Beira, Mozambique - “Climate change has arrived in Mozambique. We are already suffering the consequences as the cyclones have shown. Now we need to have the vision to create alternatives,” said Leonel Machine, 31, from Munhava community, in Beira, one of the cities most affected by Cyclone Idai that devastated central Mozambique in March 2019, and, recently, by Cyclone Eloise in mid-January 2021.
“We must focus on the production of renewable energy. We cannot continue with fossil fuels. It is a global issue,” said Leonel.
Passionate about innovation, Leonel became interested in renewable energy, particularly in biogas production, through Biology studies at the Pedagogical University of Beira City: “I was the first at my university to be interested in biogas and I started to experiment. At the time, nobody was really interested,” said Leonel. After a few years of research, at the age of 24, Leonel became one of the few technicians specialized in biogas in the country, and started working on biogas production projects in Sofala province.
In 2016, he was hired as a technician by the Beira City to manage the production of the new Multifunctional Community Centre for Renewable Energy in Munhava neighbourhood, the first of its kind in Mozambique, where he has been working ever since.
The Munhava community faces major environmental and economic, health and social security challenges; there are limited urban services and few job opportunities for young people and women. For these reasons, the Beira City, the United Nations Program for Human Settlements (UN-Habitat) and the BASF Stiftung fund jointly identified the need for solutions to improve the lives of residents in informal settlements, particularly in Munhava.
Through this partnership, the Multifunctional Community Centre for Renewable Energy was built as an example of how infrastructure and public spaces can be resilient while embracing sustainability. In addition, local renewable energy production came as one of the accessible and sustainable solutions for the community to generate energy and income. The centre provides a living space for residents, and has common areas to hold community events, seminars, meetings and weddings, as well as providing shelter in times of emergency.
Cyclone Idai and the Center’s rehabilitation
The centre was thriving and becoming recognized in biogas production, until the passage of Cyclone Idai in 2019 - an unprecedented disaster in the country's history that affected 1.8 million people. An significant portion of the centre was destroyed and the common areas were damaged beyond repair.
“When I arrived at the Center after the cyclone, I lost all my strength. I thought ‘how are we going to continue our work?’. It was a disaster I thought ‘How are we going to continue our work?’” said Leonel.
The house where he lived with his wife, who was 7-months pregnant at the time, and his son and sister, was also severely damaged. “The roof was blown off and the wind tore the stones from the walls of the house. We were very scared. We saw people disappear under the rubble. Honestly, we were waiting for death... It was terrifying. The next day we saw the vast destruction.”
Leonel and his team continued production as best they could, always looking for sustainable solutions to local problems. But they were unable to reconstruct the space by themselves.
It was through rehabilitation work and resilient construction techniques, carried out by the Beira City with the support of UN-Habitat, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Government’s Post-Cyclones Reconstruction Cabinet (GREPOC), that the community actively resumed its operations since last year. This resilient rehabilitation has allowed continuity of activities and was not damaged by Tropical Storm Chalane and Cyclone Eloíse, occurred recently between December 2020 and January 2021.
Shortly after Cyclone Idai, UN-Habitat and UNDP provided technical support to the Municipality for the preparation of the Beira Municipal Recovery and Resilience Plan. In addition, model houses and resilient infrastructures were developed at the national level and locally tested in buildings in Beira; the platform for waste collection and access roads of the municipal garbage dumpsite were rehabilitated.
Through these emergency works carried out by the Government of Mozambique and UN agencies, a significant portion of the cyclone's wreckage was collected and, in the end, processed at the Community Centre for the production of organic charcoal, combining rapid recovery in the scope of humanitarian assistance with the creation of a value chain based on sustainable energy and the resilient reconstruction of Beira City.
Upon entering the centre, the main activity is the transformation of organic waste into biogas even after the Cyclones. For this production, Leonel and his team envisioned using organic matter from markets and slaughterhouses in the city that used to be discarded directly into drainage ditches. The envisioned idea has taken off. In addition to enabling the production of sustainable energy, this process helps to reduce pollution, and improves the management of garbage and solid waste, all of which are a significant challenge for the City of Beira.
Biogas, once produced, is used in community kitchen stoves for the preparation and sale of food and for cooking classes for community members. The centre has involved hundreds of Beira residents in environmentally sustainable and energy efficient activities; Women in vulnerable situations in the community were also trained in the production of organic charcoal to help them create a new source of income and as a more ecological and accessible option.
The Center and the COVID-19 crisis
Leonel firmly believes that the production of these types of renewable energies is the country's future:
“Biogas and organic charcoal could solve several economic and ecological problems in Mozambique. We cannot waste this resource.”
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Leonel managed to solve yet another issue: the lack of availability and access to hygiene and cleaning products for the most vulnerable populations. Using the leftovers of fruit discarded in the markets, such as orange and banana peels, available in large quantities, the centre began to produce hundreds of litres of alcohol and bleach, to distribute for free.
The centre's production is currently not-for-profit, and everything produced is donated. But there is potential to expand production and distribution. “We want an investment to guarantee 100% sustainability for the Centre. My dream is to create an automated biogas and charcoal production line that is profitable. We want to turn waste into money, as it is precious material. The production process would employ many people and help the community in an ecological and sustainable way.”
Much has been done; much remains to be done. With the centre rehabilitated, another step was taken to expand the local action led by Leonel and to promote the institutional action of the Municipality of Beira; with the ongoing support of the Government and the United Nations the goal is to grow and increase the number of accessible public spaces and expand the construction of more resilient public infrastructure in other parts of the country.
"I think that every individual has a purpose, has to help solve a problem, and I believe mine is to help solve the energy crisis in rural and urban areas of Mozambique," tells Leonel.
The United Nations work in the country is to support many people like Leonel. More resilient buildings, income generation activities, and partnerships to strengthen the government, academic institutions and civil society organizations are some of the examples that enable the continuity and creation of a sustainable value chain - all possible only through direct involvement of local communities.
Leonel also represents the population's wishes for access to energy, and his cause is global: clean and accessible energy – the premise of Sustainable Development Goal number 7 (#SDG7), “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all". Local climate action is urgent and the United Nations in Mozambique stands with Mozambique to continue to make it a reality across the country.