renewable energy supplier (providing exclusively 100% green electricity and 100% green gas) we believe in the transition and it is our daily job to make it happen. However, our ambitions concerning the Energiewende do not end at the borders of our home country. Since the founding of our company, a one-to-one principle of small-scale development aid has been considered the core idea of Polarstern. For every customer we gain in Germany, we enable one family in Cambodia to build their own household bio-digester.

Why biogas, and what benefits does it hold for the farmer?

All the families supported are subsistence farmers that maintain a few animals and work small cultivated areas. In these smallholder farms, human and livestock excrement is collected into piles, which releases methane gas as it breaks down over time. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and a primary source of emissions in agriculture—especially in farmlands that host livestock.

Next Tuesday, September 15th: join the experts as they talk about greening commodity agriculture in Southeast Asia. Tune in live here.

Next Tuesday, September 15th: join the experts as they talk about greening commodity agriculture in Southeast Asia. Tune in live here.

Biogas is energy captured from the incineration of animal and human waste. As opposed to allowing waste to decompose naturally, the carbon dioxide and methane gas produced from burning these materials are collected into an airtight container. The generated heat is used to light homes and power gas stoves. In smallholder farms, burning waste can be a renewable source of energy. Any leftover waste can also be used as fertilizer for crops.

This reduces the amount of time needed to gather or buy traditional fuels, removes the severe health risk of smoke in enclosed spaces and decreases both greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. As a positive side-effect, residues of the fermentation process can be used as natural fertilizers, increasing crop yields by up to 30%. Girls and women, who are primarily responsible for ensuring constant fuel supply in their families, especially benefit from the additional time gained.

Micro-financing smallholder farmers has a big return for farmers and emissions controls

Polarstern, through its customers, provides the initial funding of USD$150 for every biogas plant. The remaining costs of USD$400 are financed through micro-credits, provided for by local banks and paid back by the families themselves. The point of financial amortization is usually reached after two years. Polarstern has teamed up with the National Biodigester Programme (NBP) of Cambodia, a non-profit development organization originally initiated by the Dutch SNV. The micro-financing scheme was developed by the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank FMO and is today being carried out in cooperation with three local banks PRASAC-MFI, Amret and Hattha Kaksekar. The specific biodigester micro-credit is available to all farmers in the NBP provinces. Its favorable conditions of 1.2% interest rate per month, flexible repayment and a 2 years running time make the micro-credit feasible for most farmers. The result is that 70% of all biodigesters are financed through the scheme.

The local approach of the NBP ensures that the full process of value creation, reaching from local building materials, via the construction of the biogas unit to the overall coordination of the program, remains within the country. The local and low-tech, low maintenance and efficient approach and the value creation on-site were the key reasons for Polarstern to support the NBP in Cambodia.

How land and energy uses are managed is a global challenge. Learn more about agricultural management in the developing world on September 15th.

No other sustainable utility company in Germany has so far established a link between providing renewable energies in their home market and enabling people in developing countries to use the same. From our experience, people with an interest in, and awareness for sustainable energy production also support efforts of global development. While explaining our ambition to possible customers, the link between Germany and Cambodia is sometimes perceived to be a little bit abstract at first. However, our empirical knowledge tells us, that people, once they understand our goal, support our understanding, that the Energiewende is a global challenge, which we should not think about in national terms only. The success of Polarstern’s commitment—so far over 5,000 people have received initial funding for their own household biodigester—proves that many people in Germany support this core idea of our company.


The forthcoming book Steps Toward Green recommends policymakers identify innovative projects at the landscape scale that could benefit from institutional support at the national level and then take on specific roles to scale up these projects. 

Greening Commodity Agriculture

September 15th Book Launch & Panel Discussion
This event will take place in Washington, D.C., and made available worldwide through a live webcast.

Dr. Jakob Assmann is the co-founder of Polarstern, a German utility company. With an interest in renewable energies, he is passionate about enabling people to rely 100% on renewable energy sources.
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