Date released
14 December 2023

Three years ago, there was little awareness among smallholder farmers in Vietnam that their crop residues had a hidden value that could increase farm productivity and boost their incomes. Both biochar and the circular economy were virtually unknown concepts.

However, a project developed through the ACIAR John Dillon Fellowship (JDF) program has introduced both concepts to ricegrowers in Vietnam’s Thai Binh Province (in the Red River Delta Region) and coffee growers in the Dak Lak Province (in the Central Highlands Region), where they are gaining grassroots acceptance.

Project leader Dr Tran Van The, Vice-Director from the Institute for Agricultural Environment, said the need to reduce the environmental impacts of rice farming was an important driver for the collaborative project, which involved 6 John Dillon Fellows from across Vietnam.

Rice farmers typically burn their crop residues in the open field, creating a source of pollution and carbon emissions. Rice straw that is left to rot in flooded paddies also generates significant quantities of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas.

Dr The said providing smallholder farmers with options to make better use of crop residues – such as biochar – would help them to move away from environmentally damaging practices. Biochar could positively contribute to farming enterprises as a fertiliser and soil conditioner that improves crop yields and soil health. It would also help to build broader circular economy practices in Vietnam.

5 people standing in front of a wall full of post it notes.
John Dillon Fellows in the Vietnam biochar project team, from left Dr Tran Van The (IAE), Dr Bui Thi Phuong Loan (Biochar project leader, IAE), Ms Ta Thu Hang (RRDI), Dr Phan Viet Ha (WASI), and Dr Ngo Duc Minh(Biochar project coordinator, VAAS). Absent Ms Chau Thi Minh Long (WASI). Photo: ACIAR

Equipment challenge

A key challenge of the project was to develop a low-cost production system that farmers could easily make and use themselves, and then to train them in the biochar production process, as well as how to engage other farmers and family members as participants in the process.

‘We used materials that were readily available to farmers in their local province to make kilns to produce the biochar,’ said Dr The. ‘We have a small system that can be used by a single household, and a larger version that can be shared by farming groups. We also have equipment that can be used for multiple types of crop residues – rice, or groundnuts, or coffee.

‘And once we trained the farmers, they told us that it was very easy to make the biochar.’

In the Dak Lak Province, coffee farmers were happy to convert coffee bean husks to biochar for fertiliser as an alternative to composting, which can take up to 2 years to break down the hard husks.

And in Thai Binh Province, some rice farmers had taken the biochar process a step further, gathering oil released from rice husks during the burning process to make an organic pesticide.

a large group of people standing in a circle, directing their attention to a man in the centre who is speaking using a microphone.
Training farmers in Thai Binh to make biochar from rice straw, using a larger unit designed for farmer groups. Photo: Institute for Agricultural Environment

Participation and policy

The project used a train-the-trainer approach and 100 participants, both farmers and local officials from both provinces, were trained in biochar production. In a follow-up survey, the ratio of farmers exposed to the project who wanted to apply biochar production from rice and coffee residues increased from 0% to 100%, taking advantage of benefits such as producing a fertiliser and soil conditioner to help improve crop yields.

To identify policies and strategies that would support the production of biochar, the project team used interviews and focus group discussions as participatory approaches learned through their fellowship training.

Policy links included responses to climate change; strengthening natural resource management and environmental protection; and promotion of renewable energy. The team developed a range of instructional materials for smallholders, as well as policy briefs for provincial and national governments to encourage the adoption of biochar initiatives.

Dr The said following the project, there have been requests to expand the biochar training model to other provinces, and for other crops including soybeans and groundnuts, and to investigate how biochar could improve saline soils in coastal areas.

ACIAR Assistant Director, Capacity Building, Dr Bosibori Bett said implementation of the biochar project was one of 3 components that form part of the 2021–23 fellowship program with the Vietnam cohort.

Vietnam fellows worked together across their different organisations to deliver a collaborative project. Their organisations included the Institute for Agricultural Environment, Vietnam Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Western Highlands Agriculture and Forestry Science Institute and the Regional Research and Development Institute.

Dr Bett said other JDF program components include a leadership workshop, which brings together fellows from different countries at the beginning of the program and is supported by a series of online learning modules, and another post-project reflective workshop for all participants.

‘The aim of the project is to apply the leadership skills fellows have been learning, to work collaboratively and share their skills to address an agricultural challenge, which the Vietnam team has done well,’ said Dr Bett.

‘It’s valuable to see researchers and farmers involved in learning and training together, as they are both important stakeholders in the agricultural value chain.’

MORE INFORMATION: John Dillon Fellowship program