Practical Action Archives - Securing Water for Food

A Good Investment for Government

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Each year, hundreds of families across Bangladesh are forced to find a new place to live and a new way to earn a living. During the monsoons, rivers swell and cause devastating floods that destroy homes. These floods wash away livelihoods as the fertile land is replaced by infertile sandbars covered in “char” that the floods leave behind. And this problem is growing worse by the year. In Bangladesh, the population is growing but the land is shrinking — while the population is estimated to increase 20% by 2050, by that same year the country is projected to lose up to 35% of their arable land to erosion and other causes.

When Nazmul Islam Chowdhury first started working at the Bangladesh office of Practical Action, a UK-based international NGO that uses technology to fight poverty around the world, his work focused on turning barren sandbars into arable farming plots for displaced and impoverished families. Using a technique known as pit cultivation, farmers can use compost from their own homes to fill pits dug into the sandbar and grow pumpkins, gourds, and other vegetables in the char.

Over the past 13 years, Nazmul and Practical Action have worked with thousands of farmers in Bangladesh to further develop this simple and effective technique. The organization has partnered with organizations like Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to help raise money, refine the technique, and experiment with community outreach and engagement. Now, Nazmul says, they are ready to expand to address the pressing needs of the country.

“The first step was making the process more entrepreneurial, which SWFF was a great help on,” says Nazmul. Rather than funding the work themselves through donations and grants, Practical Action now partners with the government to help the farmers run the sandbar pits themselves. The Bangladeshi government is building out infrastructure through a low-cost, solar-powered irrigation system and other community assistance. Practical Action is still providing technical advice and expertise and the farmers are thriving.

Practical Action is not just producing food, we are solving big problems.

Government agencies are eager to join and partner with organizations like Practical Action, whose innovation helps address many vital societal issues. Using “transitional land” like these sandbars will be instrumental to balance the food supply with the country’s growing population. Furthermore, growing food helps address malnutrition in these farming communities, and selling the remaining harvest creates jobs, fights poverty, and empowers communities via access to natural resources. Since this technique uses compost and transitional land, it’s sustainable and adaptive to changing climates. And the innovation is even proven to advance gender equity, with 90 percent of Practical Action’s latest cohort of farmers being women.

“This is a low-cost solution with wide-reaching benefits,” Nazmul says. He recalls how last year, Rohingya refugees poured into Bangladesh from neighboring Myanmar. According to the UN, approximately 720,000 Rohingya children, women and men have fled to the country since August 2017. “We had a very good harvest and had a huge amount of green pumpkins to send to southern Bangladesh to feed the Rohingya community,” Nazmul remembers. “Our farmers do not consider themselves poor — they are proud to help feed the nation and the world.”

The Practical Action communities export their crop to five countries in Southeast Asia, mostly to Malaysia. It is no wonder, then, that several neighboring countries are taking notice. “Government representatives from Bhutan, India, [and] Nepal have come to our sites in Bangladesh to assess the potential…to use this innovation and intervention in their countries,” Nazmul says. Bangladesh has also recognized what a valuable tool this approach is to sustainably address a myriad of societal issues. In July of 2018, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina incorporated sandbar cropping into the country’s agricultural policies. As a government policy, Bangladesh must now include the technique in their agricultural planning.

“We are not just producing food. We are solving big problems. This proves that you can find hope and opportunity anywhere—all barren land is a place with potential,” Nazmul adds.

Growing Opportunity Amidst Eroding Land

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Practical Action helps female farmers grow crops in areas where erosion has robbed their families of lands and livelihoods.

Amena Begum, a 50-year-old entrepreneur who lives in a village called Taluk Shabaz in northeast Bangladesh. At age 20, she married a man named Sekendar with whom she had two children, a girl and a boy.

Sekendar’s health issues prevented him from working, leaving Amena alone to pay for the family’s food, housing, and education. She also discovered that her in-laws were landless — which is economically devastating in a region where owning land is key to financial stability. They had lost their land to river erosion and hired themselves out as agricultural laborers to make ends meet.

