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close this book Diffusion of Biomass Energy Technologies in Developing Countries
View the document Acknowledgements
View the document PREFACE
View the document OVERVIEW
View the document 2 ENERGY AND DEVELOPMENT
View the document 3 NEEDS OF THE POOR
View the document 5 TECHNICAL FACTORS
View the document BIBLIOGRAPHY


In addition to purely technical viability, we are concerned here with acceptability by the poverty sector of most developing countries. Of interest are those energy innovations that can arrest environmental deterioration and increase productive capacity and those that may decrease the arduousness of hand labor and increase household and community amenities.

The sociocultural aspects of technology diffusion in the poverty sector are of particular importance where the adopters of the technology lie wholly, or mainly, outside the cash economy. Where the poor are included in the economy, diffusion of biomass energy technologies depends largely on the cost of fuel they can replace and the potential for profit the system offers to those diffusing the technology or using it to supply energy needs. However, most people, particularly in the rural areas of developing countries, lie outside the economy where energy and fuel is concerned. For them, adoption of biomass-based energy technologies is governed by a more complex mixture of factors-economic, to the extent that the technology places demands that conflict with disposable income or marketable goods and services, but also, preponderantly sociocultural, in the context of changing patterns of behavior and perceptions of need. The technologies can also bring the adopters into the cash economy, through producing fuel feedstocks or fuels for market, and they will then view the diffusion process differently.

These cultural considerations are discussed below and in the following chapter.


From an analysis of the literature and the results of a number of project-sponsored site visits, the following six factors appear to enhance chances for technical and economic acceptability of biomass-based renewable energy innovations in developing countries:

1. Structural simplicity and scale

2. Use of familiar materials

3. Employment of familiar techniques

4. Functional discreteness

5. Integration with existing technology

6. Ability to meet locally perceived technical and/or economic needs within a locally acceptable time

This list has several characteristics important to its use as a framework for assessing the likely acceptance of innovation:

· The characteristics relate particularly to innovation at the level of the poor individual or community.

· The importance of the six basic factors varies according to situation or location, particularly with respect to knowledge or skill levels and in relation to current perceptions.

· Interactions among the six factors, or their mix in a given setting, may be more significant than any one or all taken separately.

· The factors are all dependent on the degree to which local control, or participation in the selection, of the technologies is organized.

Structural Simplicity and Scale

Simplicity facilitates the acquisition and maintenance of technologies and allows for readier diffusion among the poor. This quality also lessens the risk of dependence on external support for acquisition, operation, repair, and the replacement of parts, and minimizes the need for extensive capital investment. People living close to the economic margin are usually averse to any innovation that entails further risk to their already meager capital, to their often overestimated supply of available labor, or to their food supply.

Appreciation of economies of scale, a factor attractive to the large investor, is rarely shared by the rural and urban poor. For them, the struggle for daily survival frequently precludes a view of their economic best interest. Rather, their experience of enterprises involving extensive, long-term investment is more likely to have taught them that whatever benefits are ultimately derived are generally contingent upon factors beyond their control.

Similarly, the involvement of the poor in large-scale development schemes often has been characterized by exclusion from their participation in planning and implementation. As a result, they may lack understanding of the many economic factors that can affect the success or determine the failure of such ventures. What they do comprehend is their own relative powerlessness, that there are costs to them overlooked by outsiders, and that returns may not be commensurate with these costs. Such perceptions do not foster trust. Consequently, their response is not likely to be enthusiastic to biomass energy technologies that require what is perceived either as substantial long-term capital investment or a considerable reallocation of labor. Small-scale projects, however, are not generally attractive to planners and investors, for whom the costs of project administration are not proportional to the scale, and for whom larger projects are more manageable.

For reforestation projects, this suggests that planting efforts scaled either to the size of the local community or individual families are more likely to be accepted. The same holds for charcoal production. The principle as it applies to improved wood-burning stoves is clearly valid, for they are, by definition, small-scale devices, and the simplicity of their design, if low in cost, will enhance their acceptability. As for the production of alcohol fuels and biogas, their greater technological complexity and cost may render them less amenable to rural acceptance and diffusion, at least among the very poor.

