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Challenges for contemporary extension: The case of biofertiliser inVietnam

Galina Barrett1 and Sally Marsh2

1Faculty of Economics and Rural Development, Hanoi Agricultural University No. 1, Ha Noi, Vietnam
Department of Agricultural Economics, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006


New technologies in developing countries present challenges for contemporary extension in differing ways. In this paper we discuss challenges arising from the introduction of biofertiliser technology in several districts in Vietnam. We find that the technology offers potential economic, environmental and social benefits for farmers and communities. Care needs to be taken to ensure that farmers pursuing individual economic benefits do not compromise the potential environmental and social benefits of the technology. This requires investment to educate farmers in the complex farming system and environmental relationships associated with the biofertiliser technology. Additionally, we stress the importance of extending technologies with their associated infrastructure that are sustainable in the long run, and that can be effectively operated by communities without external assistance


The motivation for the preparation of this paper arose out of an AusAID CARD (Capacity Building for Agriculture and Rural Development) project on biofertiliser inoculant technology currently being undertaken in Vietnam by the University of Sydney and Ha Noi University of Science. While undertaking an economic analysis of biofertiliser production and use in Vietnam we discovered many interesting aspects of the project relevant to agricultural extension through our discussions with farmers, scientists, factory workers and members from mass organisations such as the Vietnam Women’s Union (VWU).

In this paper we discuss issues and challenges related to the extension of the biofertiliser inoculant technology. We start by taking a look at some of the differences between agricultural production in Vietnam and Australia to add some context to points made later in the paper. The next section analyses the environmental, social and economic benefits that have the potential to flow from widespread use of the technology. After evaluating these benefits we examine areas that, we believe, if addressed, will improve the adoption of biofertiliser in Vietnam. The challenges for contemporary extension in this context include the need to ensure effective adoption of the technology, continually extending research to reduce costs of biofertiliser and finally to ensure that transfer of the technology is ultimately sustainable and reaches those who are most in need of it.

Introduction to Agriculture in Vietnam

Over seventy per cent of Vietnam’s 75 million people live in rural areas. For these people farming is not only their livelihoods but an opportunity to contribute to the food production of the entire population. In 1999 agriculture, fisheries and forestry contributed 25% of GDP (Author’s calculation from GSO 2000).

Rice continues to be the single most important crop contributing up to 8% of GDP in 1999 (Sarker, 2000). Over 70% of rice production comes from the two delta areas – the Red River Delta (RRD) in the north and the Mekong River Delta (MRD) in the south. Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate (hot, rainy summers and dry cool winters). There are four seasons in the north which allows for three growing seasons, two of which are used for rice cropping.

There are large differences in farming characteristics between countries such as Australia and Vietnam. In Vietnam, household farms are characterised by small, fragmented land holdings. In the RRD, where the biofertiliser trials we report have been carried out, average farm size is around 7 sao1 or 0.25 hectares (Sarker, 2000). This land is comprised of, on average, 8-10 non-contiguous plots of land, some of which are only 200 –500 m2 in size (The World Bank in Vietnam, 1998).

Traditional methods of production are used with minimal mechanisation and high labour usage. For example, in Australia, farming is highly mechanised, whilst in the RRD in Vietnam rice seedlings are transplanted by hand, and crops are fertilised, sprayed and harvested by hand.

Hai Duong Province, where biofertiliser field trials have been carried out, is located in the RRD so in terms of infrastructure, the population is relatively well supported with almost all communes (99%) having access to electricity, car road access, primary schools and health centres. Notwithstanding this, farmers are relatively poorly educated.

Agriculture is mostly seen as a ‘female sector’ in terms of labour force requirements and 76% of all farm labour is carried out by women (Tran Thi and Le, 2000). As such the VWU has motivated millions of Vietnamese women to join and be a part of their organisation. The VWU network of offices introduces new knowledge and skills for women by promoting programs to assist women in many different ways.

The VWU has played a significant role in the biofertiliser project through two main areas of its activities. The first program is based around training and retraining to improve knowledge and skills for women. The second involves creating job opportunities and to increase women’s incomes.

We now turn our attention to discussion of the biofertiliser inoculant technology.


