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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


The traits of a society--its patterns of adaptation to the environment and its economic organization, social and political institutions, and beliefs system--will all affect the acceptance and diffusion of biomass-based energy technologies. The influence of these variables will have to be assessed in the context of each local culture into which a technology is to be introduced. However, some generalizations can be proposed about those aspects of society and culture that play an important role everywhere in determining a biomass energy technology's acceptance or rejection.

The following conditions appear to increase chances for acceptance:

1. Adjustment to the system for allocating productive goods

2. Compatibility with the existing work organization

3. Adaptation to existing patterns of distribution

4. Integration with the social structure

5. Accommodation to authority

6. Harmony with prevailing values and ideology

As with the six main indicators of technical feasibility, judging the effects of diffusion from any one of these cultural variables will lead to oversimplification. The interaction of these factors with each other is extremely complex.


The acquisition and allocation of land and other forms of capital can often be critical to the acceptance of a biomass-based innovation. The more that efforts at reforestation take into account local land ownership, gathering rights, and work input (especially by women), or the existence of communal cooperation, the greater the chances of success. Plans to promote more efficient fuelwood use through introduction of improved wood-burning stoves or improved methods of charcoal manufacture, must also take into account the system for allocating the raw materials required for such innovations. It is critical to know who holds the rights to disposal of the crop residues and other wastes from which biogas is processed or who owns the land on which sugarcane, sugar beets, and other crops are cultivated for conversion into fuel alcohol.

An understanding of the sources of capital for financing is, of course, equally critical. French argues that attention to financial cost is too often ignored because it "may not matter as long as outsiders are footing the bill. However, when renewable energy devices have to be purchased by individuals or local agencies they are more likely to be discriminating in spending their money" (French, 1979).

Although by definition the poor control few productive resources, their relationship to those who do may be pivotal to a renewable energy technology's chance of acceptance. If, for example, prevailing property relationships will block the impoverished majority from receiving project benefits, project-sponsored innovations are unlikely to be accepted by them.

Attitudes toward risk in allocating productive resources also need to be taken into account. Again an observation from French is pertinent: ". . . although we often will be unable to design a project which is 'objectively' risk-free, there are steps we can take to make a given degree of risk more acceptable. . . . Risk aversion is minimized where new techniques are closely related to familiar ones, farmers are expected to contribute labor rather than cash to the project, cooperation among farmers is encouraged, and dependence on outsiders is avoided" (French, 1979). During part of the year, however, labor can be a scarce commodity in rural areas. Farmers have none to spare for any project except their own farming.

The range of technologies that meet this criterion of low risk and high reliability at present is not very wide.


An understanding of indigenous systems of work organization is important to the successful diffusion of a new technology. If the local labor force is to be effectively mobilized to accept and diffuse a biomass-based technology, it is important to know whether most of the relevant energy-related tasks are structured within the family, on the basis of associational ties, gender, age, or ethnic group, or accomplished through coercion or the payment of wages.

Often there is a contrast in work organization between the rural and the urban poor. Among many rural peoples, a significant portion of labor is scattered and is allocated on the basis of kinship ties. In urban areas the work of poor wage earners is generally more specific and individualistic and is characterized by competition rather than cooperation. However, weakened familial links are sometimes compensated for by ties to voluntary organizations, mutual aid societies, or to cooperatives or clubs, which can often serve equally well as a basis for organizing productive activities.

New methods and patterns of work organization that biomass energy interventions require can create psychological and social problems of adjustment. The pace, precision, and discipline required by the processes of biogasification, alcohol fuel production, or efficient charcoal making may be at considerable variance with the generally more diffuse work patterns of noncommercial farming, herding, or fishing. Or it may be that certain traditional patterns of work are more conducive to the acceptance of innovation. Schlegel finds, for example, that work organized along cooperative and consensual lines, with a complex division of tasks, and well-integrated into an intervillage or urban system, with economic influence widely shared, tends to be correlated with greater acceptance of renewable energy alternatives (Schlegel and Tarrant, 1980). The assumption that rural folk are usually amenable to cooperative efforts (or more amenable than urban or prosperous people) is implicit in this interpretation and taken for granted in many energy projects. But it is not necessarily true, and specific incentives or other conditions may be required to elicit cooperative production.

Where assignment of work or access to productive resources is strongly constrained by age, gender, ethnic group, or caste, these customs must be understood if local acceptance of biomass energy technologies is to be won. The relation of these customs to equality of opportunity is especially pertinent.

In stressing the importance of attention to the role of women in forestry, if their special needs are to be met, Hoskins points out that in most developing countries women are more apt to be illiterate, to be least served by extension services (especially in activities outside the home), may have the least flexibility in how they use their time, have the least mobility, and have the least financial resources, Very often planners opening new areas or reordering old ones assume that only men are "farmers" per se, and only they are given the right to take up land and receive credit or other inputs, whereas women may have been independent producers on their own land under the previous system. These facts make it imperative to examine carefully the issues that might prevent women's participation:

· specific problems women have in gaining and retaining access to land or the use of tree products;

· specific time, financial, or other constraints to be overcome to free women to participate; and

· assurances women have that they will receive benefits they value from forestry projects (Hoskins, 1979).

