Alex Eaton seeks to transform the culture of waste and resource management among small-scale Mexican farmers through the introduction of appropriate biodigester systems. The goal of Alex’s Sistema Biobolsa model is to empower farmers to take an active role to escape the cycle of rural poverty and improve the quality of their own lives.
The New Idea
By engaging rural famers in a comprehensive, multi-stepped process consisting of financing, installation, training, and long-term accompaniment in the use of appropriate biodigester systems, Alex is fostering a new culture of sustainable resource management in Mexico and Central America. Motivated by a desire to inspire a sense of dignity among poor farming communities that have long been ensnared in a cycle of poverty, Alex and his Sistema Biobolsa team are working to fundamentally change farmers’ attitudes about their ability to change their own lives. Through the significant health and lifestyle benefits that the biodigester and its outputs offer, as well as the opportunity to take advantage of better rural technology in general, Sistema Biobolsa is revolutionizing the relationship between small-scale rural farmers and energy use in a way that is both sustainable and empowering for their particular needs.
In Alex’s view, the biodigester is not an end in and of itself, but rather the means to change rural farmers’ energy use and their perception of their own conditions. Initiatives that use biogas technology to produce renewable energy are well-known around Asia, Africa, and in some parts of Latin America, yet generally they have failed to produce long-lasting, systems-changing results. To overcome these challenges, Alex has designed a new, high-quality yet affordable biodigester that is expressly tailored to the particular needs of a small-scale farmer. Through a relatively easy-to-use technology, farmers can transform their animal waste—which they normally pile in their fields—into an odorless gas usable for cooking or heating water and into an organic fertilizer, for use in further crop production. Alex inspires farmers to consider new ways to integrate renewable and sustainable technology into their lives. He educates farmers in topics of sustainability, energy efficiency, and resource management in the close maintenance activities between the technicians and the farmers. The farmers begin to understand renewable energy and their impact on their community to a far greater extent than ever before. By incorporating close user follow-up, a culturally sensitive education program to bring and keep new users in the program, and an economically and sustainable strategy for both the farmers and Alex’s organization, Alex has created a bold and powerful project far distinguished from other projects with a similar technology around the world, with a greater mission of raising a culture of waste and resource consciousness.
Organic waste management is a persistent problem in many rural parts of Mexico and Central America. Rather than eliminate organic agricultural waste in a safe and sustainable way, small-scale farmers will often either leave their animal manure in cattle pens or pile it in areas that are close to common living spaces for up to a year, as they wait for the manure to decompose into organic fertilizer. This poses obvious health risks for both the farmer’s family and the broader community, as the waste often drains into shared irrigation systems and the potable water supply. Alex attributes this problem to the lack of a culture of sustainable resource management not only in Mexico and Central America, but throughout much of South America. Above all, small-scale farmers have no knowledge that their organic agricultural waste has the potential to be a renewable energy resource. While in some parts of the world a predominant “waste-to-resource” culture does exist, in Latin America there have been so few successful demonstrations of this closed energy loop that recycling organic waste is rare. Although these communities also lack adequate sanitation systems to eliminate and reuse waste in a healthy and productive way, the underlying problem derives from the lack of popular knowledge about resource management.
Instead of taking advantage of sustainable energy resources that they already have on hand, many small-scale farmers remain dependent on damaging chemicals to boost production. While these chemicals are often inexpensive in the short-term, their cost builds up over time and directly affects the farmers’ income, and they have also been associated with human health problems. Furthermore, this dependency perpetuates the cycle of rural poverty in which they are trapped, creating a psychological sense of personal inadequacy and low self-worth. This feeling of disempowerment directly affects the farmers’ well-being and livelihood, and it poses an important if intangible barrier to helping poor rural communities become the agents of their own escape from the poverty cycle.
A multitude of government- and citizen organization (CO)-backed programs have attempted to install biodigesters in various Latin American countries in the past, but most have failed to create lasting change in small farmers’ lives. Many have employed deficient technology, either due to low-quality, defective systems or materials that were inappropriate for the context of the small-scale agrarian lifestyle. Many programs have also failed to provide the extensive training and long-term follow-up needed to ensure that the farmers incorporate the biodigester into their normal work patterns. Unless the benefits become clear and they start to adjust their lifestyles to use the technology, farmers tend to abandon the biodigester. Other programs have set unrealistically high prices that put the technology out of the reach of poor farmers. Consequently, the failing track record of these initiatives has led many rural communities to distrust outsiders who promise life-changing benefits from the use of unfamiliar technology.
