If there were an award for collecting awards, there is a good chance Nazmul Chowdhury‘s name would be affixed to the golden statue, a tribute to him and the poverty-fighting NGO Practical Action.
But the Bangladeshi civic activist, though proud of the honors bestowed on Practical Action—the latest by the United Nations—is quick to add, “It would all be hollow if so many had not been lifted out of poverty.” The signature accomplishment had its genesis nearly 15 years ago following a village meeting Chowdhury attended, and then afterward took a walk along the river bank with some local children.
“I looked out on those hectares of barren sandbars, and something just clicked,” he recounts. “What if a crop could be grown in this no-man’s land left after the monsoon rains.”
It took time, but the dream became a reality.
While it is called “Pumpkins Against Poverty,” the program has now been expanded to other crops which can be grown on sandbars and marketed far and wide. Often after the monsoons, Bangladeshi villagers have their homes flooded out. They have to scrape to get by with what little farming they can do to raise food just for their own families.
Their children couldn’t afford to go to school. They couldn’t afford any transportation other than a simple bicycle. All this is changing for many villagers because of Chowdhury’s original idea.
Regardless of religion or philosophy, there is no greater calling than to help uplift our fellow man. In the community of nations, we are our brothers’ keeper.
What if, Chowdhury pondered that day, crops could be harvested on the hundreds of sand and silt hectares that made up those strips of land during a portion of the year when the waters subside.
He took the idea back to his superiors, and, in the beginning, they thought he was crazy for even making the suggestion. So, Chowdhury took it further up in the organization.
There, he found advocates who believed in him and his idea. Since then, on behalf of his NGO, he has collected more than a dozen awards, some coming with technical assistance and funding.
Such was the situation with Securing Water for Food (SWFF), a program that recognized years ago that the planet’s population was growing faster than the ability to feed the people. By 2050, the earth will have nine billion people and only sufficient year-round good water for a third of its inhabitants. SWFF is a program supported by USAID, and the governments of South Africa, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Practical Action had to enter a stiff competition to be chosen among hundreds of entrees.
“I pushed hard for my team to explore the idea of growing something on the sand. At first, it seemed to many ludicrous,” said Chowdhury. “But now it is hope for millions and a solution for generations to come for food security.”
“We are proud of the success of all our innovators around the world,” said Dr. Ku McMahan. “They’ve all contributed to growing more food with less water, whether through precise weather forecasting, agriculture advances, seed development or conservation.
“Practical Action is a standout because the results are so visible when thousands upon thousands of colorful pumpkins are loaded on trucks at harvest time,” he said. “It literally gives families hope for the future.”
The Pumpkins Against Poverty program has led to families moving beyond mere subsistence farming to actually selling their products in local markets. Meanwhile, many of their children are able to attend school, and the women —who are the primary sand cropping workers— have taken a lead role in developing the innovation.
The idea initiated by Practical Action, while unique, was not complicated, as are some of the most game-changing innovations tend to be. Basically, it was found that by dropping a few pumpkin seeds in a burlap sack with compost, a crop could be grown if placed in a hole in the sand.
Practical Action’s latest award for Pumpkins Against Poverty was bestowed in June, coming as the First United Nations Industrial Development Organization Award for Agribusiness.
In my view, said Chowdhury, “An award to any innovation is just the first step in recognizing an idea and work, but there is more. An innovation such as Pumpkins Against Poverty needs constant push day-in and day-out to realize its full potential.”
Practical Action is working to obtain legal standing of the sandbars, staking them out for the farmers to continue to develop. Additionally, it is attempting to scale the program to include larger markets. Though this is the latest award for the program, there have been many others over the years, some with funding to expand the project, such as with the SWFF program.
When Chowdhury took to the stage to accept the United Nations award on behalf of Practical Action, he said the following;
“Regardless of religion or philosophy, there is no greater calling than to help uplift our fellow man. In the community of nations, we are our brothers’ keeper.
“If this were not true, we would be, indeed, a humanity lacking heart and soul. We would not deserve the sacred duty of caretaker of our planet.
“And at no time in history, has this mantel of responsibility been more difficult and challenging—but at the same time—offering an opportunity to reach for the stars.
“In my native Bangladesh, 20 million people live in extreme poverty. There are more than 800 million hungry mouths throughout the modern world.
“How will we feed them? This is a question that must be answered now. In the future, it will be too late.
“Our children’s lives depend on it.”
USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.