Nazmul Islam Chowdhury

How to Grow Food in Land People Think is Useless

For 27 years, Nazmul Islam Chowdhury has worked with the international agency Practical Action. During the course of his work, he came upon an innovative way to grow crops on sandbars left after Bangladesh’s monsoon flooding. It became known as “Pumpkins Against Poverty” and provided poor farmers an essential crop on land that previously was thought useless. This not only provided an important food source but also gave farmers, mostly women, the ability to pay for school for their children with money left from what was not sold at market and even to acquire modest transportation, such as a motorbike.

Kristin Marquet of Authority Magazine talks with Chowdhury as part of her continuing series know as “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years.”

Kristin Marquet (KM): Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Nazmul Islam Chowdhury (NC): I had a dream to be a soldier in 1981 after my Higher Secondary Certificate. At that time, my field was just growing in the wake of the liberation war in 1971.

But my family wanted me to achieve a university education. At that time, admission was very competitive. However, I had moderately good results, thought the standards were strict for higher education.

I received an opportunity in a general university in chemistry, but it was not at all a choice of mine. My choice was agriculture, and following that Fisheries. In the admissions test at Bangladesh Agricultural University, I scored in the top 60 of 8,000 competitors. After graduation, I obtained a Masters degree in the discipline.

The turning point of my career was a job with Bangladesh’s Department of International Development in my own district as a Technical Officer for Extension and Training. Eventually, I moved on to the North-West Fisheries Extension and Training Project. This had a great influence on me.

KM: Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

NC: My career has been guided not just by organizational policy but by philosophy and life’s ethics. From time to time, my career was hampered by supervisors who didn’t really understand my vision. However, on the other hand, some were supportive and that has made a big difference. I was fortunate that each detractor apologized after noting the success of my drive.

KM: Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

NC: As I can see, very small efforts and full devotion to a goal can change the world. For this, we have to set aside personal interests. When people start thinking about themselves, they can’t develop the ideas necessary to produce.

My “Big Idea”, recognized by my employer and other officials in Bangladesh, was my blue-sky vision that perhaps a food crop could be grown on barren sandbars. Though there was opposition to this from my immediate superior, I fought for it, and then other experts validated it. At the end of the day, other crops than pumpkins are being grown, and the farmers are even able to increase their livelihoods by selling some of what they make. While permission was granted to grow crops on the sandbars, we are now working to establish a legal framework so this idea is sustainable into the future. Also, there are many other countries and areas of countries that are impacted by monsoon rains. This is an exportable idea.

KM: How do you think this will change the world?

NC: From small ideas can come big results. This we have seen in the “Pumpkins Against Poverty” program. Currently, it is changing a small part of the world — an area impacted by extreme poverty. However, the idea of planting seeds in a burlap bag, adding compost, and digging holes on a sandbar, has shown a sizable return in Bangladesh. I believe this idea can help raise thousands and thousands of farmers from poverty; and, at the same time, provide a better diet for the people.

KM: Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

NC: Yes, but the drawback is simply in not adequately getting the word out to other areas with similar issues. Bangladesh is not alone in facing dramatic weather that produces heavy monsoons and flooding. It’s a simple idea, but with a big return. When I first brought the idea up some years back, the first response was this: “Are you crazy? Nothing can grow on a sandbar.”

KM: Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

NC: The tipping point was simply this: I was attending a group meeting in a village one day, not far from these sandbars. I went for a walk, and I asked myself, “How in the world can I help these poor people.” Then, I looked at the vast expanse of sandbars, and asked another question: “What if?” That led to growing pumpkins, which, by the way, are very nutritious.

KM: What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

NC: A lot of interactions, identify like-minded people/agencies and suitable locations, relatable target groups, lots of exposure visits, policy campaigns, funding, and finally execution. So, there are hurdles, but they can be overcome.

KM: What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

NC: I was fortunate that — while some told me my idea was not workable — others told me to press ahead. So, reframing the question, I am glad no one really stood in my way to help those people. In fact, I had support from my organization, Practical Action, and I had another agriculture specialist who said there was no scientific reason the idea would not work.

I am also rather determined when I set my mind to something. With a world of some 9 billion people by the year 2050 and only enough good water for about a third year-around, we must come up with these types of innovative ideas.

I believe one has to proceed with a lot of will power and leadership skill to convince a team or individuals to get the things done in the right directions as per the dream. In many cases, I have found people stray from the target path because the direction is new to them.

KM: The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

NC: Everyone should have his or her own goal, innovative mind and a lot of creative thinking. It can be sorted even from a common theme or purpose. This can be achieved by following these few lines as espoused by President APJ Kalam of India:

“Learning gives creativity
Creativity leads to thinking
Thinking provides knowledge
Knowledge makes you great.”

KM: Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

NC: I look at most everything from the standpoint of how can I impact the people of most need within a nation.

With that $1 million, I would try to multiply it into 10 million by innovative uses. For example:

  1. Dialogues with the potential donors, government representatives, and stakeholders both at home and abroad to influence innovation in the lives of underprivileged communities around the world.
  2. Identify barren, common property resources (GPS or satellite survey) for future use for food production for those who are landless, such as we did with Pumpkins Against Poverty.
  3. Invest a portion with skilled farmers to train new members in their community as a means of farmers to farmers’ extension and to test another low-cost model for higher sustainability.

So, the investment can work in two ways: Bringing new investment to reach bigger targets both at home and abroad and simultaneously, take the return from investment for future investment.

KM: Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

NC: My philosophy is people first. The initial stage of my life and career was in danger due to fixing goals due to my high emotional ambitions. After my higher secondary exam, I had the dream to be a soldier, but not now. Literally, a soldier kills people (for the sake of his nation). But now, I, am trying and doing a job for my country, by giving people a better chance at life. Now I can understand the meaning of my life.

When I was 12, my father told us: “My boys, people are born not to eat and enjoy only, but to serve for people and for humanity. Every soul has a promise with his God during his or her journey on earth, so lead your life to be a servant of humanity”.

“My uncle was my teacher at school and at home. He was a big fan of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon and so on. In every session, he uttered, ‘Know Thyself’.”

Ultimately, the philosophers have had a big impact on my life. I believe the work I do with people is a chance for me to repay my credit to them for their contribution to our education.

KM: Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

NC: 1. Creative use of simply “thinking time”.

  1. Grab something from each vision that comes my way.
  2. Feel the pain of people and do something about it.
  3. Realize that success can be a puzzle. Learn from each step along the way and enjoy the journey.
  4. A habit to think differently because there are many ways to reach to a destination. Use nontraditional ways for new things.
  5. Boldness, logic, and courage. Nearly 99 percent of the time, 99 percent of the people might think your idea impossible. Go for it. You can prove the impossible possible.
  6. Lots of patience and attitude to absorb lots of shocks and unexpected consequences. The adage try, try again might be banal, but it is so true.

KM: Some very well-known Venture Capitalists read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

NC: I would say: You have the power to change the world! Please close your eyes, bring underprivileged around the world in front of you, feel them by your hearts and act accordingly.

You will be immortal in the world for your deeds and will find the real meanings of your life. Let’s act and serve humanity.

I realize this is rather ethereal, but it is the way I think, and what I would say.

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.