Alex organizes the Sistema Biobolsa model using a hybrid non-profit and for-profit structure. The program receives the support of the International Renewable Resources Institute (IRRI Mexico), a Mexican CO that Alex helped found and that is dedicated to research on sustainable natural resource use. Sistema Biobolsa is one of a variety of initiatives backed by IRRI Mexico. Because IRRI Mexico’s legal status as a Mexican non-profit organization does not allow it to sell the Biobolsa systems, in 2010 Alex established a social business in Mexico, Buen Manejo del Campo, which receives private investment to expand its manufacturing and installation activities. Alex reinvests all of his net profits from Buen Manejo del Campo in the expansion of the Sistema Biobolsa model. Overall, this hybrid structure gives him the flexibility to conduct research with universities and receive philanthropic donations through IRRI Mexico while also ensuring the project’s financial sustainability and potential for growth through Buen Manejo del Campo.
One of Sistema Biobolsa’s most important innovations is the biodigester itself, which has been adapted from the large-scale technology usually employed by industrial farms to the needs of small-scale farmers. Alex and his team spent five years designing the current system, taking into account user feedback to create a biodigester that is easy to install and use yet durable. The Biobolsa is a large bag made of tough synthetic plastic; it measures approximately fifteen feet long and is placed in a trench dug outside the farmer’s house. The system’s only inputs are human or animal waste and water. The bag completely encloses an anaerobic environment that allows the bacteria in the manure to flourish and convert the organic waste into biogas and organic fertilizer. A tube connects with another bag that collects the biogas and issues it through a pipe that leads into the home for use in the kitchen or bathroom. Another tube funnels the biol, a liquid organic fertilizer, from the Biobolsa to an exterior tank. The manure produced by two cows or six pigs per day can issue a cubic meter of biogas, equivalent to 2.2kWh of electricity. After an initial month-long period while the system reaches its full productive capacity, the Biobolsa produces biogas and fertilizer on a daily basis so long as the farmer continues to input manure and water.
Initially, farmers are skeptical of the concept that a bag with organic waste and water can yield biogas for use in their kitchens and fertilizer to be used in their fields or sold as a surplus product. Accordingly, Alex has developed a meticulous strategy to win the confidence of his users. First, his team of technicians—all of whom come from rural communities themselves, and many of whom are women—holds community gatherings to explain the system and invite families to see an example in action. They emphasize that the biodigester facilitates their work and increases their production while drastically reducing energy costs. Alex has the support of local and state governments, agricultural cooperatives, and local COs to promote Sistema Biobolsa and organize the initial meetings with the farmers.
Upon identifying interested families, Alex and his technicians train them to use their biodigester. The first farm to install the biodigester in each community serves as a prototype from which to launch larger outreach to the community. The relationship between Sistema Biobolsa and the user continues long after initial installation. Besides evaluating the overall functioning of the biodigester, over a series of personal visits during the subsequent six months, technicians train the users to perform daily use and upkeep for their system. This is a significant departure from other initiatives that would normally dispatch a specialist to resolve technical failures and thus would disincentize a close relationship between the user and his or her biodigester. After the first six-month “adoption period,” Sistema Biobolsa certifies the family as biodigestor users and “local experts” who will be offered the opportunity to speak at Alex’s subsequent events or hold demonstrations.
In the long run, the biodigester yields significant cost savings because families no longer have to pay either for traditional gas or chemical fertilizer. Although the initial fixed costs of purchasing the biodigester is high, between $800 and $1,000, Alex guarantees access to 0 percent interest micro-loans from one of four partner microfinance institutions to cover the initial investment and that users experience long-run economic benefits. The loans are also guaranteed up to 80 percent by FIRA, the Mexican federal government’s agricultural development bank. Loan repayments are scheduled through a simple repayment plan wherein payments are collected during the regularly scheduled follow-up and monitoring activities. Monthly payments are designed to be less than the monthly savings generated by the biodigester (the offset to energy and fertilizer expenses), so the farmers can still perceive a net savings in their first few months of using the biodigester. Furthermore, the direct outputs of the biodigester, biogas and organic fertilizer, can displace the use of traditional kerosene and manufactured fertilizer in the farmer’s work and home. Alex has calculated that use of the biodigester’s organic products will pay back in full the cost of the system in a span of 8 to 18 months, depending on the farmers’ baseline conditions and on variations in system sizes. Once the system is fully paid off, what traditionally would be normal household expenses now contributes to increased disposable income or savings.