In this paper, biofertiliser refers to the combination of starter (cultured microbial inoculants) with peat, rice husk, sugar and water to form an organic fertiliser. In Vietnam, biofertiliser can be used in the cultivation of paddy rice and other crops and has the potential to both increase yields and decrease the use of chemical fertilisers. When biofertiliser is used as part of a fertiliser regime, application rates of urea and NPK can be halved for the same or increased yield.

At present production of biofertiliser takes place in three factories located in the following provinces: Ha Tay, Hai Duong and Thai Nguyen. Starter culture for the factories is manufactured at a laboratory located at Ha Noi University of Science. Biofertiliser can only be stored for one to one and a half months prior to use. Hence, farmers must place orders up to one month prior to transplanting, and production takes place according to demand.

The VWU and the Agricultural Extension Service from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development are actively involved in the management and production in the factories. In Ba Vi District factory, located in Ha Tay Province, four out of eight members on the Factory Management Board are members of the VWU. The Agricultural Extension Service is responsible for the factory in Thai Nguyen province and is undertaking a marketing and extension role within other provinces to promote the use of biofertiliser.

Benefits of biofertiliser technology

Antholt (1998) points out that consideration should be given to getting the technology right as a starting point for extension projects. That is, any technology introduced into a community should have a proven ability to generate benefits over and above existing technology. The following analysis examines the effects of biofertiliser technology in comparison with current fertiliser regimes in terms of environmental, social and economic benefits.

Environmental and social benefits

Kennedy and Hien (1999) state “the extensive use of biofertilisers has the potential to better recycle the current nutrients contained in the soil and water of agricultural ecosystems and to reduce the negative impacts on ecosystems of chemical fertilisers.”

Potential ecological benefits from the use of biofertiliser are:

  • Reduction in the use of inorganic fertilisers
  • Reduction in denitrification and other production of greenhouse gases
  • Lowered pollution of waterways, reduction in the growth of algae and other harmful microbes capable of toxin production.

Widespread adoption of biofertiliser technology has potential to alleviate problems associated with chemical fertiliser use, leading to benefits for the community of a cleaner agricultural environment. In addition to this positive outcome from adoption of the biofertiliser, the project also seeks to build skills in the community, an additional social benefit.

Van de Fliert (2000) makes the point that sustainable agricultural systems should centre on people rather than technologies. Consequently, extension efforts promoting such systems should focus on capacity building of people. The project involves people at the commune level in production, distribution and end use of the technology. In this sense, the project builds capacity in the local populace beyond the transfer of technology per se.

Introduction to the new technology is carried out through training courses run by Ha Noi University of Science and attended by producers of biofertiliser and farmers planning to use the product. The biofertiliser project in Vietnam focuses on the transfer of skills between people, which when combined with proven technology, can lead to sustainable and socially beneficial outcomes.

In summary, the biofertiliser project provides important benefits to local communities. As well as ecological advantages it promotes advancement of human capital in the form of education of villagers who acquire training in the production and use of the technology. Both these activities have significant income generating potential.

Notwithstanding these benefits we know that farmers all over the world are reluctant to make changes to their current practices unless the method being introduced brings individual economic rewards greater than those being received at present (Pannell, 1999). The economic advantages of the biofertiliser technology are addressed below.

Economic benefits

To establish the economic benefits of the project, data was collected from ten farmers in Cam Giang District, Hai Duong Province, comparing rice sown with and without biofertiliser. The field trials, supervised by scientists from Ha Noi University of Science, were conducted by farmers who used biofertiliser on one half of a land plot and conventional fertiliser application on the other half of the plot. Results suggest that gains from increases in yield and hence income, are significant.

Overall, nine farmers reduced chemical fertiliser inputs and experienced an increase in yield. Yield increases experienced by farmers in Cam Giang District were up to 20% or 36kg/sao higher with use of biofertiliser, with an average increase of 25kg/sao (or the equivalent of 700kg/ha).

Two farmers indicated negative cost savings, (i.e. an increase in fertiliser input costs) with the use of biofertiliser. It was suggested to us that these farmers applied a greater than recommended amount of biofertiliser, or did not reduce the amount of inorganic fertiliser applied (Hien, pers. comm. 2001); a point we will discuss in a later section.

