In developing countries some 2.5 billion people are forced to rely on biomass—fuelwood, charcoal and animal dung—to meet their energy needs. These people are energy poor, in that they have an absence of choice in the energy they access or use in their daily lives. Therefore, biomass plays an enormously important role in the lives [...]

Business Times

From Impoverished to Empowered: Sri Lankan women adopt modern biomass technologies


In developing countries some 2.5 billion people are forced to rely on biomass—fuelwood, charcoal and animal dung—to meet their energy needs. These people are energy poor, in that they have an absence of choice in the energy they access or use in their daily lives. Therefore, biomass plays an enormously important role in the lives of the rural poor in these developing countries, in the form of wood for cooking and heating.

Women preparing fish for drying.

To mitigate this need, the UN General Assembly designated 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All with three interlinked objectives: to ensure universal access to modern energy services; to double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and to double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

In January of 2016, given the importance of energy in climate change mitigation, reducing poverty, and meeting the United Nations sustainable development agenda, 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were set out with clear targets for all countries to adopt in accordance with their own priorities and the environmental challenges of the world at large.

Energy and the Gender Gap

One of the key aspects of economic poverty is related to energy. Energy poverty, which disproportionately affects women who are primarily responsible for collecting fuel and water at a community level, can benefit greatly by the use of modern biomass energy sources. However, besides household energy consumption, women are also capable of improving the livelihoods of their families through various small-scale entrepreneurial projects that use renewable energy.

Sri Lankan perspective

In Sri Lanka, rural women play a significant role in economic and social development, contributing to the wellbeing of their families. Many of these women manage their household expenses and family commitments through small scale entrepreneurial businesses which can depend on biomass energy due to affordability and the availability of fuelwood. As such, the empowerment of women in Sri Lanka is vital for their development.

To alleviate this problem, an islandwide renewable energy project called Promoting Modern Sustainable Biomass Energy conducted by the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy together with the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority and supported by the FAO and UNDP provides islandwide energy services and programmes to promote women’s skills development and employment.

Many of these women, having explored various options of cost effective methods to run their businesses, have now adopted biomass energy and through the Modern Sustainable Biomass Energy Project availed themselves of modern technologies to improve their small enterprises and save energy costs.

Case study: How women upscaled their fish drying business

Tangalle is an important hub for deep sea fishing and has a thriving local dry fish industry. However, unlike drying other consumables, the process of drying fish is long and time consuming, subject to environmental hazards, unhygienic conditions and prone to contamination. This industry is also pursued by women who use this extra income to sustain their households. In 2016, through the assistance of the “Sustainable Biomass Energy” project, dryers have been introduced to rural communities to help them improve and sustain their home-businesses and to yield higher benefits.

For nine women the 40 KW flatbed dryer has vastly improved their production, productivity and incomes. In 2016, they were assisted by the Sustainable Biomass Energy with initial project financing and have cut short their production hours from 10 to four hours a day and increased their production from 200 kg to 800 kg per month.

After two years of using this modern biomass dryer, their fish drying business has reached a new level in its final product and has increased the living standards of these women working in the organisation. It is a fine depiction of women entrepreneurship which has to be encouraged.

During off season, the dryer is used to dry chillie, pepper and cinnamon, ensuring the women have a supplementary income throughout the year.

Case study: Wasana Products gets lifeline for home-based entrepreneurship

Shanthi Menike is a single mother who worked in West Asia to earn money to educate her daughter and to complete a half-built house. Although she managed to educate her daughter who qualified as an IT teacher, her house remained unfinished and her hard-earned money soon finished. In desperation, Shanthi started a home-based business of drying fruit and vegetables. Initially she used an electric dryer which was, according to her, far too expensive.

In January 2017, through the assistance of the FAO and UNDP’s Sustainable Biomass Energy Project, Shanthi invested in a 20 KW biomass fired dryer through a financial grant for Rs. 171,500. Her production has increased from four kg to 10 kg of fruit and vegetables daily. Firewood is sourced free of charge from the local timber store.

Although her supply and demand is relatively low at present, Shanthi has the option of increasing her manufacture in the future to overseas markets. In addition, she can also use the dryer for drying other consumables, thus giving her the option of increasing her income.

Case study: Biomass technology enriches RichMe Dairy Products

Yogurt has always been a popular dairy-based meal/snack amongst all age groups. In Sri Lanka, yogurt is consumed as a snack and dessert amongst children and adults. Manthika Dilrukshi and her husband Chathura Munasinghe, started their yoghurt making business, RichMe Foods and Dairies in 2007.

For years, their biggest business cost was for power generation and the price they doled out for almost three gas cylinders per day for the heating process. “That was our biggest cost and we hardly made a profit after paying off these bills,” said Dilrukshi. Also, there were times when the production had to be halted or discarded because of contaminants, or uneven heating processes that ruined the entire production.

In 2016, the duo approached the Sustainable Biomass Energy project and through a co-financing availed themselves of a 12KW Biomass Fired Water Heating system for Rs. 425,000. This heater can boil 230 litres of milk per month saving them around Rs. 60,000 per month. Sustainable fuelwood is sourced from a neighbourhood timber store.

According to her, production has increased 100 per cent from 1500 batches of yogurt to 3000 per day. In addition, the temperature control allows them to perfectly manipulate the heat required to the exact second. The entire manufacturing process is clean, safe from fire hazards, hygienic and faster.

In conclusion, it is safe to say that access to modern energy is also a key enabler for women’s empowerment because access to energy makes a significant difference to their health and well-being. While access to energy services would not necessarily guarantee gender equality, it would go a long way in relieving women and girls of the drudgery associated with their daily tasks and providing them time for income-generating opportunities and education.

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