Meeting a Food Crises with Crop Innovation and Helping the Rohingya Refugees Help Themselves

Nazmul Chowdhury is no stranger to the growing practice of disaster risk reduction, with much of the various crises calling for growing more food with less water.

Working with the international NGO Practical Action, Chowdhury was the impetus behind growing pumpkins on barren sandbars for thousands of Bangladeshis impacted by river flooding.

Now the agriculture strategist has another challenge. It’s a variation of Frances Bacon’s Fifteenth Century essay: “If the mountain does not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.”

In this case, it’s Nazmul going to the hills where nearly one million Rohingya refugees are camped. He’s helping organize the distribution of boxes of fruits and vegetables in soil and growth nutrients.

The reason for the box gardens was simple: Opposition from the host community which feared that cultivating plants on the hills would lead to soil erosion. Hence, the aid workers had to find another innovative way to provide food to the refugee camps.

In tandem to this, there was building resentment on the part of the host Bangladeshis. The refugees were not contributing to their own well-being, which was difficult for them without adequate land on which to sustain their families.

We had to provide an alternative food source to show that the refugees were helping sustain themselves.

“We had to provide an alternative food source to show that the refugees were helping sustain themselves,” said Chowdhury.

The refugee situation is not new. The Rohingya fled persecution in nearby Myanmar beginning in 1979, though the greatest influx was in 2017. Today, the number is around 900,000 to 1.2 million refugees.

“The host communities were having a hard time accepting such a large number of Rohingya. However, with the box gardens, they are seeing the Rohingya help themselves,” said Chowdhury.

Chowdhury says the Rohingya refugees are, in essence, stateless people. Some are malnourished. They fear persecution if they return to Myanmar.

“They represent a potential human disaster of epic proportions,” said Chowdhury. Bangladesh has taken in the largest number of refugees, though Malaysia and Indonesia have offered refuge.

Most of the refugees are located in two camps, Upazila in Ukhiya and along the Teknaf-Cox’s Bazar highway, parallel to the Naf River, the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, in the Southeast.

“It is my job to take the tragedy of the Rohingya out of the political context and, working with other aid groups, make sure they have the basics of food and nutrition from natural sources from their own efforts,” said Chowdhury.

So, when he and other cooperating organizations ran into a roadblock helping the Rohingya population help themselves, they went back to the drawing board and developed a plan of multiple “garden boxes” with the ingredients providing a balanced diet.

“It’s a decidedly low-cost tech solution, but it is working vibrantly,” said Chowdhury.

Chowdhury said a single family could receive as many as 10 of the plastic boxes which they put around their makeshift houses. In less than three months, they can enjoy the vegetables and fruits in their own small gardens 3-5 days a week.

“In seven or eight days they can start seeing results coming from the baskets,” he said. “They can start eating the fruits of their labor in around 60 days onward.”

Chowdhury sees the innovation having a much wider application when it comes to what he calls “Crops in the Crisis in Food.” “This is a new window, a new dimension in dealing with crises in food production and supply,” he said.

In his presentation for the World Food Program’s food security working groups (comprised of more than 70 NGOs), he stressed expected production.

If 300,000 Rohingya families were involved in box gardening, supported by aid agencies, Chowdhury says minimum 1200-1,500 metric tons of food could be grown each week. “This is the real selling point of this innovation in combating a humanitarian crisis in a sustainable way.”

“In conflict areas—such as Syria and Yemen, Sudan and Somaliland and other places—this could be a strategy to handle humanitarian crises in a technical and integrated way,” said Chowdhury.

“Additionally, he added, “it can help the affected to reduce their mental or psychological trauma, particularly women and adolescents (who have limited mobility in a camp environment) by engaging in productive activities with nature for relaxation and leisure.”

Chowdhury and his UK-based charity Practical Action are part of the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program, a joint effort of USAID, and the governments of Sweden, South Africa, and the Netherlands to provide more food with less water.

Having made a half dozen trips to the Rohingya camps, Chowdhury immediately got to work when he returned from his initial journey. He says his assessment of the situation in many months has not changed.

“I felt we needed to identify ways of assistance through agriculture production but in a unique way given specific challenges,” he said. “Secondly, people needed a more nutritious diet to stay healthy. Finally, we needed to improve food production and reduce food competition within the communities to avoid any conflicts.

“I believe we are doing this, but we still have a way to go,” he added.

The political aspects of the crisis are complicated and historical, going back generations. In 1982, most all Rohingya were denied citizenship. Many Rohingya fled Myanmar fearing massive bloodshed two years ago.

“The schism is primarily a religious one,” said Chowdhury. “The Rohingya are predominantly Muslim, while Myanmar is mainly Buddhists.”

Chowdhury says the overall political situation is outside his purview, though not the politics of making sure the Rohingya refugees have the means to help themselves.

“That’s what I am doing,” the agriculture strategist said.


USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, 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.

This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water