The financial stress tore Amena’s family apart. They tried to rent farmland, but decreasing supply kept prices high. Renting one acre for a crop season costs a minimum of $100 USD in that region — a huge sum in a country where the average yearly income is less than $1,500. Frustrated, Amena separated from her husband for several years.

Amena’s story is not uncommon, especially in the impoverished northeast region of Bangladesh where river bank erosion has destroyed the farms and homes of millions of people. Most of these displaced people take shelter on an embankment or other eroding land, which forces them to leave yet again and continues the cycle of displacement and trauma.

Help from an unexpected place

Practical Action, an international charity, focuses on problems of this nature. “These communities used to have houses and farms,” says Nazmul Islam Chowdhury, head of Practical Action’s Extreme Poverty Program. “But all that has been washed away by environmental catastrophes. No one is helping them.”

Practical Action helps families in the region grow food by cultivating an unexpected place: the very river banks where their homes and farms once stood.

Pumpkins, squashes, cabbages, sunflowers, and other valuable crops grow quickly in sandy environments, including river banks. During the dry seasons, when the rivers recede, acres of sandbars emerge for a few months. These sandbars are typically barren, but with an innovative technique of building pits for growing crops, Practical Action helps thousands of farmers just like Amena take advantage of this land.

Farmers in Bangladesh are growing food on the sand bars caused by river erosion.

“The communities become more resilient and able to deal with changes,” says Chowdhury. “We especially focus on building the economic capacity of women… By moving away from traditional agriculture, we can have truly rapid and sustainable growth.”

From traditional farmer to entrepreneur

By moving away from traditional agriculture, we can have truly rapid and sustainable growth.

While separated from her husband, Amena labored in a garment factory and yearned for the satisfaction of working her own land. She decided to reunite with her husband. With the help of Practical Action, she was able to give farming another chance.

She learned to dig specially-designed pumpkin pits in a sandbar. Using cow dung for fertilizer, she carefully watered 200 pits from a small mug, gradually increasing the amount of water as the plants grew in size. If one of the saplings failed, she would replace it with a new plant. From that first harvest, Amena collected and sold 350 pumpkins for  5,000 Bangladeshi Taka (roughly $61 USD), which she wisely invested in a goat and more seeds. Her next harvest yielded 500 pumpkins, which she used to buy more land.

Practical Action empowers women financially, which is key to building resilient communities.

Venture after profitable venture, Amena amassed a small fortune. She now rears both goats and pond-cultivated fish, which she sells at a profit. She owns a quarter of an acre of land that is fertile year round and three-fourths of an acre devoted to sandbar pit cultivation — both of which she sometimes rents to other farmers.

Amena no longer worries about where her food is coming from. She even partners with neighboring farmers to export their crops to Malaysia, Kuwait, Yemen and a number of districts in the country. “All of our products were taken away to Malaysia straight from our courtyard, which gave us such joy,” Amena recalls. “It is a very prestigious matter to export my own cultivated crops!”

Chowdhury beams with pride when he discusses farmers like Amena. “Some people call these workers and these farmers poor, but in reality, they are not. They are the people feeding our nation, they are feeding the world!”

Access to land and new farming techniques is helping women and their families all over Bangladesh to flourish.

Five years ago, Amena and her family couldn’t count on three meals a day. Today, her son works in a mobile tower company with a good salary and has completed nine years of education. Her daughter is happily married and living nearby. And Amena is currently building a house with an indoor latrine, brick walls, and a floor made of solid concrete.

“Years back I lived in a straw made [thatch] room,” she explained. “Now I live in a tin shed house. Tomorrow I will live in a building. This is my dream.”

USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Government of South Africa, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands provide this innovator with funding and technical assistance.

Pumpkins in the Sand: Innovation Turns Sandbars Into a Reliable Source of Food and Income

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As Nazmul Islam Chowdhury surveyed the scene at the Pumpkin Carnival held at Taluk Shahbaz in Rangpur, Bangladesh, he couldn’t help but indulge in a rare moment of reflection. “It was a war against poverty, and war against hunger,” he said. “And now we can finally declare a small victory.”

