From cow manure to comforters

MCC biodigester project in Zimbabwe generates energy that creates family time

Addlight Mudombo shows a comforter she made from used clothing. Her husband, Elnathan Mboweni, designed the comforter top. — Meghan Mast/MCC Addlight Mudombo shows a comforter she made from used clothing. Her husband, Elnathan Mboweni, designed the comforter top. — Meghan Mast/MCC

The colorful, hand-sewn, pieced comforter that Addlight Mudombo unfolds in her Zimbabwe workroom would probably never have been made if she and her husband didn’t have cow manure and a biodigester.

The explanation of this odd connection starts with firewood.

Mudombo used to spend many hours each week collecting wood that she needed to cook her family’s dinner over an open fire. Dead wood is increasingly hard to find because of deforestation, so she and her friends walked long distances into remote and sometimes dangerous areas of the forest to find fuel.

“As women, we are vulnerable to many things, even animals,” Mudombo said. “I was afraid. I was supposed to go [to the forest], so my children can get food and whatever.”

She has three school-age children.

But in 2022, Mennonite Central Committee’s partner Score Against Poverty (SCORE) helped Mudombo and her husband, Elnathan Mboweni, get an underground biodigester on their farm in Joseph Village. Now, every day, one of them mixes cow manure with water and pours the mixture into the digester, which turns the manure into gas energy.

That gas powers a hotplate in Mudombo’s kitchen, where she can cook her family’s meals of beans and sadza (finely ground cornmeal) without constantly breathing in smoke, which has affected her health. Even her husband cooks now, defying the cultural stereo­type that cooking is only women’s work. In the future, she hopes to buy a gas-powered freezer to preserve food to sell.

“Now, it’s like I am safe,” she said. “I feel like I am protected and can cook anytime when I need to.”

And she has more time and energy to invest in other income-generating projects, including sewing comforters to sell.

Addlight Mudombo mixes cow manure with water before feeding it to a biodigester where it turns into odor-free gas, which powers her gas stove in the kitchen. — Meghan Mast/MCC
Addlight Mudombo mixes cow manure with water before feeding it to a biodigester where it turns into odor-free gas, which powers her gas stove in the kitchen. — Meghan Mast/MCC

Mboweni works with her on the project by figuring out the size of the comforter and creating the overall design. He makes the templates for the fabric pieces, which they cut from used, colorful clothing. She stitches fabric triangles, squares and diamonds together in the evening.

“It takes a long time because I don’t use a machine. I’m just using my own hands, putting these things together to make a meaningful thing,” Mudombo said.

She learned to piece comforters from her sister, and Mboweni consults the internet to get ideas for designs.

Although most of Mudombo’s day now is spent working in the field and managing employees on her brother-in-law’s truck farm, she also helps other women learn to sew comforters. She uses the opportunity to encourage them to protect the environment by planting trees and acquiring ­energy-efficient technology — things she’s learned through participation in SCORE’s Women’s Coalition for ­Climate Change.

All farmers in the community are dealing with climate change, which has shortened and interrupted the rainy season, raised temperatures and reduced the amount of food people can grow. Mudombo and Mboweni demonstrate the biodigester to their neighbors as one way to reduce deforestation, which contributes to climate change.

By participating in SCORE’s community savings-and-loan groups, the neighbors can purchase biodigesters, solar power or an energy-efficient stove, all of which protect the environment and create opportunities for new income, said Tariro Cynthia Mutsindikwa, SCORE’s clean-energy engineer.

Mboweni also appreciates the time the biodigester has brought into their lives.

Before they had it, every day for him meant working long hours in the field and coming back to the house to eat and sleep so he could work again the next day. Now, with his wife’s help on the farm, they can come home in time to cook and eat with the family and still enjoy making comforters for a little extra cash.

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