Women, Biogas, and Technological Change (thoughts from 1989)

By Ulric (Neville) Trotz

Neville Trotz was director of the Institute for Applied Science and Technology in Guyana from 1980-1990. He is currently the Deputy Director and Science Advisor to the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre in Belize.

Editor’s Note: In June 2016, my sister Maya Trotz, an environmental engineer at the University of South Florida, opened some boxes of papers that our dad has in his home. Some had been sealed since he left the Institute of Applied Science and Technology (IAST) in Guyana. One folder contained a talk he gave at a consultative meeting on curriculum development for a Women’s Studies programme at the University of Guyana in 1989, so much of it which remains relevant today.

Despite all of the institutional arrangements, legal instruments, and multiple activities which have been put in place to ensure that women take their rightful place in the developmental process, they have not been able to do so at a satisfactory level and pace. Maybe one reason is that too little attention has been paid to developing the full capability of women to achieve technological competence in their areas of activity. I fully believe that given the opportunity, women can cope as effectively as men with technologies designed to increase productivity in the workplace (and at home).

In developing a women’s studies programme it is essential that the curriculum is designed in such a manner that the trainees become conversant with the possibilities for “technological intervention” by their women colleagues in the environment in which they live. This should lead to more efficient production, greater income generation, less drudgery, and a better quality of life for all concerned. To get the active support of female participants, technological intervention must result in the satisfaction of a felt need in the community. I would like to relate to you an experience which we have had at the Institute of Applied Science and Technology in Guyana. With the problems associated with the fuel crises, we embarked on implementing a national biogas programme. Essentially the aim was to utilize the large amount of animal wastes available in rural areas for the production of methane gas which could be used for cooking in the home. It was realised that several factors favored the implementation of such a program:

● unavailability of firewood and charcoal at reasonable prices

● high cost and seasonal unavailability of cooking gassmoke inhalation using wood

● heavy work involved in chopping wood

● fly and odour nuisance from animal wastes

Under the programme several digesters have been built in Guyana, approximately 65 to date, and are operating successfully. However, the impact the use of the gas has made on the life of the women in the kitchen has resulted in the women being more interested in the maintenance and upkeep of the system. A by-product of the fermentation process to produce the gas is a high-grade fertiliser which has had a dramatic effect on the level of production in the “kitchen gardens” kept at these sites. There too, being invariably in charge of this activity, the women have basic interests in ensuring that the system functions. They have learnt the skills to utilise the technology and to manage and upkeep the systems for their benefit. Apart from this, women play a most important role in popularising the programme by communicating most effectively with their counterparts. This has resulted in very high demand for biogas digesters throughout the country.

Several women in the Caribbean reside in the rural areas and derive a living from agricultural activity. Technological intervention can be effective in changing the patterns of production and quality of life now seen in the sector. An interesting opportunity arises with the use of solar drying techniques for the production of dried agricultural products. The use of simple solar driers increases not only the volume of production, but the hygienic quality of the product. Traditionally, several food products are dried in the open (sorrel, shrimp, fish, peppers, thyme, etc.), but the product is inferior to that dried in simple solar dryers. Simple processing techniques utilised for specific crops (e.g. turmeric, ginger) before drying ensures a high-quality product which demands a higher price and a more sophisticated market. There is great scope for the introduction of improved technology to the entire range of food processing activities taking place at the cottage industry level -  jams, confectionery, preserves, etc. Such technology will result in the production of a consistently high quality saleable product and contribute significantly to the productivity of the individual group involved.

Today a significant technological revolution is taking place in the agricultural sector and is referred to as tissue culture technology. It allows scientists to produce thousands of high performance disease free plants for the farmer. Tied up with this are strict farm management regimes applicable to the use of these elite varieties. This includes specialised fertiliser and equipment use. It is essential that women farmers be au fait with these developments and ensure that the most appropriate and available techniques are being utilized.

