Madagascar 2013: BioD Project Site Visit

This May, I traveled to Madagascar for the Vort Port International Biodigester project (BioD). My mission was to meet our on-the-ground partners, visit potential pilot locations, gather information on future manufacturing and supply chain possibilities, and gain feedback from and discuss next steps with our partners. The BioD Project has been going on for over two years now, and the team has been working around the U.S. designing, testing, and improving various components of the biodigester technology. The finished product will provide a more environmentally-sustainable alternative source of cooking fuel to communities who are currently using charcoal and firewood.

The BioD project was inspired by my previous visit to Madagascar in November 2009. During this trip, I saw how charcoal-making and charcoal-use was devastating to the many people who live off of the land. This practice involves cutting down large areas of trees and letting these trees dry before they’re piled together, covered with dirt, and burned down anaerobically to produce charcoal.

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Charcoal is sold and used directly, or combined with firewood, as energy sources for cooking. On average a single family uses one to two large bags full of charcoal per month. Price ranges based on the region where they are purchased, but the one consistent trend is that prices have been steadily increasing over time, as forestland has become less and less available.

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After the trees are deforested, the area undergoes desertification, and the people livng there are forced to push their land line back and walk further each day to gather wood and food.  Charcoal-making and firewood use also decrease the available land for the already endangered unique species in Madagascar. Cooking with firewood and charcoal is not only an environmental threat, but is also detrimental to human health. According to the World Health Organization, two million people die prematurely from illness attributed to poor indoor air pollution and household solid fuel use. This problem is not specific to Madagascar – over three billion people use biomass and coal for cooking. However, Madagascar is unique because of the sheer amount of biodiversity (over 150,000 endemic species), the growing population (3% annually), and the island-nature of the country. Limited options for energy sources, a largely rural population, and high deforestation rate all make Madagascar the perfect place for the BioD project to work.

My Trip
My first stop was the capital city of Antananarivo. Immediately after deplaning, I was greeted by a several eager and energetic members of the Rotaract Club AVANA who picked me up at the airport. I still remember coming out of baggage check and getting swarmed by all these people planting wonderful kisses on each cheek. They then whisked me off to an amazing lunch, and we made plans to meet the entire Rotaract Club AVANA team the next day.

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We woke up early and made our way out to Iavoambony, a village about one hour from the capital. The grandparents of the Rotaract Club AVANA president grew up in this village in a house they built. The village was quaint, with 1,200 residents, and taking only ten minutes to walk from end to end. There I met with some local villagers who kindly showed me into their homes. The first thing I noticed was the fact that pigs were kept in the homes, just a couple feet away from the fire pit/stove where meals were made, and approximately five feet away from their beds. I was told that people keep their pigs in their homes to prevent thieves from stealing the thing that defined most Malagasy’s wealth and social standing. It was logical, but left me worrying for their health. In addition to the pigs’ waste around the floor, the walls were black, coated from the charcoal and wood soot. We then walked down to meet with the village’s chief, where we met and discussed the virtues of the project. He’d been living there in the same house the entire 52 years of his life. Upon learning about the goals of the BioD project, he smiled widely and remarked how he has noticed how much further his family has had to walk to gather wood, and how water patterns have shifted dramatically due to reduced forest density.

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I spent the next several days in Antananarivo visiting various offices in the capital to determine how best to establish a Malagasy branch of our organization, and the legal requirements to starting this project. Everyone I met with was thrilled for this project, and receptive to help it start.

Next, I traveled three hours west to Ampefy, a larger but more remote village of 3,000 people. Ampefy is in the highlands region of Madagascar. The lands are vast and rolling, with rice paddies of varying shapes, old mountains, and blue skies. Malagasy cows, or zebu, created the only traffic jams, children peered shyly at me, and roosters woke me up daily at 3 a.m. Being there made me feel at peace.

I met with Emma, a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Ampefy who is part of the partnership between VPI and Peace Corps, Madagascar. She is working on several economic development projects with a local nonprofit called Prosperer, and took an interest in our initiative.  photo 6Emma had set up a meeting at the town hall  with several intrigued local residents. Here, I presented the project to the town mayor and the townspeople, with Emma as my translator. It was nice to have the presentation turn into more of a discussion, with the townspeople asking meaningful and thoughtful questions. By the end of the meeting, a few of the villagers wanted to be on-ground volunteers and offered to build a demonstration site for people in the area, set up, and run the pilot unit.