Table 1 calculates the total benefit of using biofertiliser over a year using averages from eight farmers in Cam Giang District, Hai Duong Province (data adapted from Roughley, 2000).

Table 1. Additional benefits from yield increase from use of biofertiliser




Average savings in costs from use of Biofertiliser

3,300 /sao


Average increase in income

38,000 /sao


Total increase in income attributable to biofertiliser use

41,300 /sao



Average land holding per farmer (GSO Stats 2000)

7 sao

7 sao

Sub Total (increase in income per farm per crop)



Total income over year (assuming 2 crops)




Average rural income (GSO Stats. 2000)



Percentage increase in income from use of biofertiliser



AUD$1 = VND 7,500
1ha = 28sao
Constant rice price = VND 1,500/kg
2 rice seasons per year

For the farmers in this district, yield increases contributed up to an additional 55,000 VND/sao towards income with an average increase in farmer income of 38,000 VND/sao (or AUD $142/ha).

Most notable of the results from Table 1 is the potential of the new technology to increase farmer income, on average, by up to 22%. Results from these field trials indicate there are significant benefits to be gained for communities involved in the use of biofertiliser technology. Yet despite these benefits the level of uptake of the technology was relatively low – only 100 households out of 500 in the village were using biofertiliser in their fertiliser regimes by the fourth season of production.

In the next section we explore the reasons farmers and factory workers have put forward for non-adoption. We also make suggestions of our own and in so doing expose some of the challenges facing contemporary extension in this region.

Challenges for contemporary extension of the biofertiliser technology

In this paper ‘contemporary extension’ refers to a transfer of knowledge associated with sustainable practices which goes beyond a mere transfer of technology. In light of the benefits illustrated above it might be assumed the extension efforts involved in encouraging farmers to adopt would face few challenges.

However the characteristics of Vietnamese agriculture described earlier contribute to some difficulties.

Through work on this biofertiliser project we found that extension workers in this region need to be capable of negating these characteristics by playing a critical role in the following areas in particular: ensuring effective adoption of the biofertiliser technology, focusing research and facilitating the transfer of a sustainable enterprise to the communities.

Effective adoption of the technology

Effective adoption in this context means changing the current fertiliser practices with regard to the element of sustainability contained within the new technology. Two farmers in Cam Giang District (referred to earlier) who reported increased fertiliser costs when using biofertiliser best illustrate this challenge in achieving effective use of the technology. It was suggested to us that these farmers had applied biofertiliser and chemical fertiliser without reducing it by the requisite half.

Herein lies the challenge for the extension worker in this case: to facilitate an understanding through extension principles that farmers adopting this technology but not reducing chemical fertiliser input undermine the social and ecological advantages of adopting the technology. That is, extension workers need to change a mindset that precludes environmental benefits from biofertiliser adoption. In addition, that mindset contains the possibility that, if two sets of fertiliser are applied then even greater yields will be realised. This may in fact be the case, as yield plateaus for combination of inorganic fertilisers and biofertiliser are not yet well-researched (Kennedy, 2001), but disadvantages from over use of fertiliser has severe long term environmental effects. As well, over use or inefficient use of fertilisers may ultimately lead to declining returns from the crop.

These issues require a maturity of understanding by farmers that will challenge extension efforts. Education levels of farmers in Vietnam are still low. When traditional agricultural practices are followed, education is less important for farmers who rely on traditional skills. However, when practices and concepts change, lack of education affects the capacity of people to grasp new ideas and change their traditional practices (Ruttan, 1998).

Further, comments from farmers alluded to the fact that other farmers may not be using biofertiliser because of the inconvenience of its preparation compared to chemical fertilisers. The additional work required to prepare the biofertiliser for application, plus the need for forward ordering and lack of storability of biofertiliser is reported to erode the attractiveness of the technology (Various, pers. comm., 2001). Addressing these issues at the factory and farm level and ensuring farmers are aware that the benefits of using biofertiliser, both in economic and ecological terms, outweigh the inconvenience will mean they are more receptive to changing their practices to biofertiliser use.