Chowdhury is the Head of the Extreme Poverty Program at Practical Action, an international charity, founded by the eminent economist E.F. Schumacher, dedicated to using technology to help communities fight poverty in developing countries. Since 2005, he and his colleague Nirmal Chandra Bepary have been equipping Bangladeshis with the skills and methods to grow crops on the large, arid sandy islands that appear for roughly five months during the dry season.

They use an innovative sandbar cropping technique that provides the local farmers—along with their families and communities—life-changing benefits: A source of work and means of supporting themselves, and most importantly, reliable nutrition when food supplies dwindle and access to fresh water is extremely limited.

For communities in coastal Bangladesh, and rural communities in developing countries around the equator, this agricultural advance could not have come at a better time.


Sandbar cropping provides work and reliable nutrition when supplies are limited.

For much of the Bangladeshi population, food insecurity is a fact of life—and the problem is only getting worse. A combination of flooding, erosion and expansion of human settlements costs Bangladesh large swaths of arable land each year, often leaving infertile sand deposits in its place. By 2050, some estimate that the country will have lost 35 percent of its arable land, while the population will exceed 200 million.

The rural regions along Bangladesh’s Tista, Bhramaputra and Ganges rivers, where the sandbars emerge, have proven especially vulnerable to the effects of unpredictable and irregular weather events. Droughts create shortages, floods destroy crops, and harvests from the rainy season can’t sustain residents through the dry periods.

Since Practical Action Bangladesh earned a spot in Securing Water for Food’s innovator program in 2014, they’ve been able to expand sandbar cropping to more and more farmers. Doing so has benefits beyond nutrition and income, says Chowdhury, who refers to the practice as “super agriculture with hidden impacts.” Sandbar cropping goes “far beyond just growing squash,” he explains. It’s tied to “economic growth, environmental protection, women’s empowerment, sustainable land management, and access to scarce resources.”

Small-scale farmers, like these men, form the backbone of the Bangladeshi economy.

The innovation helps young people in rural areas become an asset to their communities rather than a burden to be cared for. It ensures that, in Chowdhury’s words, “No child will cry to their mom for food, and no mom will be unable to feed her children.”


The April 16th carnival at Taluk Shahbaz celebrated a successful harvest from over 120 farmers and their families. Over the previous year, they overcame repeated sandstorms that killed young plants, flooding that wrecked a number of their pumpkin pits, and hail that destroyed 2000 metric tons of crops. Their experiences and ultimate success, Chowdhury said, have helped the farmers become self-sufficient. The robust pumpkin harvest has even led Practical Action Bangladesh to experiment with other sandbar crops, including a range of high-value plants, such as watermelons, baby corn, parsley, beet root, sunflowers, and marigolds.

Adversity has fostered resilience in communities as the knowledge and skills required for sandbar cropping become more deeply ingrained.

All told, over 600 people—including policymakers, researchers, and experts from SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation)—attended the carnival. Sandbar cropping needs more support to truly make an impact, says Chowdhury, and events like the carnival help build it. With increased funding and policy support, the small, but impactful innovation could bring food and income to millions of vulnerable people in other areas of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Moreover, it could play a key role in helping similarly affected regions around the world adapt to the effects of unpredictable and irregular weather events.

Financing for short-term, agricultural loans to farming families and operational access to currently restricted land would help. Assistance from governments could also help to scale sandbar cropping and application of other innovations like at a systemic level to reach many more people than NGOs could alone.

For now, Chowdhury noted, the successes on display at the festival should show academics, funders, and government leaders that “a small investment can make a big difference” in the lives of people struggling for survival.

The sandbars blooming with pumpkins show just how right he is.

USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Government of South Africa, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands provide this innovator with funding and technical assistance.

Practical Action Bangladesh is a Round 1 Securing Water for Food innovator. Additional information about the organization can be found here.

Sandbar Cropping

Bangladesh Farmers Benefitting from Sandbars

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Practical Action’s sandbar cropping technique enables landless families in Bangladesh to diversify their incomes by growing pumpkins and other crops on previously barren land. Practical Action has taught over 600 female farmers to grow pumpkins on barren sandbars, focusing exclusively on building the capacity of the landless poor and on empowering both women and men in the households affected by the program in Bangladesh.

