Rwanda: using waste as a source of energy in prison

24-11-2010 Feature

In Rwandan prisons, septic tanks were a growing health risk. Now, thanks to an ICRC project, human waste is being converted into biogas that is used to heat the ovens in prison kitchens.

The prison population in Rwanda is estimated at around 68,000 people. Over the years, prisoners' living conditions have improved significantly. Still, the use of septic tanks to dispose of human waste posed a growing health risk for prisoners and prison staff alike.


Nsinda prison, Rwanda.
© ICRC / H. Kamugisha

"For many years, the ICRC assumed the prison authorities' role of meeting the basic needs of prisoners, such as nutrition, water and health care," said Christoph Hartmann, the ICRC's head of delegation in Rwanda. It made sense then for the ICRC to get involved in this area as well. A solution quickly emerged: human waste is a rich source of energy once it has been converted into biogas.

In 2005, a programme was undertaken to build and renovate biogas systems in a number of Rwandan prisons. The ICRC is the prime contractor on these projects and works in conjunction with the Interior Ministry, which oversees the National Prison Service and the country's 14 main prisons.

From 2005 to 2010, the ICRC helped build biogas systems in the following main prisons: Gikongoro, Gitarama, Remera and Nsinda. A similar project is nearing completion at Miyove prison.

Saving wood

The biogas system at Nsinda prison began operating in July of this year. It provides two distinct benefits: it cleans up the area immediately surrounding the prison, and it provides some of the cooking energy needed for the prison's 12,000 prisoners. "These systems reduce the amount of wood normally used for cooking food in the prisons by at least 30%," said Wellars Ndutiye, who runs the ICRC's water and habitat programme in Kigali. In Nsinda, the system powers 12 biogas ovens.

Biogas systems represent a long-term alternative energy solution that could gradually reduce pressure on Rwanda's forest resources. But that's not all. Experience in Cyangugu and Butare prisons has shown that, in addition to biogas, the systems produce liquid waste and compost that can be used to fertilize the land.

One man speaks for his fellow prisoners at Nsinda: "This new system improves our living conditions, making the prison and the surrounding area cleaner. Many of the smells are gone, and there are far fewer insects. There is less smoke in the kitchen, and we are able to eat every day. »

The construction work, half of which was paid for by the ICRC, was done by engineers from the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. The work was overseen by the ICRC and the National Prison Service.

In this area as in others, said Christoph Hartmann: "The ICRC in Kigali aims to transfer skills and expertise to the prison authorities in order to develop long-term structural support. »


From January to September 2010, the ICRC conducted 150 visits to 61 detention centres in Rwanda – prisons, police stations, military prisons, military camps and demobilization camps. These detention centres together house around 68,000 prisoners.
ICRC delegates support the prison authorities in their efforts to meet the detainees' needs in terms of hygiene and health conditions, prison kitchens and access to primary health care. Particular attention is paid to vulnerable groups such as minors, women, young children, the elderly, detainees awaiting trial and those claiming foreign nationality.
The ICRC shares its observations with the prison administration officials through confidential discussions.