The other component of Alex’s model that requires substantial financing is the user accompaniment. Alex finances Sistema Biobolsa’s maintenance and follow-up programs through the sale of carbon credits on the international voluntary carbon market. During their visits, his technicians calculate the net displacement of carbon emissions achieved through the use of biogas instead of traditional gas in each household. These data are registered with MicroEnergy Credits, a third-party international vendor of carbon emissions that aggregates the impact of small sustainable initiatives like Sistema Biobolsa. These credits are then sold to a single buyer, EcoSecurities, and the profits are used to finance the organization’s follow-up procedures with biodigester users.
The Biobolsa System is currently in a pilot stage to validate the various components of the model and to make adjustments before launching it on a massive scale within a year. Alex has installed 100 biodigesters in Mexico over the past two years in ten different states, each representing a base and a prototype to scale even further across the distinct regions of the country. He has also installed biodigesters in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica in other small pilot projects. Alex’s goal was to install between 600 and 1,000 biodigesters in 2011, to triple production in 2012 and to reach 10,000 installations per year by 2016. To achieve these levels of impact, Alex is pursuing a two-pronged replication strategy. First, he has forged alliances with governments and rural COs that can help install biodigesters in the communities where they work. Second, he is beginning to implement a train-the-trainer model that seeks to empower rural farmers as emissaries of the technology while also extending Sistema Biobolsa’s reach. The most enthusiastic biodigester users receive training from the Sistema Biobolsa staff to spread the technology to other farmers around the area. These “ambassadors” form a local cooperative that promotes, sells, and installs the biodigesters in neighboring communities, thus creating an additional income stream for farmers.
For Alex, the implementation of biodigesters is a first step toward promoting the adoption of other appropriate technologies that will improve farmers’ production, reduce their reliance on unsustainable resources, and begin to promote a sense of hope and control in their lives. In this sense, Sistema Biobolsa serves as the entry point for further user empowerment as these rural communities develop their own knowledge of renewable energy and sustainable natural resource management.
Raised on an organic farm in New Hampshire, Alex has always felt an affinity with small farmers. He believes that in being so close to the earth day after day, farmers enjoy a deep and complex understanding of the environmental challenges that threaten the welfare of their families. A longtime outdoor enthusiast, Alex began his formal studies in a leadership school in Kenya where he studied natural sciences and undertook recreational activities like mountain climbing and trekking. Motivated by his desire to meet and learn about other cultures, he graduated from college with a degree in journalism and communication. He began to write about environmental issues, a passion that he had developed over many years, but he soon found that reporting on environmental problems rather than acting to solve them did not satisfy him.
While serving as a freelance correspondent, Alex’s passion for the outdoors took him to Alaska. He spent several years in the remote wilderness serving as a guide on kayaking and skiing expeditions and training search-and-rescue teams in extreme conditions. He found these high-risk activities thrilling, but after a harrowing experience rescuing fellow mountaineers caught in an avalanche, he became particularly sensitive to the fragility of life. In search of a change, Alex left Alaska to join a friend in Nicaragua who was installing photovoltaic and solar cooking and drying systems, which inspired a new interest in rural technology.
A few years later, Alex returned to graduate school to receive a master’s degree in Environmental Systems Engineering with post-graduate work in international development and general engineering. He started a new career in renewable energy, initially working as an independent consultant for various sustainable energy projects worldwide. Alex first built the Mexico Biogas Program, an educational initiative, while also assembling a working group in Mexico and founding the Latin American Biodigester Network. He soon became a recognized expert on biogas initiatives in Mexico and opened the International Renewable Resources Institute, of which he is Executive Director. This institute houses the operations for Sistema Biobolsa, for which Alex wrote a business plan in 2009. With prize money he received after winning the Global Social Entrepreneur of 2010 Award from the Netherlands-based BID for his business plan, Alex gathered a team to launch the project.
Alex says that more than anything he prefers working directly with farmers in the Mexican countryside. He has since relocated himself and his family to Mexico to dedicate himself full-time to Sistema Biobolsa. Alex considers his work with biodigesters to be a combination of his two strongest passions—working with small farmers and promoting renewable energy and environmental development, in order to awaken a new consciousness about resource sustainability in Latin America.