FUELING A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE: Lasting Impacts of a USDA Borlaug Fellowship Program (Sponsored)

Daouda Sidibe

In 2010, Daouda Sidibe arrived at the University of Missouri (MU) to begin a 12-week USDA/FAS Borlaug Fellowship Program. Sidibe would embark on a journey that would leave imprints well beyond 12 weeks and result in a partnership with MU that continues to this day.

On the African continent, the majority of the population depends on biomass to meet their energy demands. The heavy reliance on wood for fuel is causing depletion of natural resources and leaving communities vulnerable to unexpected and sudden changes from climate change and sociopolitical events. Additionally concerning are the adverse health effects arising from indoor burning of the firewood. The World Health Organization estimates indoor smoke from firewood is one of the leading causes of preventable morbidity and mortality worldwide. It is imperative to diversify energy sources to halt deforestation and improve the livelihoods of communities.

Cochran Fellows can stove

Senegalese Cochran fellows learn how to assemble and use a high-efficiency cooking stove made from food cans.

As a country ranked among the poorest in the world, Mali is facing challenges adapting to an increasing population and resultant strain on already limited natural resources. According to a report by the Ministry of Environment, Mali is losing more than 100,000 hectares of forests each year to meet energy needs. The mostly rural population has come to rely heavily on firewood for cooking and heating as they are less expensive than other available sources. Especially pressing is the need to identify alternative renewable sources of energy for cooking to replace firewood and reduce deforestation. The country’s livelihood, alongside many developing countries, depends on the adoption of innovative and sustainable natural resource management practices.

Building Partnerships on the Borlaug Fellowship Program

For Sidibe, research specialist in agroforestry at Mali’s Institute of Rural Economy, the increasing deforestation in Mali and unsustainable use of natural resources sparked his journey to the University of Missouri on a USDA/FAS Borlaug Fellowship Program in 2010. The goal of the Borlaug Fellowship Program is to promote food security and economic growth by providing training and collaborative research opportunities for international scientists.

Under the mentorship of Francisco Aguilar, associate professor of forestry at the University of Missouri, Sidibe embarked on 12 weeks of training that explored new natural resource technologies and management practices that would advance his research capacity and promote agricultural development in Mali.

The mentor follow-up visit turned out to be one of the most insightful and rewarding components of the Borlaug program for both Sidibe and Aguilar. Speaking on his visit, Aguilar said, “The Norman Borlaug Program provided the opportunity for me to learn about Mali. It was my first time in Western Africa and it was an immense learning experience about the country’s natural resources as well as cultures and traditions.”

The visit exposed Aguilar to the realities facing Mali and the opportunity to partner with Sidibe on a project that would improve the livelihood of families in rural areas and deliver immediate benefits to the country.

Benefits of the Bio-Digester

Aguilar’s research had previously included involvement in Asia and the Americas on the implementation of technology that promoted the production of renewable energy and reduced the utilization of firewood. This innovative solution is the bio-digester – a low-cost technology that transforms animal waste into energy and cooking fuel.

Aguilar was first introduced to the benefits of the bio-digester as an undergraduate student at Earth University in Costa Rica. For developing countries with limited resources, the low-cost bio-digester has the power to transform communities by generating biogas from animal waste and producing organic fertilizer for subsistence or cash crops. The biogas improves the livelihoods of families by creating a renewable and diversified energy source utilizing locally available materials. This diversification contributes to more resilient households and strengthened energy security.

Equally beneficial are the impacts on agricultural productivity and the health of communities. The organic fertilizer contributes to enhanced soil quality and crop productivity, leading to improved agricultural and economic development. The benefits of the bio-digester are also conferred on the health status of communities by reducing environmental pollution and improving sanitary conditions by providing an alternative treatment of animal waste. Women are particularly impacted by installation of bio-digesters as they traditionally gather the firewood and use it under adverse conditions. Together the benefits and economic feasibility encourage the use of bio-digesters as a sustainable natural resource management practice.

Transforming Waste into Energy

polyethylene installation

Polyethylene is placed in grave for installation in Poutou.

In 2012, Aguilar and Sidibe were awarded a grant from the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service’s Scientific Cooperation Research Program to build six low-cost bio-digesters in Mali. Due to political unrest in the country, the decision was made to move the project west to Senegal – a country experiencing similar natural resource constraints.

Sidibe and the USDA-FAS office in Dakar connected the team with researchers at the Programme National de Biogaz Domestique du Sénégal and Ecole Polytechnique de Thiès (Senegal). Aguilar brought in additional support from Raul Botero, a biogas expert and his former colleague from Earth University.

Together, the team traveled to the Potou region of Senegal to visit six villages identified as intervention sites by the Millennium Promise. Two bio-digesters were installed in the region, with villagers, field officers from the UN Millennium Project Corporation, and personnel from the Programme National de Biogaz Domestique du Sénégal receiving training on the installation process. The bio-digester sparked immense interest and the women in particular led efforts to feed the digester with mixed manure and water to initiate the production of methane for cooking.

Equally important, the bio-digestion sites allowed for the sharing of technology and knowledge between the research team and local extension personnel with the goal to promote its continued adoption in the country with a vision toward greater adoption of the technology in Western Africa.

Global Partnerships

Sidibe and Aguilar are continuing their efforts to promote greater adoption of bio-digestion in Africa. Sidibe’ s connection to Senegal, and his continued collaboration with Aguilar, has brought new opportunities to share their knowledge in the promotion of biofuels as a sustainable livelihoods strategy. In July of this year, Sidibe was instrumental in connecting MU to a Cochran Fellowship Program offering training to three Senegalese on Biofuels for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods. Aguilar hosted the fellows for two weeks of training that explored bio-digestion and its applicability in their given context. Together they hope to build new partnerships that promote renewable energy in the country.

Biogas is growing in popularity as an energy source especially for rural communities in Africa. Successful adoption of bio-digestion technology relies on the translation of knowledge to the local community on the benefits of using a renewable energy source as well as understanding the social acceptability and economic feasibility for the given geographic and cultural context.

“New technologies have to be adapted to socioeconomic and cultural contexts,” Aguilar said. “We need to remain people-centered, listen to potential users, and adapt some energy technologies to be socially acceptable.”

For Aguilar and Sidibe, their collaboration knows no boundaries – it is a global partnership that continues to promote a sustainable future for all.

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