Fatima Zahra Beraich works in agriculture, a sector that’s dominated by men, in rural Moroccan areas rarely accustomed to seeing women take the reins of business.
She launched a biogas company working with farmers called Biodôme du Maroc in 2013, and despite some resistance and doubts from her target market, she’s winning them over.
In Morocco, farmers use gas or gas oil to run the generators that pump irrigation water and for other, everyday equipment. It’s polluting, expensive and can be hard to transport to some rural areas. At the same time, farmers must buy in chemical fertilizers.
Beraich, an engineer in chemical industrial process technology, embarked on an idea to solve both problems in 2013 as part of her PhD at the Hassan-I University in Settat.
Building a biogas digester
That idea was a better designed waste digester to use agricultural plant and livestock waste. The compost it produce would go on the fields as organic fertilizer, the gas would run farm equipment and generators.
"Our digester enables us to save money in energy and fertilizer purchases, the surplus of which can also be resold. It enables energy autonomy of the farm, promotes the use of organic farming thanks to [the] green manures we produce, and it solves the problem of waste management and the emanation of greenhouse gases,” Beraich said.
Biogas production has existed unchanged for years (see Wamda’s infographic on the process and the local startups involved here). Beraich’s innovation was to add a specific cocktail of bacteria to the digester to accelerate the fermentation process.
"The contribution of our accelerator is to allow a stable and sufficient production throughout the year. The process of methanization is based on the organic fraction of the waste, and this is where we tried to develop a solution that enables us to quickly treat this fraction,” she said.
Moha Arouch, director of Hassan-I University incubator Marobtikar said the digester design was subject to four different patent applications.
"Their commercial potential is very important in Morocco as well as in Africa, given the problems of waste management, particularly in rural and landlocked areas," she said.
Looking for customers
Beraich said a 20-cubic-meter unit costing 120,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$12,000) has a lifetime of more than 40 years. It could save around three 12 kilogram tanks of gas per month and produce a minimum of 100 kilograms of fertilizer per day, worth between 3-6 Moroccan dirhams (US$0.30-0.60) a kilogram.
Biodôme du Maroc has 20 customers in the rural areas around Khouribga, a mining town in western Morocco.
Among them a slaughterhouse and the Morocco’s first cooperative COPAG Group (which has 14,000 members and is the second largest dairy company in the market), said during last year’s global environmental meetup in Marrakech, COP22 said they were keen to buy the system.
Morocco has tried the concept of agricultural biogas in the past, but it hasn’t taken off.
An experiment in southern Morocco in the winter of 1984 barely produced enough gas to prepare breakfast, because of the low temperatures.
“The experience of digesters settled in the rural environment since 1983 (about 350) has not favored the widespread diffusion of this technology," said a 2013 study from Morocco’s Ministry of Industry.
The main obstacle is that these installations, in most cases, have not provided enough energy to supply a family’s or business’ needs throughout the year.
The National Agency for the Development of Renewable Energies and Energy Efficiency estimates that, based on the country’s waste resources, biogas from wastewater treatment plants could provide enough electricity for nearly one million people, household waste could power another 10 million, and agro-industrial could meet the needs of more than 1.5 million people.
Currently biogas production is done in the industrial sector. Projects such as fertilizer exporter OCP Group’s two biogas generators produce biogas from urban and industrial wastewater and from some landfill sites.
A social enterprise
The company has also developed an urban composting device for household waste. The first pilot has been produced in collaboration with a startup, which allows users to remotely control the composter with a smartphone.
Beraich is also looking into a business around waste collection and the sale of compost that would provide jobs with women and young people.
This social and environmental commitment has earned her the title of ‘woman of the future in the Mediterranean’ awarded by the Union of Mediterranean, and the technical and financial support of several different organisations, including Cluster Solaire’s Fast Track 2 Market program with financing of 500,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$50,000).
Feature image via Biôdome.