We introduce a social enterprise that is part of one of the most important systemic shifts that have taken place in Germany in the last decades: the Energiewende – the shift from coal and nuclear power to renewable and energy. Polarstern not only supports the change process within Germany but has also found a mechanism to scale social and environmental impact to other counties. For us, they provide a great example of how social enterprises support and scale systemic change and how they adapt their activities to local needs.
Dr. Jakob Assmann is one of the three founders of Polarstern, a German green utility company. Polarstern provides exclusively green energy to customers in Germany and, together with them, enables households in Cambodia to build their own biogas digesters that generate biogas from implement livestock and human waste. His story gives insights on how intersections between agribusiness, green energy, micro-financing and international collaborations work on the ground.
Visiting Polarstern's office in Munich (and the company kindly invites everyone interested to pass by) one will find a wall that explains the impact of the company best, without using a single written word. The wall of the team's lunchroom is covered with pictures of more than 5.000 people, that have all benefitted from a household bio-digester partly financed by Polarstern and its customers.
In 2011 Polarstern was founded with the strong belief that the Energiewende is one of the most important projects of 21st century Germany. Hence the Start-Up was the first German utility company to provide exclusively renewable energy (100% green electricity and 100% green gas). From the very beginning it was clear for the three founders, however, that the Energiewende should not end at the borders of their home country. Since the founding of the company, a one-to-one principle of small-scale development aid can be considered the core idea of Polarstern. For every customer they gain in Germany, they enable one family in Cambodia to build their own household bio-digester.
Why biogas, and what benefits does it hold for the farmer?
All the families supported are subsistence farmers that maintain a few animals and work small cultivated areas. In these smallholder farms, human and livestock excrement is collected into piles, which releases methane gas as it breaks down over time. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and the primary source of emissions in agriculture, especially in farmlands that host livestock.
Biogas is energy captured from the incineration of animal and human waste. As opposed to allowing waste to decompose naturally, the carbon dioxide and methane gas produced from burning these materials are collected into an airtight container. The generated heat is used to light homes and power gas stoves. In smallholder farms, burning waste can be a renewable source of energy.
This reduces the amount of time needed to gather or buy traditional fuels, removes the severe health risk of smoke in enclosed spaces and decreases both greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. As a positive side-effect, residues of the fermentation process can be used as natural fertilizers, increasing crop yields by up to 30%. Especially girls and women, who are primarily responsible for ensuring constant fuel supply in their families, benefit from the additional time gained.
Micro-financing smallholder farmers has a big return for farmers and emissions controls
Polarstern, through its customers, provides the initial funding of 150 US-Dollar for every biogas plant. The remaining costs of 400 US-Dollar are financed through micro-credits, provided for by local banks and paid back by the families themselves. The point of financial amortization is usually reached after two years. Polarstern has teamed up with the National Biodigester Programme(NBP) of Cambodia, a not-for-profit development organization originally initiated by the Dutch SNV.
The local approach of the NBP ensures that the full process of value creation, reaching from local building materials, via the construction of the biogas unit to the overall coordination of the program, remains within the country. The local and low-tech, low maintenance and efficient approach and the value creation on-site were the key reasons for Polarstern to support the NBP in Cambodia.
No other sustainable utility company in Germany has so far established a link between providing renewable energies in their home market and enabling people in developing countries to use the same. From the company's experience, people with an interest in, and awareness for sustainable energy production also support efforts of global development. While explaining their ambition to possible customers, the link between Germany and Cambodia is sometimes perceived to be a little bit abstract at first. Thinking back about their Munich lunchroom wall and the impressive amount of pictures, the company has however proven that people, once they understand the goal, support the founders' perception that the Energiewende is a global challenge.
More info: www.polarstern-energie.de