With family members included, there are 2,529 users of the approach, and they have realized 25 million liters of water savings, grown more than 5,000 tons of food, repurposed 91 hectares of land, increased average household incomes by $305, and realized a 100% repayment rate of loans provided to start the pumpkin farming practices of farmers.

Practical Action has taught over 600 female farmers to grow pumpkins on barren sandbars.

The August 2016 flood in the district of Kurigram displaced 2,500 individuals and left them in critical need of food, water, and first-aid. Despite being nearly forty kilometers away from the afflicted areas, the Sandbar Cropping farmers, within the hour of the emergency response call, happily volunteered to assist their fellow citizens; hundreds of households donated their time, services, and pumpkins—five metric tons worth of nourishment for the victims who lost all means of survival.

On a broader, more fundamental scale, the innovation shows us how these communities that some call underprivileged, are unified in their efforts to adapt to their altered environment as means to survive, thrive, empower themselves, and give to others.

Their efforts have created in some poor farmers a better understanding of the local value chain, with sandbar cropping farmers now paying attention to local, regional, and national markets – and around 1,000 pumpkins sold by each household for around €0.15 each throughout the region.

Sandbar Cropping – Sustainable Model for Poverty Eradication

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In Bangladesh, monsoons flood and erode river embankments, wash away houses and agricultural land, and displace over 200,000 people that take shelter in public places or migrate to urban areas. In the northwest region of Bangladesh, the yearly flooding creates nearly insurmountable poverty conditions and disenfranchises those living on the riverbanks. When the monsoon subsides and the rivers recede, thousands of hectares of transitional land (sand-covered silty riverbeds) emerge and exist for six to seven months. SWFF Innovator Practical Action Bangladesh developed a pro-poor solution – sandbar cropping – that improves communities’ economic and nutritional status as well as water usage in agriculture, and contributes to sustainable land management.

“Life is changing in communities where we transform sandbars into green and orange landscapes. We have implemented a sustainable model for poverty eradication and are addressing food insecurity in this region,” explains Nazmul Chowdhury, Head of Extreme Poverty Programme.

Project Captures the Attention of Bangladeshi Prime Minister

A project that now has 170 farmers in 11 locations producing 63,000 pumpkins, Practical Action Bangladesh has caught the attention of the Bangladesh’s Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She instructed the Ministry of Planning to support the landless and char dwellers (transitional or permanent islands in the river system). Following this, Practical Action Bangladesh signed an MOU with the Department of Agricultural Extension to mainstream the innovation as a national program.

“Policy makers are motived to adopt wider replication of a program that can benefit millions of people. To have the Prime Minister involved is a breakthrough in our innovation,” Chowdhury adds.

Beneficiaries Inspired by the Innovation and Economic Opportunities

In addition to creating economic opportunities for farmers, the project creates what Chowdhury describes as breakthroughs about what’s possible. One farmer, who was investing the pumpkin sale proceeds, was able to buy a $1500 motorbike and a big cow and complete much-needed repairs on his house.

“Women are greatly inspired by this innovation. Prior to this, they had no access to economic activity or resources.”

“Women are greatly inspired by this innovation. Prior to this, they had no access to economic activity or resources. They were cooking and raising their children. They are getting access to the vegetables and to the cash the crops bring. Now, they have great access and control over resources and the project. They feel empowered,” he explains.

Chowdhury explains that the project success can be attributed to connecting with local partners, a consistent focus on innovating on the process of development, government support at the highest levels for rapid expansion and impact, and the financial and business modeling support from the SWFF program.

When asked about next steps, Chowdhury notes that he will focus efforts on establishing linkages with food processing companies (e.g., Pran, an international food processor, is working to make chips from the Practical Action pumpkins), diversification of crops, gaining access to external markets, and identifying synergies with other SWFF innovators (e.g., MetaMeta’s salt tolerant potato).

“We have a sustainable model for poverty eradication. We are using water more efficiently, changing the economic and nutritional status for landless people, and successfully developing something of nothing. A practical answer project with practical solutions,” he concludes.