Collaborating to improve nutrition and incomes in Bangladesh

Shawkat Begum, a Bangladeshi anthropologist who is coordinating the horticulture project, explains that it has provided training in sustainable agricultural techniques such as integrated pest management and grafting to rural men and women in four districts of Bangladesh. Those farmers are now producing improved orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) varieties and nutrient-rich vegetables. At the same time, CIP has helped Bangladeshi potato farmers to boost their production and incomes through the improvements in potato seed storage.

The four-year project, which is supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the Feed the Future initiative, is using potato, sweetpotato and target vegetables to improve the food security, nutrition and incomes of smallholders. To accomplish this, CIP and AVRDC have partnered with the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and the PROSHIKA Centre for Human Development. Scientists at the US universities Virginia State University and University of California Davis have contributed to the project’s integrated pest management and potato storage components.

There is great need for such interventions in rural Bangladesh, where many families don’t own enough land to grow the food they need and malnutrition rates are among the world’s highest. Sweetpotato is an excellent option for those farmers, since it grows quickly and can produce a lot of calories in a small area, even in marginal soils. The orange-fleshed sweetpotato varieties that the project has distributed have the advantage of being high in iron and beta-carotene, which the body turns into vitamin A. And the plant’s leaves are also nutritious, which has led to a growing popularity of sweetpotato-leaf curry in the four districts.

The goal of the four-year project is to reach 100,000 households by September 2015, and significant progress has been made in 2014. The implementing partners are in the process of reaching 39,000 households in 2014, which will bring the total number of beneficiaries during the project’s first three years to 69,000. Given the multiplying effect of the project’s train-the-trainer approach, it is well on track to meet its goal.

The horticulture project not only addresses such widespread problems as poverty and vitamin A deficiency in children, it also has a strong gender strategy. Bangladeshi inheritance laws and traditions have left most of the country’s women land poor, so the project provides training to groups of women in productive activities that require very little land, such as such as home gardens, and the production of grafted tomato or eggplant seedlings or sweet potato vine cuttings (planting material) for sale. Almost half of the project’s participants to date are female, and the training and assistance they’ve received has improved their families’ diets and incomes while helping them to take more control of their lives.

Begum, the project’s Chief of Party, is quite familiar with the limitations that rural women face in her country. She explains that women beneficiaries have told her that the intervention helped them to gain more respect from their husbands and community members.

“I personally did case studies on vine multiplication with women who told me that they never felt like they would have ownership over anything, but they now feel like their lives have meaning, and they can tell their husbands that they have earned their own income,” Begum said. “That is really motivating.”

Bangladesh Horticulture Project

One such woman, Jogun, from the Chowgachha area of Jessore district, explained that since receiving training from the project, she has grown sweetpotatoes for her family and neighbors and has earned income from the sale of planting material.

“We regularly eat sweetpotato leaves and roots,” she said. “My grandchildren like sweetpotato and they are eating it regularly. I hope that this makes them healthy.”

Jogun explained that she grew enough sweetpotato vines on five decimals (approx 200 sq. meters) of land in five months to earn 5,000 taka (approx. US$65), which she used to improve her family’s diet and to purchase a goat. She added that she intends to sell the goat when it is grown, and hopes to have enough money to buy a cow.

“Women in my village are taking interest and approaching me to learn vine multiplication. I have helped them, and now they are helping others. This simple technology is spreading in my village,” Jogun said.

The horticulture project’s impact has likewise spread beyond the communities it works with directly. CIP has also contributed to a project led by WorldFish called Aquaculture for Income and Nutrition. CIP provided Worldfish with sweetpotato vine cuttings, which are used as planting material, so that the organization could promote sweetpotato production among participants in the aquaculture project. The horticulture project also contributed 20 metric tones of sweetpotato roots to a factory that is producing baby food from fish, rice, sweetpotato and rice.

Begum explained that she has witnessed plenty of success stories since the horticulture project was launched. She citied a group of landless women in Barisal who the project trained in vine multiplication and who managed to produce enough vines in area’s behind their homes to earn about $130 per member in eight months – money they spent on such essentials as milk and school supplies for their children.

“I really find this job enjoyable,” Begum said. “When you see women following innovative approaches, or when you give them a way to generate their own income and attain a different role in their community, that is very rewarding.”