BUSINESS BARRIERS REVEAL THE NEED FOR RESEARCH
Vianney, Sarah, and Aleia first met in 2011 as graduate students with a shared interest in biogas systems. Vianney had been experimenting with system design at a laboratory in Kyambogo University in Uganda and working on biogas impact modeling at the University of Aberdeen. At the University of Wisconsin, Sarah, a sociologist, was exploring renewable energy policy and the impacts of anaerobic digester technology on agricultural systems in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Aleia, a microbiologist, was beginning to research the potential public health impacts of this technology. The three students brought their unique perspectives together to found W2E: a for-profit company that could translate some of their research ideas into action.
The team’s initial vision for W2E was to develop the first commercial-scale biogas system for Uganda, converting 100 tons/day of municipal solid waste from underserved, densely populated areas into 1 MW of renewable electricity for the national grid and 90 tons/day of natural fertilizer. After extensive market research and partnership development with government agencies, the private sector, and local communities, the team determined that the business model was not financially viable.
Building on Vianney’s experience in the small-scale biogas system sector, the team then investigated a number of business models centered-around installing small-scale biogas systems at households and institutions. Aleia and Sarah joined Vianney in working intensively with the vibrant, local private sector of biogas system technology providers on a number of system installations.
This work exposed some of the shortcomings of anaerobic digester technology as well as the broader challenges faced by the biogas sector in East Africa. Specifically, the team realized that the sector was facing extreme pressure for rapid commercialization and scaling, but lacked the research, training, and outreach capacity that is necessary for smart growth. Biogas system technology providers facing overwhelming demand found themselves understaffed and unable to monitor the performance of their installations or to take the time to understand the customer experience.
The team realized that this gap needed to be addressed in order for the sector to thrive. Thankfully, the skills, interests, and networks of the founders were well positioned to create a research, development, and educational organization that could meet this need. W2E is actively transitioning to non-profit status to become a research and education center to support rapid commercialization of, and training associated with, innovations in the institutional-scale biogas sector of East Africa.