A Fruitful Answer for Bangladesh, Pumpkins Against Poverty

As Nazmul Islam Chowdhury walked along an eroding riverbank in Northwest Bangladesh 15 years ago, he pondered the livelihood of villagers who see their farmland disappearing each year. He cast his eyes on a barren sandbar expanse left following the yearly monsoons. “What if?” he pondered.“Could this sand strip generate sufficient food to lift farmers from poverty?” For Chowdhury it was a Eureka moment. He could help lead the people along the Nilkhuti flood protection embankment at Shaghatta, Gaibandha out of a subsistence life and into one of self-reliance with far-reaching impact, not just for this region but for other areas with flooding issues.

The idea of Pumpkins Against Poverty took hold, helping provide food for families, but also sufficient income to send their children to school, purchase livestock and provide basic transportation, such as a motorbike. Eventually, Chowdhury’s original idea would lead to an expansion to other sandbar crops and their exportation to other parts of Bangladesh. At first, some thought it was an outrageous idea and that this agriculture specialist with the NGO Practical Action was, in essence, a little mad. He persisted, taking it to higher-ups.

Today, hundreds of thousands of pumpkins—“Golden Magic Balls” as Chowdhury calls them—can be seen dotting sandbars, previously considered useless during the dry, five-month period following the monsoons.Sandbar cropping is a window into the future for countries such as Bangladesh, which has seen much of the agriculture land washed away during monsoon seasons. In fact, due to flooding and erosion, 35 out of 64 districts across Bangladesh have massive erosion. On average one million people are displaced each year.

The methodology for sandbar cropping is simple. Dig thousands of holes two-by-three square feet deep and wide and add into them a burlap sack with compost and as many as four pumpkin seeds. Each hole yields up to six pumpkins.

Over the last five years, the production has topped 128-thousand metric tons of crop. This has led to a healthier life for farm families and has put cash in their pockets. They became, in essence, individual entrepreneurs. Since much of the male population migrates periodically to urban areas for work, about 70 percent of the farmers are women.

At first, Chowdhury was met with skepticism. His closest superior at the time said, “Grass is not even growing there. How could you grow something for the community?”

“So,” said Chowdhury, “from where will the food come? This unused barren land might be the only option.”

“I was stuck for a moment, but not disappointed,” said Chowdhury.

He investigated and found the local government had no problem with the farmers using the land. Others in his program thought it was worth a try, and that if it worked, would be a tangible result of their NGO. “A brilliant idea,” said his Country Director, Veena Khaleque, an economist. She told Chowdhury she would fund a trial if the donor organization were not interested.

However, such assistance was not needed.

The Practical Action contact, Alison Gordon in the United Kingdom, felt the project was just the kind of initiative for which the program was intended. She helped push the idea through the approval process.

While many in the West think of pumpkins as a front porch ornament carved out for Halloween and the main ingredient in a traditional holiday pie, the fruit represents a nutritious crop, loaded with health benefits. The pumpkin farms provide a sustainable living to farmers in the floodplain of the Brahmaputra, Teesta and Jamuna Rivers.

Since 2014, revolutionary ideas focusing on poverty areas plagued by water issues, like sandbar cropping, have been globally funded by the Securing Water For Food (SWFF) program, a partnership of several organizations, including USAID, and the governments of Sweden, The Netherlands, and South Africa.

Practical Action Bangladesh, a graduate of the SWFF program,  is today training 40,000 Bangladeshis with no land of their own to each produce 600 to 1,200 pumpkins a year. In other words, it’s securing a future where before many lived in temporary thatch homes due to the yearly flooding.

Another advantage of the crop—other than easy maintenance—is pumpkins can be stored for up to a year. This is a plus in a country where electricity is not always available in rural areas.

The window for sandbar utilization is about five months during the dry season, and then the sandbars disappear as the monsoons come. Thus far, the project is providing more than 125,000 meals per day with 11,000 farmers participating.

The innovation is simple, but apparently, no one had considered it before Chowdhury’s idea was launched. One evaluator of the Pumpkins Against Poverty project said in 2009: “In 30 years of working with development projects in Asia and Africa, this is about the best idea I have seen.”

Moreover, Chowdhury believes the promise of the program is just now starting to be fully realized. While the most success has been with pumpkins—due to the fruit’s long shelf life—farmers are also planting zucchini, squash, lettuce, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, red beet, sunflower, and different varieties of cabbage. Less successful, mainly due to the perishable nature of the vegetable or fruit are other crops because of transportation issues in exporting to other areas of Bangladesh.

However, Chowdhury looks at the stars.

He has seen the program grow exponentially. When launched in 2005, the program had 177 farmers in 11 locations. The result was 63,000 pumpkins. “That was the breakthrough for us,” said Chowdhury. “The next year we had 460 farmers in 25 locations. By year three, we had 1,327 farmers in 40 locations.”

To date, more than 22,000 farmers have benefited directly, with subsequent adoption around 15,000 to date,” said Chowdhury, “This has shifted my thinking, and I now see a sustainable commercial venture for small farmers.”

He believes the idea of sandbar cropping can be exported around the world, especially to India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Pakistan and Africa, even some areas of the United States. An immediate goal of Chowdhury and Practical Action is to help farmers gain legal tenure of the temporary sandbars and to find more outlets for them to sell their crops.

By 2050, it is estimated that the arable land in Bangladesh will have shrunk by 35 percent. At the same time, its population of 130 million is expected to grow to 160 million. “So,” said Chowdhury, “from where will the food come? This unused barren land might be the only option.”