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The next day Emma and I traveled to the home of the on-ground volunteers, which is also the potential pilot site, to meet the family that would be operating the biodigester unit. Surprisingly, getting there by local transportation, which consisted of waiting on the side of the road for a bus, was easy and almost enjoyable. We sat under a shade tree sipping on Malagasy coffee (espresso). After an hour or so, we arrived at the family’s house. They had acres of land and rolling hills, zebu, pigs, and roosters roaming their property.

photo 9We met in the kitchen/eating area for the family — a place that could easily hold 20 people. In Madagascar, people live with their extended family and eating together is a way of social bonding (something I can definitely get behind!) After explaining the project and fielding their questions, they were so eager to start the project that they almost ran off to buy the components and start building. I had to contain them a bit, explaining that, unless properly built and checked, the nature of gas can be dangerous. The excitement and hospitality they showed me blew me away.

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Leaving the beautiful and peaceful Ampefy was difficult, but I was eager to meet the University of Antananarivo students that the BioD Project team is working with three graduate students have built and tested the biodigester design in-country, providing important feedback and data for the US-based team to make design improvements and changes. Working with them has been a pleasure, and my visit there was nothing short of motivating. The students showed me their unit, how they loaded it, and tested the flame to demonstrate how it worked. I literally felt the effectiveness when I accidentally got too close to the flame, and felt the intensity of the heat billowing out of the biodigester. After the site visit, we explored the city, dropping into various stores to determine where best to source parts for future biodigester units. As expected, the main portion of the biodigester was extremely expensive, and its quality was unreliable due to spotty supply chain. To deal with this problem, the team and I are working on establishing contacts to be able to provide a direct supply to Madagascar for this project as it continues to scale.

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The day after seeing the biodigester in action, I went with the University students and their professor to investigate other potential pilot locations. The first location we stopped at was Manjakandriana, a 3.5 hour drive from Antananarivo toward the forest-dense east coast. There we met with the mayor of the region. During the interview, she provided survey responses for basic questions such as population, but also described the region’s environmental history. Manjakandriana was previously home to several endemic species of lemurs that lived in the area’s forests. Because these lemurs could only survive on a diet consisting of the endemic plants, they followed the endemic forest as the line retreated, which was due to people replacing the natural forest with eucalyptus trees. The eucalyptus trees grow large enough for charcoal production in 2-3 years, much faster than the growth rate of endemic trees. Because of the high reliance on charcoal around Madagascar, the endemic forest has been reduced to the small, protected forests, while eucalyptus spans all non-agricultural fields as far as the eyes can see. It’s both beautiful and frightening the sheer quantity of forest that has been converted to this imported and invasive plant species. The mayor of Manjakandriana stated that she has noticed how the water levels have been decreasing, and soil quality has been severely depleted because of this. The eucalyptus doesn’t retain the soil quality as well as the endemic plants, and soil erosion is prevalent in these regions. Even though these problems are occurring, few efforts are being made to diversify the plant make-up, or reduce deforestation rates.

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I later had an opportunity to visit Andasibe-Mantadia National Forest, a dense but small protected forest. Over 85 endemic plant species and 11 lemur species exist in this 155 km2 area. Being there was bittersweet, as I saw how the land was and could be, but I knew few options existed to restore the land to anything even close to what it was just a couple decades ago. A couple of close encounters with lemurs crossing our path put us face-to-face with a type of animal that’s being squeezed out without anywhere to go. Biodiversity in Madagascar doesn’t just mean protecting our furry friends. In the late 1950’s, scientists discovered the Madagascar Periwinkle, a plant endemic to Madagascar. The leaves of this plant produce an anti-cancer agent, and increased the survival rate of childhood leukemia from 20% to above 90%. And this is just one plant out of thousands. Scientists have yet to discover or even identify many of the endemic plant species; it’s sad to think how many possible cures exist in those lands, and will be lost forever to human practices.

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These are the potential human impacts that preserving biodiversity has, and one thing our team is working to achieve. We are also dedicated towards creating a direct and immediate impact of using biodigesters as an alternative for cooking, reducing the time spent collecting firewood and charcoal and ultimately providing a healthier living environment. I’m proud to be working on such an effort with a devoted team, and am excited to see the impact the project has as it continues through to implementation.

This blog post was written by Merry Walker, Executive Director of Vort Port International


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