Uttam Kumar Saha is a Strategic Lead of Urban and Energy for Practical Action in Bangladesh.
I went to the northern Char areas in Rangpur last week along with the Agriculture team to facilitate the field visit with the Secretary, Ministry of Commerce. Char is the transitional, infertile sandy land, which generally goes under water for six months of the year and is always considered as one of the biggest poverty prone hot spot in Bangladesh.
What I saw, heard and learned from my first visit, it couldn’t stop me from sharing my feelings. Hundreds of framers, including many women, gathered to meet the Secretary and share their decade long learning and the changes it has brought to their lives by growing pumpkins in Char.
Women told me that they have sent their children to college and universities or abroad to work. They have also improved housing quality for a healthier life. I was very excited to learn the transformation stories especially from women farmers starting from a dilemma to believing in the technology. They have access to land and input support; knowledge and skill on farming for production, storage, packaging, marketing locally and nationally. In some cases they even export to Malaysia and other countries. Farmers did not leave the practice to grow pumpkins after the withdrawal of project support and most of them are continuing it as business’s or livelihood options.
This is a great example to showcase how small technologies can bring a big change for millions of people. Despite many improvements, fair price and net profit are still a big concern for sustaining this innovative riverbed farming, which recently got space in the National Agriculture Policy. The secretary advised to move differently. He shared the example of the French Fry by KFC, which is a well-known fast food company in the world. A French fry is nothing more than frying processed potato in hot oil. Technologies they use and the values they add to prepare a French fry from a potato are simple but the cost is 25 times higher than a traditional potato. Time has come for Pumpkin farmers to learn valued ideas for commercialisation, product diversification and processing. Equally they need to explore the export market.
What I realised is that Practical Action still need to continue working with these farmers and adopt systemic and private sector led marketing approaches to make the changes more visible, tangible and sustainable. We need to bring proactive and responsive export logistic firms and private businessmen, who have willingness, experience and capacity to invest in the pumpkin value chain. We need to mobilise farmers to work collectively, preferably as a company or a business cooperative. And link with private sector as suppliers, subcontractors and even shareholders. We also need to demonstrate and develop mechanisation skill of farmers for lowering the cost for production and to reduce physical labour especially for women. A strong advocacy component is required to influence local and national stakeholders for an increased allocated budget to provide subsidised input and financial services to these landless farmers. Development of rural infrastructures like irrigation, storage and road by the Government can make it accessible and available to the business cooperatives of pumpkin farmers.