Who, What & Where

  • Willington Ortiz (Wuppertal Institute) & Samuel Brody Schlesinger (Green Empowerment)

  • Improving Cacao Production and Processing while Meeting Cooking Fuel Demand 

  • Equador, South America


Green Empowerment introduced the Project Improving Cacao Production and Processing While Meeting Cooking Fuel Demand in Ecuador (CRECER) from June 2014 to January 2016 with less than Euro 100,000.

The Company

Green Empowerment is a US non-profit organisation working with local partners in developing countries to provide access to affordable and renewable energy, WASH solutions and complementary productive and environmental activities, thereby improving health outcomes and livelihoods for rural communities.

The Objective

This project aimed to stimulate the adoption of biodigester and passive solar dryer designs and provide training on sustainable cacao cultivation to improve the yield, quality and price of cacao crops and satisfy the cooking fuel demands of farmers in Rioverde, Esmeraldas, Ecuador

The Challenge

Rioverde is one of Ecuador’s poorest regions and a widespread lack of basic infrastructure limits efforts to improve rural livelihoods. However, the growing market for sustainablyproduced cacao, the region’s traditional cash crop, offers rural smallholders new opportunities. To increase producers’ shares in the value chain and meet domestic and productive energy demands, biogas digesters and solar dryers were customised for local conditions, thereby reducing the carbon footprint of the processing chain while increasing yields and product quality.

Opportunities for Renewables

Small geomembrane biogas digesters can generate four hours’ worth of cooking gas and substantial amounts of organic fertiliser, replacing the imported LPG traditionally used for cooking and the chemical fertilizers used for cacao production. Passive solar cacao dryers work at least 20% faster and provide more uniform results than traditional open-air drying methods, while also reducing monetary and quality losses. Improved passive drying also decreases the need for secondary LPG drying and facilitates transportation.

Renewable Solution

The project oversaw the installation of ten 6 m3 geomembrane biogas digesters and nine wood and polyethylene sheeting solar cacao dryers, designed to reach high internal temperatures (> 45°C) and provide increased ventilation to reduce humidity. Each digester directly benefitted and was maintained by a single household, while the production of fertiliser created the possibility of sharing the benefits of the digester with other households through its sale or exchange. The solar dryers (similar to greenhouses) were maintained either by small family groups in outlying areas or by communal groups in population centres. The delivery model placed emphasis on developing the local skills necessary to ensure long-term operation and facilitate further diffusion. The installation of the biogas digesters and dryers was, therefore, accompanied by intensive operation and maintenance training courses for the owners, exchanges between the beneficiary communities and other potential adopters of biodigester and solar drying technology, a course on sustainable cacao cultivation and a series of related workshops on gender equity, community involvement and environmental conservation. Moreover, the project aimed to build capacity for the further promotion of the technologies among organisations already active in the region, such as cacao cooperatives and farmers’ associations.

Project Financing and Costs

Basic financial support was provided by WISIONS of Sustainability. The implementation strategy included in-kind and financial contributions from beneficiaries for both technologies - biodigester adopters paid 20% of the USD 500 costs of nonlocal materials through an instalment plan, and contributed local materials valued at around USD 75 for the installation. Multi-family solar dryer management followed a similar model: a small group (generally relatives of dryer owner-operators) provided local materials and labor valued at around USD 200. Each group was supported to create a savings plan to provide for replacement plastic sheeting (around USD 150 every two years). In the case of the larger communal dryer, users contributed around USD 900 in labor and materials for its construction and elected a committee charged with overseeing operations, maintenance and the financial management of funds collected from dryer user fees.

Project Outcome

The key results of the project were a 30% reduction in the consumption of LPG for cooking by rural beneficiary families and improvements in cacao drying (10% reduction in the weight of the final dry cacao). Organic fertilizer sales have not yet become an income source, but chemical fertilizer savings were perceived as a further motivation. An estimated 300 people in three communities of Rioverde benefitted from the project. Nearly 100 participated in at least one of the training programmes and 15 completed “training of trainers” courses. Due to its socio-economic impact in the region, the CRECER project was selected as the 2016 Ecuadorian national winner of the Energy Globe award.In Esmeraldas alone, more than 15,000 families could potentially benefit from the further roll-out of training, biodigestion and solar drying technologies for cacao. Barriers to wider uptake include limited access to credit, the need for long-term support of biodigester adoption and the lack of guaranteed price premiums for quality cacao. Due to the high replication potential of the project, WISIONS supported a follow-up phase to further disseminate project results and initiate national meetings to increase support for biodigester technology and agro-ecological practices. This helped trigger the formation of a national network (RedBioEc), which aims to improve knowledge exchange and coordination among diverse Ecuadorian stakeholders interested in developing the country’s biodigestion sector.