From little things, big things grow

With over 160 million people in Bangladesh you are never far from a bustling town, a market heaving with people and streets filled with rickshaws, cars and bikes. With one of the largest populations in the world, Bangladesh is a complicated, vibrant, chaotic and competitive place to live. The sheer size of the population brings it with a range of challenges around access to food, water, healthcare and financial opportunities which can make daily life a struggle for many.

But with this density of people comes opportunity. With individuals closely connected to their communities and their families and with everyone closely intertwined there is great opportunity to create change. A new concept, a new product or a new approach can quickly be picked up as word passes from person to person, community to community and town to town.

It is this idea – that from little things, big things grow – that brought together over 70 people to Gaibandha in Northern Bangladesh to collaborate on how orange fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) can bring change to communities across the country with improved opportunities for nutrition, livelihoods and food security.

For the last 4 years, CIP, along with AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center, BRAC, PROSHIKA and Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, has implemented the USAID funded Horticulture Project in Bangladesh. The project worked with local farmers to diversify diets and agricultural production systems with potato, orange-fleshed sweetpotato, summer tomato, and nutritious indigenous vegetables. With this project drawing to an end, the CIP team in Bangladesh is now implementing a DFID funded project called SUSTAIN (Scaling up Sweetpotato through Agriculture and Nutrition) to scale up sweetpotato in the north of the country. The event in Gaibandha was an opportunity to reflect on successes and lessons learnt from the Horticulture Project and to create momentum around the new SUSTAIN project focusing on orange fleshed sweetpotato.

The International Potato Center (CIP), in close collaboration with its partners including BRAC, BARI, the District Government of Gaibandha and its agricultural, health and education agencies as well as representatives of the Ministries of Agriculture and Health held a one day knowledge sharing workshop and exhibition to plant the seed of a new idea – can OFSP bring improved incomes and independence to female farmers in Bangladesh? Can fallow land (in a country where available and useable land is so hard to find) be used to grow this highly nutritious and resilient crop? Can OFSP help decrease malnutrition and hidden hunger in a country where 33% of preschoolers (Bangladesh Demographic & Health Survey 2014) are considered underweight?

The event was an opportunity to reflect on these questions and to recognise that together with Bangladeshi partners, CIP has created momentum for OFSP adoption in the country. During the four years of the Horticulture Project, CIP and its partners reached 104,790 vulnerable farmers (64,425 women) with orange fleshed sweetpotato and now the new SUSTAIN project is working to widen this impact and reach more than 200,000 vulnerable Bangladeshi households over the coming five years.

OFSP is a crop known for its high levels of beta-carotene and can be part of a food based approach in the fight against vitamin A deficiency. OFSP can be an important tool in this effort if introduced effectively by national and local stakeholders using improved technologies and adaptive delivery methodologies.

Improving nutrition

Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) is a major problem in Bangladesh. According to the National Micronutrient Status Survey 2011-12, one in five children in Bangladesh is living with vitamin A deficiency. Susceptibility to other kinds of childhood diseases is also associated with low levels of Vitamin A. It is important for children and parents to know that OFSP is rich in beta-carotene that can combat VAD and other diseases and so to combat this CIP works with partners to promote school gardens and run educational activities to raise awareness of nutrition issues and the contribution of OFSP.

Since consumption of sweetpotato is not widespread in Bangladesh, raising awareness through field days and taste testing is important and can reveal useful information on consumer preferences and market demand. Acceptance of OFSP in the Bangladeshi diet has been positive in the short period since the crop has been made available.

As part of this integrated approach, CIP has trained a large number of Community Nutrition Scholars (CNS) who work as frontline trainers. They visit communities regularly and educate mothers and other family members on issues of nutrition, agriculture-nutrition, under nutrition and diseases, hygiene, cooking techniques and the role of OFSP roots and leaves in good nutrition practices.

