Community spirit helps this entrepreneur bring clean cooking to rural Zimbabwe
Updated: Feb 8
At just four years of age, Judith Marera began to learn about energy management - tagging along with her mother and sisters to climb the Nyakuni Mountain in rural Zimbabwe in search of firewood. Luckily, her family home was near the mountain; other girls and women had to do a 5-km trek, several times each week.
As she grew older, collecting wood became a constant preoccupation. Even on her way to school, Judith would gather a few logs and hide them in the bushes to pick up in the afternoon for next days meals. And she could see things were changing: the trees became depleted, forcing families to go farther. She also became aware of new dangers and learned ways to try to avoid men who took advantage of women and children.
"Sometimes, it would be raining and without any protective clothing, we would get soaked and the firewood would also be too wet to make fire," says Marera. "During my childhood, I experienced what women and the girl child go through in search of firewood for cooking. I vowed to myself that no child of mine will go through the same challenges."
A burning desire brings Marera back to cooking
The time and learning during the event triggered a return to her promise to find solutions for cleaner cooking. She discussed her ideas with a church member, Doreen Shirichena, who eventually became co-founder. Together, they studied more about various technologies, engaged trained professionals to assist and did a lot of leg work to interface with the community they wanted to target.
By late 2018, Marera and Shirichena were ready to launch Lanforce Energy, a company that produces energy for local households by converting available waste - excreta, food scraps, etc. into biogas. When produced in household-level biogas reactors, biogas is most suitable for cooking or to generate electricity for lighting and other household devices.
Over just three years, across dozens of villages, Judith and her staff have saved women and girls the time and effort needed to collect wood while also reducing deforestation and CO2 emissions.
Use of fuel in Zimbabwe
In 2019, only 30% of households in Zimbabwe had access to technologies for cleaner cooking, meaning 70% still relied on traditional sources and methods, according to the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program. Because they bear much of the burden of collecting firewood or other traditional fuels, women and children are disproportionally affected by the health impacts.
Globally, nearly 3 billion people still rely on wood and traditional biomass, typically used in inefficient stoves, for cooking and heating their homes, according to the World Bank. Deforestation and woodland degradation are issues of great concern in such regions. Deforestation gutted 37% of Zimbabwe's forested land between 1990 and 2015; today, forests cover ~87 000 hectares (~215 000 acres) of the country, according to a 2015 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Getting around the problem of free vs. unaffordable
People who collect wood tend to think of it as ‘free fuel and have low or no ability to consider its long-term consequences. The estimated health, climate and gender equality costs add up to a staggering $2.4 trillion annually, according to the World Bank.
The combined effect of rising costs for basic necessities including energy sources, economic contraction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and poor harvests pushed almost half the population in Zimbabwe into extreme poverty in 2020, according to the 2020 Rapid Poverty Income Consumption and Expenditure Survey (PICES) Telephonic Survey conducted by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT), in partnership with the World Bank and UNICEF. This is a substantial increase from the poverty headcount (% of population below the poverty line) of 38.3% reported in 2019, according to the World Bank.
As these influences drove many people back to traditional cooking methods, they also informed the business model Lanforce developed to bring biodigesters to poor communities.
"Our project is capital-intensive", says Marera, who turned to a crowd investing strategy, asking organisations or groups of community members to pool their resources to purchase a digester. "In this way, we can provide [the biodigester technology] to these disadvantaged communities and they are able to pay for it over up to two years. They dont need to to stress themselves."
In 2021, Lanforce received funding from the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), an African-funded entrepreneurship catalyst that offers non-returnable seed capital of $5 000, 12 weeks of business management training, access to experienced mentors and membership to Africa's largest entrepreneurial ecosystem. Since 2015, TEF has empowered more than 15 000 African entrepreneurs.
Unleashing the power of women to tackle bigger problems and realise bigger dreams
For Marera, less time spent collecting fuel and cooking means more time for more important things. While access to biogas changes what they can do with that time.
"For their school-going kids, they now have access to lighting and read into the night without the use of kerosene, says Marera. The farmers also have access to organic fertilizers for crops. Now, they can power their refrigerators. When they kill a cow, they can now put some meat in the refrigerators so they can eat it fresh unlike in the past where they have to sun-dry them."
Globally, women lag behind men in leadership and technical jobs in the renewable energy sector, representing just one-third of the renewable energy workforce, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. Unequal access to education, as well as limited opportunity for women to gain technical skills and training opportunities, drive this gender gap, as do unfair company policies and several other factors.
This is another area that Lanforce is working on at the local level. It now has 35 community-based agents spread out across rural Zimbabwe and plans to double that number by the end of 2022. At present, 25 of the Lanforce staff are women -- almost 75%!
"We want to ensure some of these women become technicians, says Marera. It is why we liaised with Chinhoyi University of Technology. They offer programmes in biofuels and energy and send the ladies to us for their internship so we can grow their careers further."
As Lanforce grows, so does its ambition. "We would like to expand to Mozambique, says Marera. Women and girls there face the same challenges. So, we want to introduce them to biogas and let them enjoy the benefits of having clean cooking in their communities."