For example, experience in India suggests that the complexity of even the simplest systems may impose severe cost constraints on the budgetary resources of developing countries. According to French, the 1979 installation cost of even small family-scale biogas plants in India was Rs3,000 or about $375. Providing 175 pounds of cow dung daily and an equal amount of water, plus the additional work involved in removing an average of 350 pounds of slurry from the tank each day, assuming no major mechanical breakdowns, would bring annual operating costs to about Rsl00, well beyond the means of the desperately poor. To run the plant requires use of dung from a minimum of three to four cows. Since fewer than 5 percent of India's cattle owners have this many animals, ensuring command of the necessary supply of dung could be a problem for all but the wealthiest families. If we assess the cost of this technology as it relates to the poverty of Indian village communities, in economic terms, "even the structurally simplest biogas units are distinguished chiefly by the efficiency with which they digest money" (French, 1979).

Use of Familiar Materials

Employing familiar materials wherever possible enhances technological acceptability by lessening the requirement for learning. There is economic advantage in using materials with predictable properties' and they are generally cheaper and more readily accessible. If some imported materials must be used, "control of them must be available to the local community" (deWilde, 1977).

Use of local materials in constructing charcoal kilns and selecting wood for charcoal conversion will also increase acceptance and diffusion. If unfamiliar materials must be employed in the more complex manufacture of biogas digesters, this may lessen their chances of acceptability, and it is likely their introduction will require greater external financial support. On the other hand, customary materials may be used only because it is difficult or expensive to import materials such as plastic or aluminum.

Employment of Familiar Techniques

If the techniques for designing, manufacturing, and operating biomass-based energy technologies are familiar or are analogous to customary methods, the advantage is clear. Reliance on these methods minimizes the need for special training, the possible added cost of hiring outsiders, and the need for external supervision. Also, it reduces the uncomfortable sense of strangeness that is often a deterrent to acceptance of technological innovations.

For example, reforestation efforts that follow, or only slightly modify, customary agricultural planting and maintenance techniques will decrease the loss of seed and seedlings. If familiar construction techniques can be used in making newly designed stoves, or if local bricks can be used for efficient charcoal kilns, the finished product is likely to be more workable, and thus acceptable.

Functional Discreteness

If a renewable energy technology can function independently, its chances of acceptance are enhanced by avoidance of the cost or problems of adapting ancillary technologies. Also, its introduction does not entail disruption of the existing production system. However, in many situations progress may entail change rather than accommodation to the status quo.

For example, fuelwood lots probably do not meet this criterion of discrete function. While woodlots may appear to stand alone, almost invariably they entail reallocation of available land and labor, Improved systems of charcoal production similarly require a reallocation of productive goods, especially land, and are not more readily accepted. Stoves also fit this criterion better, especially when they simply replace an existing cooking and heating technology. Units to produce biogas and alcohol are structurally discrete, but their operation is complex and requires the reallocation of land and labor to produce the needed raw materials.

Integration with Existing Technology

The economic advantages of an innovation that fits readily into an existing technological management system are evident. This integration minimizes the capital and/or labor costs of adapting traditional production patterns to meet the requirements of the renewable energy innovation. Conversely, where a new technology is not integrated with the existing system, the new technology, its product, and its economic consequences all require some adjustment.

For example, Ashworth and Neuendorffer cite the effect on food taste of altered forms of processing. High-speed biogas-powered food grinders produce a fine flour that tastes and bakes differently than coarse flour created by hand with a mortar and pestle. Mechanized grinding may have a profound impact on the allocation of work and free time within a community. Grinding and crushing by hand are laborintensive and are often performed by women (Ashworth and Neuendorffer, 1980). Mechanization may lead to the transfer of this work to men or to a professional miller, without the development of any substitute productive activity for women.

