Bridging agricultural livelihoods and energy access - Barriers and opportunities for rice and rice husk value chains in Labutta, Myanmar


Executive Summary

This report presents the results of a one-year collaborative research project between Mercy Corps Myanmar, Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar with Biomass Energy Association of Myanmar and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester. The project explored the intersection between agricultural livelihoods and energy access through an investigation of social networks in rice and rice husk value chains in rural farming communities of Labutta in Myanmar’s Lower Delta.

Rice production is an important agricultural activity in Myanmar, significantly contributing to its economy by providing income and employment to half of the country’s population. However, because of lack of access to electricity in many rural areas, rice farmers have limited opportunities to increase their income. For many off-grid communities, heat and electricity for household lighting and livelihood activities are provided through steam and electricity produced from combustion or gasification of rice husk – a by product of rice milling. With an estimated over 3 million tonnes of rice husk produced every year, Myanmar has potential to utilise rice husk for income-generating activities and energy generation in order to support agricultural production and rural livelihoods.

Focusing on case study sites in Bi Tut and Kan Bet in Labutta, this research mapped social networks in rice production and rice husk value chains. This allowed us to identify actors and network structures that could play important roles in supporting energy access and increasing livelihood opportunities for smallholders. In addition to this, interviews and focus group discussions with farmers and millers also revealed important challenges and opportunities for rice husk bioenergy within rural farming communities.

Among the challenges identified are:

  • Access to credit and financing. This is one of the most urgent requirements to enable smallholder farmers and millers to adopt value-adding activities such as access to high quality inputs (e.g., seeds and fertilisers) or mechanised drying, and so increase their income.

  • Small-scale millers in off-grid areas offer an important service to smallholder farmers and need financial and technical support to upgrade their facilities.

  • A rice husk market exists but mostly for traditional biomass uses, e.g., as briquettes or fuel sticks or direct burning for rice husk cook stoves; these can lead to pollution and negative impacts on health.

  • Medium-scale millers are willing to participate in new or additional rice husk value added activities, but only if other actors or businesses can manage rice husk collection and transportation for them.

There are a number of opportunities for both farmers and millers that can address these challenges, including:

  • Building or strengthening connections between medium-scale millers and local businesses that use rice husk • Supporting market development for rice husk use in energy generation

  • Empowering local partnerships within communities to manage husk-to-energy business models • Linking groups of farmers to service providers in order to lower costs of production

Reflecting on these, results from this research suggest that in order to bridge agri-livelihods and energy access:

  • Farmers and millers need access to credit under fair financing schemes. It is also particularly important to address issues in rice trading (e.g., differences in trading price) to increase farmers’ income.

  • Investments are needed to support facilities and activities that add value to rice husk, especially by using it for modern bioenergy. This requires financial support for millers, especially small-scale and husk-to-energy operators to allow them to invest in zero-effluent husk-to-energy facilities.

  • Capacity building and partnerships strengthening initiatives are needed, which could be enabled by collaboration between local businesses, communities, and civil society organisations.

  • More policy focus on rice husk bioenergy is needed to encourage investments and upscale existing initiatives. This includes a consideration of stricter implementation of rules preventing rice husk or wastewater disposal into river systems.

These findings draw on learnings from our case study sites and may not be applicable to other rice farming communities or regions. Nonethless, taken together they encourage thinking about the role of energy in poverty alleviation, particularly in consideration of urgency and justice – what is needed now and what is fair, especially for smallholders in rice production. Future work on this subject should undertake an economic analysis to further strengthen the case for value chain development for rice husk, including for rice husk gasifiers which have been valuable in powering off-grid farming communities, but are beyond the scope of this research.