Brewing change: Advancing the circular transition for Son La’s coffee sector

Written by Ky Ly – UNDP Circular Economy Hub Officer

June 12, 2024
Photo: internet

In the heart of Son La province, farmers are embracing a new way of growing coffee – one that not only promises an aromatic cup but a healthier planet too.

"I used to dump coffee pulps directly onto the soil around my coffee plants, unaware of the harm it caused due to its acidity," Ms. Tich shared. "The acidity even killed some of my plants. However, thanks to a UNDP and PSAV training course on circular economy practices, I now know how to transform coffee pulps into nutrient-rich compost."

Ms. Lo Thi Tich, a coffee farmer from Chieng Chung commune, is one of many farmers who are now aware of the negative impacts of traditional practices. She tried to switch to using organic fertilizers but lacked the proper guidance to do so effectively.

Ms. Tich was one of 80 participants in a training program on circular economy practices in the coffee value chain, held in Mai Son district by the UNDP and in collaboration with the Institute of Science for Rural Development (SIRD), the Partnership for Sustainable Agricultural Development in Vietnam (PSAV), and the  Viet Nam Circular Economy Hub (CE Hub), funded by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI),  from May 23rd to 25th, 2024. This collaborative effort aims to identify and disseminate circular solutions for rural and peri-urban waste in selected sites through hands-on capacity-building workshops for 200 farmers.

Son La boasts over 20,000 hectares of coffee plantations, yielding a staggering 45,000 tons annually. This region plays a pivotal role in Viet Nam's coffee industry, contributing 50.3% of the country's Arabica output. Yet, Mai Son, the district with the most extensive coffee cultivation, has been grappling with the consequences of unsustainable farming practices.

“Agriculture in the province of Son La has seen remarkable growth in recent years,” says Mr. Nguyen Khac Hao, head of Mai Son's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD). "But the sector also faces numerous challenges related to climate change and environmental pollution."

For years, wastewater from coffee processing facilities flowed unchecked into local waterways, polluting the environment, and disrupting communities with foul odors. Meanwhile, the overuse of chemical fertilizers, while boosting short-term yields, has degraded soil quality, jeopardizing the long-term sustainability of the area’s coffee industry.

Before the training, many farmers acknowledged that they simply didn't know where to start.  A preliminary survey by SIRD revealed that almost 65% of the farmers in the community hadn't even heard of the circular economy principles, let alone how to put it into practice with coffee waste. However, the survey also found a thirst for knowledge, with many expressing a desire to learn how to manage waste and transform it into valuable resources.

Participating in the training, farmers were immersed in real-world applications of circular concepts through hands-on field trips. They witnessed community-led initiatives transforming coffee pulps, once considered waste, into fruitful organic fertilizer. They also witnessed how wastewater from coffee processing, previously a pollution concern, was being transformed into irrigation water using a low-cost, scalable water filtration system. This simple yet effective solution involved just two storage tanks, a microbial culture medium, and molasses, effectively treating the wastewater while fostering both crop growth and water conservation. They also had the chance to visit Phuc Sinh, a major coffee production company in the region, where they observed the innovative use of coffee pulp to create a unique and aromatic tea called Cascara.

For farmers like Ms. Tich, these circular economy models represent a lifeline – a path towards a more sustainable and prosperous future. They help create new production models, green the coffee value chain, and bring economic benefits to farmers by saving waste treatment costs, reusing waste as input materials for production, and creating sustainable, high-value agricultural products.

The ripples of circular change are already spreading beyond Son La's coffee fields. The project is set to expand its reach, training farmers in the Mekong Delta on how to apply circular economy principles to rice cultivation. It will also provide technical support for circular models that reuse coffee and rice by-products to address bottlenecks and replicate these models locally.

Stay tuned for more stories on circular agriculture on the Viet Nam Circular Economy Hub!