Socio-Cultural Aspects of Biogas Projects

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History of Biogas Technology

Europe / Germany

1770 The Italian Volta collected marsh gas and investigated its burning behavior.
1821 Avogadro identified methane (CH4 ).
1875 Propoff states that biogas is produced under anaerobic conditions.
1884 Pasteur researched on biogas from animal residues. He proposed the utilization of horse litter to produce biogas for street-lighting.
1906 First anaerobic wastewater-treatment plant in Germany.
1913 First anaerobic digester with heating facility.
1920 First German sewage plant to feed the collected biogas into the public gas supply system.
1940 Addition of organic residues (fat) to increase sewage gas production.
1947 Research demonstrates that the dung of one cow can give a hundred times more gas than the feces of one urban inhabitant.

Establishment of the first working group on biogas in Germany.
1950 Installation of the first larger agricultural biogas plant.
1950s Nearly 50 biogas plants are built, fed by litter mixed with water and dung. Low oil prices and technical problems lead to the shutdown of all but two plants.
1974 After the first 'energy crisis', increased promotion of research on and implementation of agricultural biogas technology by the EC and federal departments.
1985 75 biogas plants are listed (built or planned). Biogas slurry is increasingly used as liquid manure.
1990 Progress due to guaranteed prices for biogas-generated electricity. Progress in optimizing the mixture of substrates, the use of biogas for different purposes and technology details.
1992 Foundation of the German biogas association 'Fachverband Biogas'
More than 400 agricultural biogas plants exist in Germany.

China and India

The history of biogas exploration and utilization in China covers a period of more than 70 years. First, biogas plants were build in the 1930s by prosperous families. Since the 1970s biogas research and technology were developed at a high speed and biogas technology was promoted vigorously by the Chinese government. In rural areas, more than seven million small biogas digesters have been constructed and by 2008 about 28 million households used biogas.

In India, the development of simple biogas plants for rural households started in the 1950s. A massive increase in the number of biogas plants took place in the 1970s through strong government backing. Meanwhile, more than one million biogas plants exist in India.

The historical experiences in Germany, China and India demonstrate clearly, how biogas development responds to favorable frame conditions. In Germany, biogas dissemination gained momentum through the need for alternative energy sources in a war-torn economy and during an energy crisis or later by the change of electricity pricing. In India and China it was a strong government program that furthered the mass dissemination of biogas technology.

German Promotion of Biogas Technology in the South

In the late 1970's, triggered by Schuhmacher's 'Small is Beautiful', appropriate, simple technologies entered the arena of development work in the South. Not Northern high-tech, but innovative, affordable, simple and traditional technologies, it was believed, were the remedy for the development- and technology-gap between industrialized and developing countries. Following its launching in 1980, GTZ-GATE chose biogas technology as a focal point of its activities. This resulted in a cross-sectoral scheme that has been accompanying and supporting the development and dissemination of biogas technology in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Industrialized countries neither had sufficient experience nor appropriate technologies to build on in developing countries. Rather, this experience was identified in India and China and transmitted by a South-North-South transfer. The term 'appropriate technology' seemed justified by the fact that this technology was adapted to the respective local conditions during a 'learning-with-developing-countries' process.

A number of biogas dissemination programs involving German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) were launched in Bolivia, Colombia, Nicaragua, the Caribbean (see Belize and Jamaica), Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Morocco and Thailand. Initially, biogas and anaerobic technology focused on small scale farmers. At a later stage, larger farms as well as waste treatment issues increasingly became the focus of biogas technology.

These activities have resulted in a number of positive spin-off effects in the partner countries, in Germany, Europe and international development cooperation. Like in other fields of appropriate technology (AT) promotion, environmental protection, energy provision and the support to private enterprise development are increasingly seen as inseparable elements of sustainable (technology) development.


