Energy from agricultural waste in Southeast Asia

The sixth annual Making a Difference Awards took place last month which highlighted the extensive range of social responsibility activities that our staff, students and external partners are involved in. A record number of 180 individuals and teams submitted entries, with judges recognising 17 winners, 28 highly commended and two special recognition awards.

8,000 people around the world engaged in our first online awards ceremony on Facebook Live which was presented by Chancellor Lemn Sissay. Details of all winners and highly commended awardees can be found on the social responsibility website, with short films about their winning projects on the social responsibility YouTube channel.

As always, the awards were an inspiring and humbling event showcasing the incredible work that our University community does to make a difference. We are continuing to celebrate and acknowledge our winners’ projects by featuring them in a series of articles highlighting the best of social responsibility at the University.

Energy from agricultural waste in Southeast Asia

Researchers Angela Mae Minas and Sarah Mander from The Tyndall Centre won their emerging impact award in the outstanding benefit to society through research category. Their research aimed to tackle the negative environmental and health impacts from rice straw burning in Vietnam and the Philippines and the endangerment of river health that comes from the disposal of rice husk into rivers in Myanmar, consequently affecting the livelihoods of rural communities living near river streams.

Their work focussed on finding collaborative ways to engage farmers in bioenergy development whilst also linking it to agricultural livelihoods. For example, by farmers taking active roles in decision making about a biogas facility, and income-generating activities, such as selling rice straw and rice husk, or using digestate (the product of rice straw energy generation) as compost for their rice fields.

Both Angela and Sarah are involved in the Tyndall research theme ‘Overcoming poverty with Climate Actions’ which focuses on how climate change actions interact and interrelate with poverty and inequality. Their work in Southeast Asia has fostered an interdisciplinary research approach working with other social scientists, agricultural experts and engineers. They also partnered with local farmer groups and research and government bodies, including the Philippine Department of Agriculture and the Philippine Rice Research Institute, Can Tho University and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Vietnam, and local NGOs in Myanmar: Mercy Corps Myanmar and Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar.

An inter-disciplinary approach was crucial in addressing some of the challenges involved, such as the lack of clear policy around management of agricultural wastes and support for bioenergy generation, as well as consideration for different government structures and approaches to policy in each of the countries they worked in.

Although farmers are users and producers of bioenergy, traditionally the majority of research on bioenergy is technology-focussed. This project has helped to facilitate farmer-focussed discussions on bioenergy alongside technology development. One of the ways they worked with locals is by participating in farmers meetings in the Philippines and Vietnam which play host to a variety of relevant parties, including local agricultural officers and members of the local authority. At these meetings, they presented their findings and translated their presentation into the local language to enable an open discussion between all groups. In doing so, they have used their research as a platform for change in ensuring that farmers are central to the development process and that they are recognised as active participants instead of passive recipients in bioenergy development.

In Myanmar, Angela and Sarah are currently collaborating with local partners on developing a report and a briefing note on rice husk value chains and the potential of bioenergy in order to reach policy decision makers, which will also be translated into the local language. This report aims to contribute to policy discussions on agricultural development and energy access. In March 2020, Angela virtually participated in a workshop with partners in Myanmar, with future plans for the project centring around progressing these dialogues into relevant policy recommendations.

Their hope is that these projects, which bring in farmers’ perspectives, will help to shape current efforts on rice straw and rice husk management and bioenergy development in Southeast Asia as well as push through agendas on farmer-focussed research, generating waste-to-energy, and ensure that climate actions also have development co-benefits. The projects are also a part of the larger SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub who are now leading the pilot-testing of rice straw bioenergy facility in the Philippines.

We caught up with the project researchers and asked them what being recognised at this year’s Making a Difference Awards meant to them: The Making a Difference Award will hopefully help to further amplify the voices and stories from the field of co-developing bioenergy solutions with farmers and local communities so that we can achieve wider-reaching policy and development impact. Also, doing social science research amidst all technology-focussed work on bioenergy is challenging, and we believe that the MAD Award brings an extra layer of credibility to our work, especially when engaging with international partners”.

“We are most thankful to our collaborators in Southeast Asia. There is so much good research being done at Manchester and we are honoured to receive a MAD Award. There is more to do and receiving the Award motivates us to do better in making sure that our research translates into action and that it continues to bring positive impact to the communities that we work with.”

To find out more about the project and its impact click here.