Southeast Asia is a leading global rice production region. However, typical intensive rice crop management practices, especially those designed to increase yields on smaller plots of land with associated high fertilization levels, often result in high emissions of methane and nitrous oxide greenhouse gases (GHGs). The AgResults Vietnam GHG Emissions Reduction Pilot addresses this situation by incenting the testing and widespread use by smallholder farmers (SHFs) of novel tools, products, and agronomic practices that reduce GHG emissions while increasing yields. The Pilot is being implemented in Vietnam’s northern province of Thai Binh and contains two phases:
A key challenge in the Vietnam Pilot is setting up fair and cost-effective verification. In Phase I, this means verifying results against a defined Performance Baseline (PB) - or set of common rice crop management practices from field preparation to harvest that result in current GHG emissions outputs and rice yields. While SNV, as the Pilot Manager (PM), is tasked with overseeing field implementation, AgResults has also engaged Applied GeoSolutions (AGS) as the Verifier for the Vietnam Pilot.
A prize award based on improved yields and reduced emissions must set a clear and realistic PB for “normal” rice crop management practices. This is important for several reasons:
To set the PB, provided as an attachment to the Pilot Request for Applications (RFA) to enter the contest, the AgResults Secretariat and AGS worked to finalize a Verification Design document that outlines the specifics of the Verification, including setting the PB using a household survey to capture the key rice crop management practices that influence GHG emissions and yield potential. These include:
AGS, working with Vietnam’s Institute for Agricultural Environment (IAE), developed and implemented the 720 household survey across Thai Binh, randomized on production area and soil type. In addition to the management and cost information, which we collected for both spring and summer rice production systems, the survey also accounted for a range of biophysical conditions, including major soil types for each of the eight Districts in Thai Binh, as well as relative elevation gradients (sorted into high, medium and low).
The baseline survey results provided, for the most part, clear indications of those management practices that could be considered “standard”. In certain cases, there were circumstances that merited additional analysis. If the baseline were set using averages, then the job would be simple. However, one cannot average out most agriculture practices. Just as thinking of the average family size as including 2.3 children in terms of real-world application is challenging, similarly a farmer cannot drain their field or apply fertilizer 2.3 times. We present some examples below:
One of the risks in conducting surveys is response bias – or receiving inaccurate or untruthful responses based on what the respondent thinks is common or the interviewer wants to hear. To mitigate this risk, AgResults sought input and buy-in on the PB from multiple stakeholders outside of the Secretariat, Verifier, and Pilot Manager. Stakeholders included Ministry of Agriculture and Thai Binh provincial government representatives. During the stakeholder consultations, important considerations emerged, such as defining multiple baseline situations to allow for up to three categories of typical rice varieties as well as direct sowing versus transplanting. These refinements will help increase accuracy in measuring the change in GHG emissions and help reduce the risk that certain implementers come into the contest with an inherent advantage. They have also taken into consideration the potential for response by the private sector organizations who would respond to the RFA that includes the PB.
The novel nature of the prize contest was responsible for much of the initial questioning that SNV received from prospective applicants. Based on the initial outreach to prospective applicants, AgResults decided to hold RFA workshops to go over the contest rules and the PB. The workshops proved critical in increasing applicants’ awareness of the process and the PB against which they would be measured if accepted into Phase I. Applicants raised concerns about the potential transparency of control plots, but through the workshops and other direct outreach SNV was able to assuage these concerns. As a result, 24 prospective implementers applied, of which 11 were accepted into Phase I.
Initially, the Phase I contest rules required implementers to run their improved technology plots alongside an implementer-controlled PB plot. However, after continued discussions between AgResults and local stakeholders during the setting of the PB, AgResults made a change to the rules published in the RFA. The Verifier is now directly managing the PB control plots against which to judge all implementers for reduced GHG emissions and increased yields. Each control plot is located as close as possible to the corresponding Implementer’s testing plot and is on land with similar agro-ecological conditions. AgResults made the change to reduce fraud and the chance of neglect of control plots by Implementers.
The relatively novel GHG verification protocol has required other adjustments during the lead-up to Phase I. One adjustment concerned the GHG measurement chambers, which sit in the fields as an open-top box and are closed 24 hours in advance of each sample taken from the box’s collected gas. Before the RFA, AGS envisaged the boxes as measuring 45cm by 40cm at the base, encompassing four rice hills. However, variable spacing proposed by Implementers has led to differing opinions on the proper dimensions to capture accurate and fair GHG measurements across all fields. AGS and IAE consulted with three international experts, proposing either a larger single chamber size or a variable size that would capture four hills per Implementer field. In the end, the Verification team settled on a variable chamber size that will increase consistency in measurements.
A second decision relates to the frequency of sampling versus the number of chambers. The original plan called for three chambers per field, with samples kept apart from each other. A new proposal calls for each field’s samples pooled during each distinct measurement event. Pooling allows us to increase the number of sampling events for the same cost, therefore increasing the accuracy of the overall GHG measurements within each field. The consulted experts validated this concept while noting that the verification design still has a weakness, as there are only one test field and one control plot per implementer. In case of a major weather event or other unplanned external factors that ruin one or more field tests, AGS can use its modeling system to estimate GHG reductions and yields based on inputs. However, this is a last resort as Phase I tests are designed to provide critical inputs that will calibrate those models for accuracy in Phase II.
The timing of the Pilot approval and RFA has given all parties limited time to set up test and control plots. For instance, IAE has faced challenges in quickly finding suitable plots and local farmers to run the plots, although the participation by the provincial government’s extension service has aided this recruitment significantly. The teams are also adapting their communications, with SNV playing an important role in pushing the Verifier to meet deadlines and report more regularly. We expect that Phase I’s second cropping season will be smoother and will incorporate all of what we have learned so far in the run-up to Phase I.
The Pilot is still in early stages, so broad lessons must wait. However, based on the above-described process to set the baseline, we can recommend practices based on lessons gleaned from the development of the baseline for the first cropping season. These initial baseline-focused lessons and recommendations for future cropping seasons are in the box below. As implementation continues, the Pilot will continue to test its assumptions made in early implementation to determine what changes are needed for the next Phase I crop in Spring 2018.
AgResults is a $122 million collaborative initiative between the governments of Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to incentivize the private sector to overcome market barriers and develop solutions to food security and agricultural challenges that disproportionately affect people living in poverty. The initiative designs and implements prize competitions, also referred to as pay-for-success or pull mechanisms, which are innovative development finance mechanisms that incentivize the private sector to work towards a defined goal. AgResults has two primary objectives: 1) to overcome market failures in agriculture through provision of results-based economic incentives; and 2) to test the effectiveness and efficiency of pull financing.
One of the primary objectives of AgResults is to better understand how well pull mechanisms work to solve market failures in agricultural development. The lessons learned series explores AgResults’ experiences in designing and implementing pull mechanisms, with the goal of providing key lessons and recommendations that development practitioners should consider before designing agricultural-focused pull mechanisms.