Societal Support for Biogas

The basic principle of any planning should be to involve those concerned in the planning process as early as possible. This principle applies even more if the pre-feasibility studies have revealed a considerable amount of problems. In any case it is better to discuss these quite openly with those concerned and seek mutual solutions rather than to rely on the method "it will all work out in the end".

The point in time when participation is started is decisive. It is too early to expect full participation before the technology has reached a certain technical maturity and the conditions for it's dissemination are fully explored. It is, on the other hand, just as wrong to confront people with 'final solutions'. In this case there is the risk of obtaining verbal agreement without effective consequence. The ideal time for introducing concept and technology is during the last phase of the investigation, when preliminary results can be shown to those concerned as a basis for discussion. These discussions serve as a first test of the preliminary results. Furthermore, the structures of leadership and decision making can be observed clearly in such situations.

That does not mean that each of the proposals by the community should be accepted blindly. The fact that biogas technology requires a specific technical and economical organization should be stressed. A breakdown of planning would be preferable to unfeasible compromises. In view of this it is often advisable to invite the local technician to take part in these negotiations. His technically based arguments tend to be well accepted in situations of disagreement.

Political Will and Public Opinion

The development of biogas technology depends on the political will of donor and recipient governments. It is the task of the governmental and administrative authorities to provide access to the technology and to secure and organize the requisite material, financial and legal basis. According to their political will to promote biogas, governments can play a more or less supportive role in biogas research, information dissemination and regulations for funding, subsidies or tax waving. The formation of a political will does not evolve in a vacuum. Political will and public opinion develop in interrelation. Successful practical examples, encouraging research findings, the use of media to spread information, all these are tools to influence both political will and public opinion.

Modelvillghana.jpg Sign of the National Biogas Department/National Energy Board in Ghana
Photo: Kellner (TBW)

Biogas programs should attempt to lobby for biogas at various entry points of the government system simultaneously. Creating a favorable climate for biogas dissemination depends almost always on a whole range of decision makers.For example:

  • The Ministry of Finance will decide on subsidies and tax wavers for biogas users.
  • The Ministry of Energy can propose laws regarding the feeding of biogas-produced electricity into the grid. It can also propose financial and other assistance.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock can include biogas in the training curriculum of extension officers and agricultural colleges.
  • The Ministry of Education can include biogas in the curricula of high schools and promote the construction of bio-latrines for schools.
  • The Ministry of Health can include biogas in the curricula of public health workers and encourage the building of bio-latrines for hospitals.

Simultaneously to political lobbying, PR work is important to influence public opinion:

  • Radio Programs are an effective means in rural areas to familiarize the population with basics of biogas technology.
  • Articles in Print Media usually reach members of the middle class, among whom are the most promising potential users: middle to large farmers.
  • Pilot Biogas Systems must be located strategically to be easily accessible. The more these pilot plants have a 'real life character', i.e. be an operational part of a farm, the more convincing they will be for other farmers.
  • Visits in Agricultural Schools and Colleges does not reach the decision makers of today, but lays the ground for biogas acceptance in the future.

Religious and Social Taboos

Taboos, as a rule, are always of an overall social character. Violation of taboos is sanctioned (penalized), the extent and form of penalty being determined socially. Sanctions can vary from a direct 'punishment' to social disrespect. In many cases an immediate punishment (corporal punishment, exile from the village etc.) is no longer possible nowadays as state legislation claims a monopoly for punishment. This does not simplify the problem but makes it even more difficult. Instead of an official, foreseeable punishment, social exclusion occurs now in many cases and can be just as serious for those concerned but becomes practically inaccessible for a project or for authorities. As 'social punishment' is forbidden the 'sanctions' are not spoken about, especially when they target a program desired and aided by the state. An exclusion of participants by the community with all its negative consequences is not declared as such by the community and therefore rarely directly accessible.

On the other hand, from these 'sanctions' arises the opportunity to overcome resentments. In general, sanctions are governed by a 'ruling instance' or 'authority' who watches over these taboos and proclaims the punishment when they are violated. But this authority also determines possible exceptions. A general misconception is that taboos basically 'cannot be broken'. No society is inflexible to the extent that regulations do not allow for changes and modifications. In any case, exceptions have to be agreed upon by a recognized instance.


