I have just got back from a really interesting 2 weeks in Sri Lanka where I got a snapshot into the experiences of small- and large-scale businesses who use bioenergy efficiently and sustainably. And also some not so efficiently…
The lush green surroundings of Kandy have given way to a quarried valley and air misty with smoke. It catches your breath as you climb out of the car, and gets right into your nose and lungs. This is Digana, about 15km from Kandy, Sri Lanka, where a number of small, family-run limekilns line the valley.
Upali, a jovial 65-year old, has lived here all his life, and his father ran this operation before him. Fifty metres behind Upali’s house, a shirtless man steadily piles up lumps of limestone that have been blown off the rock face by dynamite. It is late in the afternoon but still hot, and this is certainly backbreaking and dangerous work.
Once broken down into smaller lumps the limestone is put through a grinder, then taken over to the kilns. Standing about 3 metres high, the limestone is fed into the top along with large lumps of wood that are burned to provide the heat. It takes two days for the limestone to pass from the top to the bottom of the kiln, which requires a continuous stream of energy. This process is essential to prepare the limestone to be used in cement mix. It is also used as a basic whitewash for walls, and is mixed with the Arica nut and chewed as a mild narcotic.
The process is hugely inefficient, and produces thick smoke from the wood, explaining the town’s air quality. Alongside the terrible health effects of breathing smoke like this on a daily basis, it is also not good for business. The wood cannot be sourced locally, and just one log costs around $0.6. Burning methods such as this account for deforestation on a wide scale, and the returns are slim, with Upali earning just $0.25 per KG of limestone produced.
The challenge presented here is complex. Upali learnt this trade from his Father, and not much has changed about this process in the 65-years he has been living here. Adapting mind sets to newer, more efficient ways of doing things requires a sensitive approach that may take some time, and local buy-in is essential.
Another huge barrier is the cost. Installing a modern kiln would be far more efficient, but the initial price is high. Without funding avenues such as microfinance loans and reasonable repayments, people such as Upali simply don’t have the savings to make the investment.
Read more about Practical Action’s work to tackle energy poverty here: http://practicalaction.org/energy-poverty. Upali is exactly who could benefit from increased knowledge, skills, financing and political commitment to energy, so that he can access clean, efficient and sustainable energy that will benefit both his health and his pocket. I was in Sri Lanka as part of the PISCES project, which is generating new research on sustainable and affordable bioenergy use, and is working to influence policy change in East Africa and South Asia, visit www.pisces.or.ke.