While men are often already organized in groups, women rarely are, and it may be more difficult to mobilize women for training or work efforts.

Reliance by a government on coercion as a means of organizing workers--through forced mobilization or politically sanctioned systems of peonage--is also a potentially significant variable. While coercion has been abandoned in many developing countries, often the memory lingers and government-sponsored or promoted work organizations are often either weak and ineffectual or unduly authoritarian. As for the role of nongovernment organizations outside the traditional mold, although they are frequently more effective, few governments acknowledge their potential in helping to solve national energy problems. Many governments fear that apolitical NGOs will not remain so.

Where most people work for wages, the would-be innovator needs to know how wages are set and what the work force regards as a fair return for labor expended.

For the promotion of tree planting, a clear understanding of who benefits from the work is critical to development of a locally acceptable plan for distributing, planting, and nurturing young trees, particularly to avoid problems in the seasonal availability of labor. For charcoal making, this may entail recognition of the traditional organization of production and of the potential such activity often provides for new forms of entrepreneurship. For promoting improved wood-burning stoves, knowing who works with the materials from which such stoves will be made and who is responsible for food preparation can be critical. The conversion of biomass into fuel entails equal sensitivity to the local division of labor, especially as the handling of waste products is frequently the prerogative of a specific group whose subordinate status may further complicate acceptance of the new technology or alternatively will involve an unpleasant form of labor, which women, children, or depressed classes will naturally assume they will be coerced to do. Even if the resource is freely available--for example, dung or commons trees--its transformation into a commercial commodity may be a difficult, complicated process.


Allowing for the way consumption goods are distributed can also be important. To take fuelwood as an illustration, an FAO report points out that most of the fuelwood used in developing countries is not bought and sold under market conditions. When it is marketed, supply and demand factors strongly affect the price. The weight and bulk of fuelwood severely limit the distance at which it can be economically marketed, with harvesting, transport, and handling constituting a major portion of the cost to the consumer. Fuelwood or charcoal are purchased mainly by people in towns and villages that have no access to forest areas, or by wealthier households; the price is often beyond the reach of the poor who are most dependent on this source of energy (Food and Agriculture Organization, 1979).

If it is contractually agreed that all who work equally in developing a community woodlot will get a comparable share of the resulting product, the poor will be more ready to accept this innovation, especially if they have traditionally been excluded from equal access to the benefits of such endeavors. For charcoal making, it will be important to know how the subordinate sector of the population assigned to such work is customarily compensated and how prices are set. Equal access, however, may mean in practice that it will be exploited to the benefit of the rich.

Availability of a viable system of transport (for example, roads, depots, and trucks) will affect chances for diffusion of most biomass energy technologies, especially in remote rural areas. For a technology such as improved wood-burning stoves, however, the problem of distribution is a different one; because stoves often are not portable, manufacture must be decentralized if they are to be widely diffused. And for biogas and alcohol fuels, the issue of acceptability among the poor often hinges on ease of access to the capital for acquiring and installing the complex units that production of such fuels usually entails.

To foster diffusion, the system of distribution must allow for the disposition of the product of the biomass energy technology at a cost that most people can meet. Because the cash investment required for importing many biomass energy innovations is far in excess of what the poor can afford, it is often imperative to utilize local resources and skills for the design and development of technologies that are more productive than the traditional ones and yet are within the reach of farmers and other poverty groups.


Compatibility with the existing social structure--family organization, associations, systems of stratification based on class, caste, ethnicity, or gender--is also a factor in winning acceptance and ensuring diffusion of biomass technologies.

Among most of the rural poor, kinship provides one basis for the structure of activities critical to the organization of community life, in its economic and political, as well as its social, aspects. The role of kinship in structuring the household as a productive unit is probably most important. Associational bonds, especially those provided by mutual aid and self-help groups and by secret societies, can play an important part in ordering social life at the local level. Class or caste position, ethnic identity, and gender as determinants of individual status and community organization are frequently important.

In the Sahel, for example, Ki-Zerbo recognizes the need to modify energy-inefficient cooking technologies, but points out that change must proceed with recognition of the relationship between the existing foodprocessing technology and women's social status. Her description of the symbolic placement of the three cooking stones typical of most Sahelian hearths illustrates the affront to women's position that an insensitive effort to introduce an alternative cooking technology could entail. AD elderly woman, generally the wife's mother or aunt, usually sets up the three stones in the fireplace. Should the man displace them he shows that he repudiates his wife (Ki-Zerbo, 1980).

Noronha refers both to Burundi, where continuing bitterness between ethnic groups is likely to have a major effect on project implementation, and to India, where ethnic stratification and accompanying traditions of economic specialization also have important implications for project design. Referring to the "tribal" groups of Gujarat, which account for 14 percent of that state's population, he writes that "tribal" groups such as those who live in the main forest areas of the state not only form the main employment core of the afforestation works, but also are aware of the different uses of tree species, since they live largely by what they produce from the forest (Noronha, 1980).