Research challenges

Contributing to the economic advantages of biofertiliser are cost savings made when using it as an alternative to chemical fertiliser. Analysis of Table 1 illustrated that although the gains in terms of cost savings are small they still contribute to a greater profit relative to inorganic fertiliser use.

The challenge for researchers is to discover a method of strain selection and production that further reduces the cost of fertiliser. The impact of the reduction in costs will be two fold. Because of the lowered costs for farmers they will be more likely to associate biofertiliser as a cheaper fertiliser alternative and thereby reduce inorganic application as much as possible – thus the ecological and social benefits discussed earlier can potentially be realised.

The extension worker can, by analysing the financial structure of the farm with the producer, assist farmers to understand that a cost reduction also contributes to increased profits and demonstrate that yield maximisation is not necessarily profit maximisation. Another way of looking at the issue would be to ensure the farmer’s understanding of the other dimensions to biofertiliser use: that is, additional yield increase, profit increase from cost reduction and in addition, environmental benefits all contribute to gains to be made from biofertiliser use.

Transfer of sustainable enterprises

By this we mean the transfer of skills which will enable the community to meet challenges in agricultural production in the long term. In the case of biofertiliser this means that the transfer of a profitable enterprise to the community needs to be established before the aid organisations involved have moved onto other projects. The community needs to be independently capable of adapting their operations to changing circumstances and opportunities.

The challenge for extension is to ensure that the practices put into place are sustainable by the community in the long run: that is, from funds generated from the introduction of the new technology or associated infrastructure. For example, in the case of Ba Vi District factory, although initial funds for research and factory buildings came from external organisations the enterprise is able to support itself on funds derived from the sale of the product to farmers (who further benefit from cheaper input costs).

It is this capability that has flow on effects for the whole community and highlights successful execution of the project. As well as the additional income made by farmers using biofertiliser, funds from the production operation are spent within the district by the factory and the factory workers. The production of biofertiliser and the use of it in local farming systems should be able to continue after the aid project has officially ended.

Another dimension which may present a challenge to the extension worker is the transferring of the technology to those most in need of it. In Vietnam, members of mass organisations such as the VWU are more likely to be the first involved and therefore the first to receive benefits from the introduction of the technology. As mentioned previously, four out of eight members of the factory management board in Ba Vi District are from the VWU and they are also farmers. They can influence the amount paid to themselves in wages and the price of the biofertiliser for other farmers.

Extension in Vietnam, as in other communities, is often expected to focus on a limited number of household farmers with high community status. It remains a challenge for extension workers to try and ensure that the introduction of technology into an area is for the betterment of the whole district rather than those at the top of the communal hierarchy.

Concluding comments

In summary, the introduction of biofertiliser technology presents many challenges for the agricultural extension worker in Vietnam. The technology offers potential economic, environmental and social benefits for farmers and communities. However there is a need to change inherent understandings about the interconnections between ecological, economic and social benefits. This will require investment to educate farmers in the complex farming system and environmental relationships associated with the biofertiliser technology. There is also a need to ensure that the enterprise is operational without the support of aid organisations, and that the technology reaches those people who most need it. Ultimately if implemented successfully the biofertiliser project offers economic benefits for farmers and environmental benefits at the same time.


The authors acknowledge information and assistance from members of the AusAID CARD Biofertiliser project, especially Professor Nguyen Thanh Hien, Ha Noi University of Science. We also wish to acknowledge information and assistance offered by the Ba Vi District Biofertiliser Factory and farmers in Tan Linh commune, Ba Vi District, Ha Tay Province.

The authors would like to express their gratitude to Professor Ivan Kennedy and the SUNFix Centre for Nitrogen Fixation . Work for this paper has been done in conjunction with the AusAID CARD project ‘Biofertiliser inoculant technology for the growth of rice in Vietnam: Developing technical infrastructure for quality assurance and village production for farmers’.

Assistance given by AusAID Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development Program in the presentation of this paper and placement of one of the authors in Vietnam is also acknowledged along with the support from colleagues at Ha Noi Agricultural University No. 1, Ha Noi, Vietnam.

The authors also acknowledge helpful comments from Jane Fisher during the refereeing process.


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1 Sao = unit of land measurement of 360 m2, equal to 0.035 hectares (or 1hectare = 28 sao).

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