Historically speaking, sewage wastes, unwanted food and garden wastes are not topics that the majority of us have paid much attention to, aside from lugging overstuffed bin bags and boxes down to be picked up, perhaps dropping the odd item on route. Little thought has been given to where our waste is going and what impact it will have in the long run—until now.
Throughout the globe we are becoming more astute about how we continue to top up landfill sites and generate wastewater, and one pioneering South African company is committed to doing something about it.
“It’s really about a mind-shift in how conscious people are of their lives and the waste that they generate. By looking at simple onsite technologies, such as biogas with the BiogasPro, we can make a tremendous impact on the local, and therefore global, environment,” Greg Austin, founding director of AGAMA Biogas tells IRJ.
“Once people understand its potential, they see that it has a lot of subtle benefits that aren’t necessarily easy to quantify up front, but if you go and talk to our other customers you can see the various benefits that they have.”
With the BiogasPro, AGAMA Biogas is changing the way we handle waste and revolutionising the way we are able to generate biogas and useful effluents.
Whether it is a top tier restaurant, concerned by its carbon footprint, or a rural school or household in need of dignified sanitation as well as generating its own source of power and nutrients for food gardening, the benefits Austin speaks of are becoming abundantly clear.
“A feasibility assessment for the rural market side [of the South African market] alone was over 300,000 households that could immediately benefit from the technology, in that those are the houses without sanitation and with enough manure available to provide all of their energy needs. A biogas digester in each of those homes could do that,” he explains.
“The overall market size is likely double, if not triple that, for the range of applications.”
AGAMA Biogas has a firm geographical footprint of product applications and distributors for every imaginable enterprise across South Africa, and with its recent moves into Namibia, Uganda and Kenya too, the message of the benefits to utilising biogas products is getting around.
Clearing every hurdle
Having been involved in energy and energy-related projects during the 1990’s, Austin became intrigued by biogas after seeing how much waste including manure, grass and food, was being generated. After implementing different systems in those areas he joined AGAMA Energy, and then carried on working in biogas systems on an opportunistic basis.
“We decided to form the business around the prefabricated product, the BiogasPro, in 2007. That company was set up as a subsidiary of AGAMA Energy in 2008,” he recalls.
“The AGAMA Energy business is a consultancy one, and the AGAMA Biogas business is purely focused on supplying our growing range of products. The consultancy work around biogas and bio-energy sits within the main group.”
AGAMA’s three executive directors are engineers, each with considerable respective experience, and it shows. The first version of the BiogasPro hit the market in November 2009, and the second updated version arrived in November 2010. Through concept to product creation, the team has navigated all manner of requirements and developed it mindfully to diverse application—the first hurdle being cost and timing.
“Every time you implement a built system, even at the household level, it’s like a minor civil engineering exercise to ensure a robust installation—getting the right civil contractor involved and the time it takes to build the system. We identified these challenges, time and cost to develop the gas-type built system, and said, let’s take those issues and solve them through prefabricated technical solutions,” he says.
“About four or five years ago we began planning around developing the systems; you could call it pre-innovation work that we did. We invested in that process then went ahead to develop the first version of the product. We received grant funding from the Support Programme for Industrial Innovation, a programme of the Department of Trade and Industry implemented through the Industrial Development Corporation, then developed the first unit.”
The second hurdle, presented by handling wastewater, has also been addressed. As Austin says, it would be ideal if a unit could go into any application no matter what, but in the case of wastewater it is vital to comply with regulations. Simply putting sewage wastewater, for example, into a biogas digester will not make effluent suitable for irrigation.
“Our approach to this is really that once we’ve had a conversation with the potential customer it’s actually an integrated waste management tool—not simply a biogas generator or fertiliser generator. It sits on site and tidies up a lot of different waste, providing a lot of different benefits,” he says. It is also noteworthy that the product requires no chemical or mechanical input, and is therefore a passive gravity flow system.
Since first production, AGAMA Biogas has installed more than 50 BiogasPro systems for a range of different outfits including rural and urban homes to lodges, tourism facilities, corporate restaurants, commercial buildings and schools. Given this wide range, Austin says, it is possible to see the different benefits available depending on the context in question.
“In terms of the actual application, the technology is processing biodegradable waste. It won’t take woody biomass that can’t be broken down by the bacteria, but it will take everything else,” he explains.
In keeping with growing awareness of this technology, the company continues to improve on its already market-leading product.
Having outlined the needs for a prefabricated product, Austin explains that each unit is limited in terms of its size and practical application. One BiogasPro will process up to 1,000 litres of wastewater a day, including sewage water, household or industry water, grey water or mixed wastewater. It will also handle a certain amount of biodegradable solids depending on the type of material put into it, for example it will take 50 kilograms of manure or 30 kilograms of food waste per day.
“We actually recommend that the more diverse a mix going into the system, the better it performs,” he says.
“We can also connect a number of these products up into a batch mode so that a user can put more into the system, for large applications and waste flows.”
Whether one unit is used for a domestic scale system or a number are linked, their individual capacities are impressive, offering excellent options as governments continue to consider national rural household programs to provide energy using readily available manure. From the most secluded and remote to inner city inhabitants, the BiogasPro really can benefit everyone.
“We have two new products under planning. One which we are trialling now is the SmartTop Digester; a hybrid digester that better lends itself to some applications, mainly rural, and it’s against our awareness of the size of that market not only in South Africa but across Africa and our intention to be active there that we’ve developed that,” Austin reveals.
“We’re also busy developing a compact gas cleaning technology which could then allow biogas to be used in any natural gas appliance. In addition we’ve trialled a countertop-type technology system for people who haven’t the land access for a full system, that way they can produce fertiliser.”
With an array of updates and new products due for market debut in the coming years, AGAMA Biogas has a lot to look forward to and a great vantage point from which to launch them. No matter what sector, the company’s location in Africa offers fantastic access to markets all around, as does its current moves into the three countries close by.
In demand and up ahead in South Africa
Rarely does a company court competition, but Austin says that the biogas market is so huge that AGAMA Biogas welcomes new and emerging talent, confident in its role as the clear leader in industry.
“We are leaps and bounds beyond the rest today and setting the rules of the game as we’re operating in almost a regulatory vacuum. While this technology is well known internationally, it isn’t well known locally,” he explains.
“We do a lot of lobbying and market awareness work which helps break down barriers to entry for other players and we welcome that because we want the market to grow.”
In the wider South African context, the company is faced with an interesting opportunity. The government, with a well-managed economy and huge emphasis on infrastructure and social development, needs to move investment to provide access to utilities such as fresh water, wastewater treatment and electricity, however little capital remains to maintain existing systems.
“Our product provides onsite treatment that can be financed privately and then provide services that the government therefore doesn’t have to—reducing the burden on the maintenance of existing systems,” Austin highlights.
“If every home had a digester in the backyard to capture sewage, and people were putting food waste in there rather than throwing it out, the amount of waste to wastewater treatment plants and landfill sites is reduced. That’s the future.”
If the recent revisions to the income tax act are any indication, it looks like this future is nearly upon us—for the first time it allows consumers to get tax rebates and write off investment should they buy certain green technologies such as a biogas digester. People are realising that in addition to funds allocated to pay for the product, the product has its own cost opportunities. Added to the wider issue of sourcing new electricity generation in South Africa, it appears that the mind-shift Austin speaks of is taking place both on the ground, at height and in the cabinet. AGAMA Biogas plays a unique role in South Africa’s increasing trend towards smart energy sourcing. While general consensus begins to comprehend quite how many benefits are on offer with the BiogasPro, the group is already well on the way to providing us with our next must-have clean power solution.