Authorities can be:

  • for religious taboos: priests or members with a religious function, for instance the elders of the community.
  • for social taboos: social leaders, e.g. the elders, traditionally or modern politically leading groups or personalities etc. Often older women play a more important role than the outside observer would see.
  • or general: especially recognized members (key persons), either in the sense of traditional structures of leadership or people of certain professions like teachers or local bank managers.

Disregard of Taboos

For the acceptance of exceptions a person or group of persons has a greater effect the more the taboo and the system behind it is generally recognized. If the system and its leaders have been accepted they become the only instance to be consulted concerning exceptions. Any opposition to this group will result in resistance even if individuals within the group are prepared to disregard the regulations.

It should not be assumed that any recognized leader can disregard taboos or suspend them and remain unpunished. These people are also part of the system and have to observe the rules of the system. It is quite right to start lobbying for technical innovations with recognized leaders, but is also necessary, if they can be won, to leave them with the initiative and allow them to decide on the procedure of technology introduction.

Just as the general extensive survey provides the basis for the problem analysis and the starting point of a project, it is essential to recognize that local application cannot be structured according to a general method but has to be integrated in the local context. To mention one example, priests are generally seen as religious leaders but this does not mean that their influence is equal in all localities. Cooperation with priests for local programs should depend on the quality of their local status.

Social Classes and Class Barriers

In their general features, social classes are the binding structure in each society and an important phenomenon which has to be reckoned with and included early enough in planning. It must be taken into account that class structures and class barriers exist in locally specific variations which have a considerable influence on implementation.

Typical deviations are:

For hierarchical societies

  • the absence of certain hierarchical groups in a village
  • the shifting of the hierarchy on account of certain (changing) conditions
  • a restructuring of the hierarchy for certain projects

For more egalitarian societies

  • the abolition of egalitarian principles by specific village personalities
  • the abolition of egalitarian principles by specialization

As these deviations cannot be foreseen, it is wise to compare the results of similar or comparable projects for the preliminary analysis. An essential preliminary analysis offers the following possibilities:

  • the development of a general class model including test criteria to check its local application
  • the potential for the allocation of individual functions
  • the potential for the allocation of certain jobs

Development of a General Model

If such a quite rudimentary model is enriched by additional material from other measures in neighboring areas, a series of check questions can be derived and applied in the target area or group. This preliminary model serves as a reference instrument for the main survey and also as a control for results gained. The latter is very important since over-optimistic statements can be made by target groups which are interested in project measures. This applies to the whole project as well as to the allocation of special functions to individual groups. The model is in no case a substitute for a local survey. Local deviations, possibly on account of personality, can be so great that they do not principally change the model but can very much affect the degree of functioning in an initial implementation.

Definition of Position of the Target Group

Equally important to the development of question and control structures is the definition of position of the target group in relation to neighboring groups. The extensive observation of the whole society can provide a series of criteria for the initial analysis.

Special importance is attached to this method in the following situations:

  1. The proposed group or institution is not or only minimally self-sufficient in its biogas measures. It requires deliveries (material or service) from other groups, either a neighboring village or another enterprise. Such matters become relevant whenever certain regulations exist within the extensive class system but do not appear within the local system. In such cases an investigation has to take place, for example, whether neighboring groups who would have to deliver substrate, would accept this. This investigation is of great importance when within the target group a 'violation' of the class system is accepted. It is frequently found out afterwards that this 'violation' is not given because the essential suppliers do not accept their counterparts; now and again it can be seen that certain groups within the target group only give their approval because they are sure that the conditions negotiated would not be accepted by the partner groups.
  2. The implementation takes place within the context of a more extensive program, possibly a pilot program. In this case it is not sufficient to obtain the acceptance only within the temporary target group but an investigation into whether this model is acceptable for later target groups has to be carried out. Although it is in principle practicable to keep the model variable for later adaptation to other target groups, it should not be overlooked that the interest of later target groups will be affected by the pilot model. 'Violations' against social norms which are acceptable for the initial target group could be rejected in neighboring communities and lead to a general rejection of the 'biogas project'. Consequently pilot models should avoid 'far-reaching' violations even if these are locally possible.

