Twenty years ago, Hoang Van Thuong and his family were mired in poverty. But his discovery of a clean-burning coal mixture gave them, and smog-filled towns across the country, a new hope.
Hoang Van Thuong made waves nationwide among scientists, coal manufacturers and homemakers alike when he invented a variety of coal that was cleaner, safer and cheaper than the competition.
When the product passed inspections with flying colours – and word spread that the creator was a former farmer with a seventh-grade education level – Thuong’s fame skyrocketed even higher.
As a result, I quickly realised, claiming a few minutes of his time can be a daunting task: our talk was interrupted by a barrage of phone calls from customers who wanted to order his than to ong, the beehive-shaped briquette used as an energy source in Viet Nam.
While 44-year-old Thuong’s story of digging his family out of poverty may inspire consumers, what keeps them calling is the product itself. Because the coal only needs to burn for two minutes before it can be used for cooking, instead of the usual 30-minute wait, food preparers can minimise health risks associated with being in close proximity to toxic emissions such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2, sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2).
Pulling himself up
Now the owner of a 1,200-sq.m production centre, Thuong still remembers vividly the day that he left his two young children and his wife in their ramshackle home in the countryside and journeyed to Ha Noi on an old bicycle to find a job. In his pocket was VND5,000 (30 US cents), the remains of his family’s money.
Thuong had known poverty all his life in Moc Bac Village, located in Ha Nam Province’s Duy Tien District. Twenty years ago, however, when his was one of the poorest households in the commune, Thuong decided to make a drastic life change.
“At that time I was always in great torment because I, a father of two, had to witness my family in poverty and always hungry,” he recalled. “For 15 years we had to receive 3kg of rice from the Government’s support programme for the poor. That was really hard for me, a man in his prime.”
Thuong’s strong will to escape poverty was pushed to the brink when a friend told him about a cleaner energy source available in Japan. If Japanese people could make it then so could Vietnamese, he thought. Suddenly he saw a way to escape poverty and put food on his family’s table.
“Plus, I had heard that there were several cases of deaths from toxic gases from burning coal in the home over long periods,” Thuong said. “This prompted me to follow my dream of creating a cleaner energy source, despite the disapproval of my family and sarcastic comments from friends in the industry.”
An idea is born
Thuong’s idea to create a clean, non-poisonous coal took flight 13 years ago, after he spent three years producing and selling coal in Ha Noi.
“I finally decided to borrow 13 ‘red books’ [land-use rights certificates] from my relatives and friends to use as collateral to borrow VND90 million ($8,000) from the bank so that I could set up my own workshop producing coal,” Thuong said.
But then a traffic accident nearly dealt a crushing blow to his ambitions, costing him VND10 million in hospital fees. For the four weeks he was stuck in a hospital bed, all the machinery he had just bought sat idle in a corner of the plot he had rented. Once he was mobile, he struggled to make up for lost time, all the while plagued by pains in his legs.
“I’ll never forget those difficult days when I had to try my best to make coal that my wife would sell on the street in order to have enough money for our kids’ daily bread and education and to make payments on the bank loan.”
After 13 years of experimentation – and failure – he finally came up with the correct formula: making the coal with a blend of 18 different herbs and other fibres.
His product passed recent tests at the Quality Assurance and Testing Centre No 1 under the Directorate for Standards and Quality with flying colours, according to Nguyen The Hao, who tested the product. Hao says the level of toxic substances in Thuongcreation is much lower than the norm, making it more environmentally friendly and less toxic.
Thuong boasts that his coal even compares favourably with the Japanese fuel that originally sparked his interest especially because his product uses a mixture of coal and herbs instead of chemicals. In fact, two shipments have already been sent to Japan via Tung Lam LLC, prompting positive feedback from Japanese customers, according to the company.
The high quality of his product and relatively low cost of production and raw materials in Viet Nam make further exports a distinct possibility, Thuong believes. At present, each day an estimated 3,000-4,000 briquettes of Thuong’s coal are sent from Ha Noi to numerous provinces in the region, at a price of VND2,100 per briquette. Thuong has also begun to penetrate the HCM City market.
Many local and foreign businessmen have come to his 1,200-sq.m production base in Ha Noi Harbour seeking to sign contracts to obtain the technology for producing the clean and environmentally-friendly coal, but Thuong has yet to accept any offers.
Basking in the glory
Thuong smiles when he talks about the new direction of his life.
“After experiencing harsh trials, now I’m proud to have two successes: one is a happy and supportive family,” he said, “and the second is a new coal that provides customers with clean and speedy fuel and my 50 workers with stable jobs.”
Some 10 cities and provinces are using the coal, and Thuong hopes to further increase distribution and gradually improve the quality of his production equipment to produce a wider range of items and reduce costs.
He also intends to patent his invention in Viet Nam as soon as possible.
In the near future, Thuong says, he will debut three more inventions: clean, non-poisonous ‘charcoal’ suitable for long trips and export, a non-poisonous mosquito-repellant coal and a multipurpose coal stove that could create a source of clean water for farmers in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta region.
“I also have a dream to set up a nationwide system of many plants producing clean and non-poisonous ‘charcoal’, which would meet all customers’ demands for fuel and reduce considerably the ever-increasing deforestation,” Thuong said.
“And of course I will need a great deal of support from the Government and other organisations and individuals nationwide and worldwide in order to turn it into reality.”