The field of agriculture and food processing presents an interesting case study re women’s participation in the production process; most of the processed material from this sector is produced by women. I know a woman on the Essequibo Coast who produces the best preserved fruit (carambola and gooseberry) that I have ever encountered. It is very well preserved with good appearance and long shelf life. Yet, for all these years she has only been able to produce small batches at a time. Similarly, all the good pepper sauce and casareep in Guyana are manufactured by women. Yet, show me one properly commercialized activity carrying out any of these processes for the market place owned and run by women. Evidently, our female producers have been caught up in a cocoon, to some extent attitudinal, which they need to break out from.

It is not good enough for women to remain, in the main, passive partners in the technology market. In biogas we need women masons to learn to build biogas digesters and to become involved in the implementation of the national programme. In solar energy we need women carpenters to design and build solar dryers for use in the farming community. In all aspects of food processing, it is important that women organise to put their activities on a firmer commercial basis and to break away from their present patterns of operation. An example from India may be instructive. The Indian Department of Science and Technology in collaboration with the Industrial Development Bank of India set up an Entrepreneur’s Chemical Park in Bombay. The C.C. Stroff Research Institute, working within this overall scheme, decided to found a park that would further the goal of encouraging entrepreneurship, but with special reference to the needs of the chemical industry. One of the special Entrepreneurship Development Programmes (EDP) organised by the Institute as part of its training programme was held in 1985 in Thane, Bombay with the specific aim of identifying and developing female entrepreneurial talent in the region. A number of experts from different fields came together and drew up a syllabus for the course. The larger number of applicants was reduced to a group of thirty participants, who were given the chance to use the extensive facilities of the Institute and introduced to sources of financial support, and who participated in an intensive programme of lectures and workshops. The courses lasted nine weeks. Of the thirty women, ten became established in businesses associated with Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, and Chemical Technology. The remaining twenty were still at the earlier stages of planning their enterprises, but all expected to be engaged in full scale production.

An interesting fact that emerged from this experience was that whereas the male partner of a couple is often willing or unable to leave his existing job and take the risk of launching an individual enterprise, for fear of exposing his family to financial insecurity, the wife is better placed for this type of risk taking. Similarly, the female ego seems more resilient to the possibilities of success or failure. In several cases, men have later joined in their wives’ businesses, sharing the load rather than expecting to assume total control. However, many women have continued to run the business singlehandedly. These observations and others made during and after the EDP have all been substantiated by case studies. It was concluded that there is a large reserve of untapped entrepreneurial talent amongst women. Given initial advice and support, especially in the practical areas of laboratory facilities and finance, women were well motivated and qualified to establish successful enterprises in the fields of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, and Chemical Technology.

I would like to propose to this meeting that this experience could be extended to other areas such as food processing, ceramics, and handicraft. At the Institute, we have been investigating the establishment of a “business incubator,” which would provide technical assistance services (including marketing, secretarial, and business management expertise) to the fledgling industries which will be set up under one roof. After incubation (about 3 years) the business should be healthy enough to move out on its own to make room for a new entity. Maybe this model should be examined for its appropriateness for the establishment of women’s businesses which require technology inputs.

Today advanced technological innovations are revolutionizing the market place. In several instances the impact of these technologies on third world economies have been negative. Nevertheless, advances in computer technology, micro electronics, information technology, biotechnology, cannot be ignored. Third World countries have to get in step with some of these developments and equip everyone with the skills necessary to effectively use these technologies. One of the service areas of great importance to the industrial sector in our countries is that of information services. Traditionally, this has been supplied by library personnel, mainly women, operating in universities, communities, research laboratories, banks, etc. However, with the advance of modern communications and computer technology, the trend now is to move towards providing information services through accessing international databases via a computerized system. Storage, retrieval and processing of data are now computerized operations. Here is an excellent professional opportunity for women. They have traditionally dominated the information field. With further training in the new technologies related to information services they can carve a niche for themselves in an area which demands expertise at the high technology end of the scale.

In a country like Guyana where literacy levels are high and there is a reasonably well-educated labor force some innovative approaches to the production problem can be attempted. If we define “appropriate technology” as that technology which under the existing conditions is the best choice for accomplishing a particular task in the most effective manner, then it may be, that in small countries with a highly intelligent and literate workforce, high technology solutions to production problems, might be more appropriate than the usual low technology, labour intensive solutions. If this policy is accepted then our countries have a splendid opportunity to catapult our entire work.


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