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.