A new technology that alters behavior in a way the people see as advantageous may also be more easily accepted. In Guatemala, for example, women's acceptance of the Lorena stove has been enhanced by the fact that it allows for a change in the pattern of food preparation. Shaller states that women prefer cooking, in a standing position, on an elevated surface. Several women even identified this difference from open-fire cooking as the primary advantage of the stove. The preference for elevated cooking includes a number of more special benefits: the increased comfort of standing as opposed to sitting or bending by an open fire; the greater degree of cleanliness afforded by getting pots and pans off the dirt floor and away from wandering domestic animals; and the greatly increased safety for small children (Sheller, 1979). Thus, the outsider must be wary of undue reverence for preservation of tradition for its own sake.

Fuelwood lots may or may not meet the criterion of integration with the existing technology. If they can be established on unused or marginal land, adjustment may be easier. Often, however, their development is seen as competitive with agriculture or herding. Where collective management of communal resources (grazing, for example) exists, it will facilitate organization of fuelwood lots. Expanding acreage of multipurpose crops, such as gum arable, rubber, or mesquite, may be easier with energy needs satisfied as a second rather than primary objective. If a tradition of charcoal manufacture does not exist, a similar reallocation of productive goods may be required, particularly of labor, and some training may be necessary. Stoves can be designed to fit easily into an existing food-processing technology, so long as they allow for the preparation of staple foods and permit the use of a familiar variety of firewood. Because it is technologically more complex, the conversion of biomass to biogas and alcohol fuels involves greater capital and labor costs before functional integration with the existing technology can occur.

Meeting Locally Perceived Needs

The biomass-based renewable energy technology clearly should meet locally perceived needs. Often this is not the case; and often the problem is time. Biomass-based technologies are seen as long-range solutions, since growing biomass or organizing its production on any useful scale is believed to take too long. Hence, the technologies are often given little attention either by planners or by farmers with a serious immediate problem.

There must also be demand. The stronger this demand, the greater the chance of acceptance. No matter how apparent a technological need may be to the would-be donor, if the intended recipients do not see it clearly, the task of winning its acceptance may be impossible. People must perceive the technical efficacy of the innovation, their need for it, and their ability to afford it. Conversely' it is important that a new technology does not detract from fulfillment of an alternative function. Here a major problem is often the local population's strong interest in technological innovations that will increase their food or water supply.

If multiple needs are met, as they are by most agroforestry projects or by production of effluent for fertilizer during biogas generation, chances of acceptance are further increased.

Moreover, the economic costs entailed in acceptance of a new technology must be perceived by the poor as being clearly offset by economic benefits. And such benefits must be discerned as accruing not just to the community, the nation, or the "developing world," but to the poor themselves--and soon.

While agroforestry projects may appear to be responsive to a real need, the investment of land and labor they require does not promise short-term perceptible benefits. The payoff from improved charcoal manufacture is likely to be equally apparent and to become available sooner. Acceptance of improved stoves also depends on a people's concern. to reduce labor time and/or the money required to obtain firewood. Labor and material costs must be offset both by a marked reduction in fuelwood consumption and a patent saving of labor time or money. There is little evidence that the former holds, and the noncommercial nature of most energy consumed mitigates the latter. It is likely to take still longer for the savings in money and labor time derived from alcohol or biogas production to become apparent, which may affect acceptance of these technologies where people are aware of their needs for an alternative energy source.


Ashworth, J.H., and Neuendorffer, J.W. 1980. Matching Renewable Energy Systems to Village-Level Energy Needs. Solar Energy Research Institute, Golden, Colorado, USA.

deWilde, T. 1977. Some social criteria of appropriate technology. In: Introduction to Appropriate Technology, edited by R.J. Congdon. Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pennsylvania, USA.

French, D. 1979. The Economics of Renewable Energy Systems for Developing Countries. Report to the al Dir'iyyah Institute and U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington, D.C., USA.

Shaller, D.V. 1979. A socio-cultural assessment of the Lorena stove and its diffusion in highland Guatemala. In: Lorena Owner-Built Stoves, 2nd ed. Volunteers in Asia, Stanford, California, USA.