Social Regulations for the Division of Labor

Reasons for Regulations on the Division of Labor

Social regulations for the division of labor can arise for the following reasons:

  • Privileges of certain groups in taking over specific jobs or being released from less desirable work. These privileges can stem from belonging to a social or ethnic group, age group or sex.
  • Social and traditional allocation of specific work for specific groups. The division of labor among the sexes belongs here.
  • 'Regulations' on the division of labor caused by political or economic dependency which means e.g. the necessity for the 'village rich' to carry out certain tasks in order to secure labor during agricultural seasons etc.

The regulations on the division of labor always prove to be an especially persistent phenomenon; 'leading' groupings frequently refuse to carry out socially or religiously 'banned' jobs (handling feces, heavy manual work etc.) as they are 'non-rank conform' and force socially or economically dependent groups to take over these tasks. This applies especially to the division of labor between sexes.

Difficulties in Researching Social Regulations

To investigate in social regulations is difficult as their existence is often not admitted to 'strangers', however strong their influence on the later course of the measures may be. It is not an exception when, for example, in an interview a man agrees to take over a certain task - but means in saying this that his wife or a person dependent on him will carry out the task. For the interviewee this is no 'lie'; for him it is a matter of course that he means, by agreeing, that he will allocate the task. In individual interviews this leads to wrong interpretations which could have a considerable influence on the implementation model. Leaders in many societies assume that their statement will be valued as correct. Who would think that they carry out such jobs themselves? On the other hand, the purpose of the interview is accurately guessed and the answer given accordingly. The implementer would like an as even distribution of work as possible; he could consider the regulations of labor division to be 'bad'. And so, the answer is given accordingly, so that noone has to be 'ashamed'. Unfortunately this changes nothing as far as the later reality is concerned. Especially in the case of traditionally underprivileged groups, often including women, it has to be expected that the 'leaders' as well as the 'laborers' find it very difficult to give correct statements on the division of tasks.


It can be concluded that:

  • On the one hand an extensive preliminary investigation which can often refer to literature is essential. If there are general strong tendencies towards division of labor within a target region, statements concerning the even delegation of jobs within the target group have to be treated with caution.
  • The local interviewing of the target group does not initially refer to the future project, but to comparable, existent job routines. If there is a strict division of labor here, no promises of an egalitarian division of work within the proposed biogas project should be made.

Gender Considerations

Women are kept out of many decision-making processes as far as they exceed the family, are connected with the allocation of finances or are concerned with 'technical measures'. On the other hand, women may be the main interested parties concerning biogas for cooking. Once a plant is constructed, they are the most affected by the malfunctioning of a plant.

Forms of Participation

Which form of participation is appropriate for women cannot be decided from outside. It is of little use to the women if they are 'forced' into a decision-making body without being truly accepted by other members. Their impact could be even less than by influencing of the husband. When there are problems with the plant, it is the women who can be a stabilizing element. As they are more affected by malfunctioning of the plant, they are more interested than men in, for example, a well functioning repair service.

Different models should be considered according to the standing of women in society:

  • the careful integration of women into decision making bodies
  • women committees for the regulation of consumer problems whilst matters of finance are left to the men
  • specialized committees with a mixed central body

Special Female Committees

The impact of a female committee should not be underestimated. Even if it has no direct influence on decisions it embodies a greater confidence of the women and so indirectly influences decisions. This sort of special committee can also be an initial step towards full participation in the future.

It is necessary to take not only the women but also the men into consideration when discussing gender specific questions. A participation model which is not effective for these will also not help the women.

Further Information