Understanding the local political system--the organization for making and enforcing community-wide decisions, settling disputes, and regulating relations with neighboring peoples--and how it relates to the system for installing and maintaining a biomass-based renewable energy technology will enhance the chances of adoption. For only when local decision-making processes are understood, and those with true authority are identified, can effective plans be made to ensure popular local participation and acceptance.

The relationship between the local political order and representatives of the national government must also be understood if government officials are to serve as intermediaries between external donors and the local population. The administrative task is complex. Even after the biomass energy intervention has been selected and acquired, it must be properly "packaged," combined with extension services, information and communication services, credit, and the necessary technical components. The complexity of these adminstrative tasks is compounded by the fact that they are themselves "imported"; they must be adapted to local conditions by overburdened, frequently underpaid, and often undersupported administrators whose own managerial training, obtained abroad, may be as "inappropriate" as the new energy interventions they are charged to implement (Singer, 1977).

Writing about Upper Volta, Winterbottom describes a problem of faulty administration that is a recurrent cause of project failure: extension workers' reluctance to discuss the rationale behind their program with local farmers. Rather, those responsible for local~level implementation of the government's reforestation program tried to achieve innovation without explanation: A Neem-Cassia-Eucalyptus package . . . was presented to them as an unalterable wholly satisfactory technology . . . . An elitist attitude . . . led to the inference that communication need be only one way . . . . The general lack of local participation in decisions at the outset . . . contributed to the eventual abandonment of the project (Winterbottom, 1979).

For agroforestry projects to succeed, the authority structure that backs up the traditional land-tenure system must be understood as well. For charcoal production, the role of political leadership in setting prices and regulating distribution can be critical. For disseminating stoves, the aupportive role of government-aponaored extension workers may be essential. The political implications of biomass conversion, which often entails dependence on credit, government subsidies, and community mobilization, also must be underatood. In China, close integration between the energy objectives of the national government and the local communes appears to have been critical to the diffusion of biogas generators. The remarkable spread of this technology in the People 'a Republic of China can be attributed to four governmentsupported rules:

1. the three-in-one principle in which the latrine, the pigsty, and the biogas digester are constructed as an integrated unit, enabling an ordinary family to have a biogas unit;

2. the use of local materials that suit local conditions, enabling considerable coat savings;

3. full support from the commune, the production brigade, and the production team, providing the important element of maas participation; and

4. a simple digester design and construction techniques that allowed the unit to be operated using traditional skills.

But China is exceptional. In many developing countries the infrastructure needed to implement such a system is lacking.

Even in the most noncentralized processes of diffusion, where reliance on local initiative may be of major importance, the central government still has a role to play if diffusion is to succeed. It is the government that should set an agenda of problems, identify a local model, and promote diffusion of the model's innovations. But even this minimal leadership role may be difficult for the governments of many developing countries to fulfil!. Even if central governments were able to assume a more significant role in the promotion of biomass energy technologies, it does not follow automatically that the energy problems of those most in need would be alleviated.


Ideology, often but not invariably in the form of religion, plays a key role in the lives of most of the world's poor. It frequently sanctions the existing economic and social systems and provides legitimacy to the political order. Local religious leaders can often use their authority effectively to foster, or block, the acceptance and diffusion of new technologies. And it is from people's beliefs that their moral values are derived, including those that may encourage or inhibit the acceptance of change. Technologies that do not pose a threat to existing ideology, to basic moral values, or to the status of religious leaders, generally have the best chance of acceptance.


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 1979. Issue Paper for the Technical Panel on Fuelwood and Charcoal. Prepared for the Preparatory Committee's Technical Panel for the United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy, 21-25 January 1980. FAO, Rome, Italy.

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.

Hoskins, M. 1979. Community Participation in African Fuelwood, Production, Transformation and Utilization. Report to the Overseas Development Council and the U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington, D.C., USA.

Ki-Zerbo, J. 1980. The shortage of firewood is a daily vital concern. VITA News, Special Energy Issue 15 July.

Noronha, R. 1980. Village Woodlots: Are They a Solution? Paper prepared for the Panel on the Introduction and Diffusion of Renewable Energy Technologies. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., USA.

Schlegel, C.C., and Tarrant, J. 1980. Thinking About Energy and Rural Development: Methodological Guidelines for Socioeconomic Assessment. East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.

Singer, H. 1977. Technologies for Basic Needs. International Labour Office, Geneva, Switzerland.

Smith, K., and Santerre, M. 1980. Criteria for Evaluating Small-scale Rural Energy Technologies: The Flert Approach. East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.

Winterbottom, R. 1979. Upper Volta Koudougou Agricultural Development Project. Appraisal Report for the Forestry Sub-Program. West Africa Projects Department, World Bank, Washington, D.C., USA.