Global Economics

Cows to Kilowatts: A Bounty from Waste


The Nigerian startup lowers slaughterhouse pollution, eliminates greenhouse gas emissions, and produces clean, cheap energy

It's a problem facing many African cities: In Ibadan, the largest city in southwestern Nigeria, abattoirs routinely pour untreated animal waste into local rivers and lakes. The unregulated dumping packs an unwelcome double whammy: It spreads animal disease to humans, and the degradation of waste generates methane and carbon dioxide—greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Enter Cows to Kilowatts Partnership Limited, a Nigerian company that turns animal blood and waste into inexpensive, clean energy for consumers. Cows to Kilowatts is one of 34 companies named by the World Economic Forum on Dec. 4 as Tech Pioneers, companies offering new technologies or business models that could advance the global economy and have a positive impact on people's lives.

The two-year-old company is a three-way partnership involving a Nigerian nonprofit group, the Global Network for Environment & Economic Development Research; the Biogas Technology Research Group at King Mongkuks University of Technology in Thonburi, Thailand; and the Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

Cows to Kilowatts has found a way to reduce slaughterhouse pollution by 90% and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. That is no easy feat. Traditional waste-treatment methods use a smelly, inefficient process that emits methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Cows to Kilowatts uses an advanced anaerobic reactor that rapidly processes high volumes of waste into high-quality biogas. Captured methane is upgraded and compressed for use as a household cooking gas or as fuel for gas generators that provide electricity to households. The leftover sludge is turned into environmentally friendly fertilizer. And Cows to Kilowatts says its system costs less to install and operate than traditional methods.

Backed by the U.N. and World Bank

Dr. Joseph Adelegan, the company's 41-year-old founder and chief executive, got these results by tinkering with technology developed by researchers in Thailand to treat organic waste from rice processing and fruit canning plants. A chartered civil engineer with degrees from Nigeria's University of Ibadan, Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and the University of California at Berkeley, Adelegan is passionate about the climate-friendly technology. He is the founder and executive chairman of the Global Network for Environment & Economic Development Research, based in Ibadan, Nigeria, which focuses on environment and sustainable development issues.

The Cows to Kilowatts partnership built its first plant in Ibadan to treat slaughterhouse waste with a $500,000 grant from the U.N. Development Program. The company then raised an additional $200,000 from a World Bank competition and used it to build a bioreactor to generate electricity from cassava waste in the Nigerian city of Ilorin.

The Ibadan plant, which generates around 1,800 cubic meters of biogas per day, already provides affordable cooking gas to 5,400 homes. The plant is expected to be profitable within two years. The initiative is also reducing pollution inside the homes of poor families because the cooking gas it sells is cleaner than commonly used fuels.

Now, Cows to Kilowatts is raising money to replicate the Ibadan plant in other African cities in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and South Africa. Although slaughterhouses are supposed to be overseen by government authorities in Africa, "enforcement of environmental regulations is nonexistent, which causes serious health and environmental damage," Adelegan says.

Schenker is a BusinessWeek correspondent in Paris.

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