Over the last 4 years, CIP trained 454 CNS’s who in turn trained 54,480 female farmers under the USAID Horticulture Project. And since 2015, CIP has trained a further 84 CNS’s who in turn trained just over 10,000 female farmers through the DFID funded SUSTAIN project.

Improving income

Beyond nutrition, an added benefit of OFSP is its value as a cash crop. Some OFSP varieties have proven to be suitable for smallholder production in Bangladesh, and farmers, the majority of them women, are using OFSP to improve the diets of their families and communities. CIP has also started to connect farmers to OFSP planting material and the fresh roots markets. Under the current DFID funded SUSTAIN project, CIP has been able to reach 17, 739 farmers (15,891 of whom were female) with OFSP to improve diets and nutrition. Further, 140 female farmers have also been trained to specialize in vine multiplication for planting material and have sold vines to other farmers and NGOs for further distribution. This ability to directly access cash and control resources is a critical factor in poverty reduction and the value chain for OFSP planting material provides a promising opportunity for female farmers.

Strengthening gender equity

In Bangladesh there is opportunity for OFSP cultivation to be included in home gardens that are typically the domain of women. They are an ideal channel to improve family nutrition and generate income, which is vitally important for women farmers, to help reduce their economic marginalization. Raising awareness of OFSP among mothers is also an important way to improve the nutrition of families and communities. At parent meetings linked to targeted schools, mothers and fathers are invited to hear presentations about OFSP, nutrition and good farming practices.

Mothers are then given OFSP vines and encouraged to plant them in their home gardens. In Bangladesh CIP and partners have specifically targeted women for strengthening their capacity as entrepreneurs and community agents. CIP and partners have directly reached more than 64,000 women with multi-crop technologies through the USAID funded Horticulture Project and reached more than 15,000 women with OFSP through the DFID funded SUSTAIN project and capacity strengthening activities.

From little things, big things grow

From extensive work in sub-Saharan Africa, CIP has demonstrated that OFSP, when coupled with community nutritional education, provides high levels of vitamin A to vulnerable populations, especially women and young children. One small boiled root of most OFSP varieties provides 100% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A for children and one medium root provides all of the needs for most women of reproductive age.

This event was an opportunity to plant this seed. To bring CIP and partners together with farmers, government representatives, community health workers, NGOs and private sector to build momentum around the potential for OFSP to create nutritional change in Bangladesh. Improving nutrition can have a significant impact on long term survival as well as physical and cognitive development and productivity of a population and so is a vital issue in a country like Bangladesh.

The knowledge sharing workshop ends with guests gathering at the exhibition in the garden where they are surrounded by a sea of orange. The stalls are filled with OFSP roots and vines, with cooked products, with OFSP flour and with local farmers and nutrition scholars decked out in beautiful, orange Bangladeshi dress. The guests spend the afternoon chatting with local farmers about how they are growing orange fleshed sweetpotato vines in land that was otherwise unused, they chat with chefs about how to incorporate orange fleshed sweetpotato into their favorite traditional Bangladeshi meals and learn first hand from CIP scientists and nutritionists about the agronomic and nutritional properties of the crop. At the end of the day the seed seems to have been planted and guests chat with each other as they leave about how they will be incorporating this nutritious crop into their kitchens, gardens, diets and businesses.

In Bangladesh, the International Potato Center is currently implementing the SUSTAIN project which is a 5-year partnership (2013-2018), coordinated by CIP and financed by the UK Department for International Development, to scale up the nutrition benefits of bio-fortified orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) in Bangladesh, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, and Rwanda and the spillover countries of Zambia and Tanzania. The goal is to reach 1.2 million households with under-5 year old children. SUSTAIN supports integrated interventions in agriculture, nutrition, utilization, and marketing to strengthen production and consumption of OFSP. SUSTAIN emphasizes rigorous measurement and evaluation in order to assess the scalability of these interventions and contribute to global evidence on achieving large scale nutrition outcomes through bio-fortified crops.