Harvesting A Sustainable Agronomy: Advancing the Nation One Grain at a Time

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By Ashfaque Zaman & Syed Apanuba Puhama


Photographs from Katalyst

At the center of the Bay of Bengal lies a green nation; Bangladesh is not just a nation that grows food, it is a nation that requires the sector. Nearly 70% (roughly 92,000 sq km) of the country is dedicated to agriculture, according to Trading Economics. Vegetation, fish, and any other product that can be grown in our fertile land is deeply rooted in what had supported the nation into branching beyond its expectation.
The population is predicted to reach 200 million in twenty years and with limited land, we must focus on the productivity of the land. Swisscontact started Katalyst in early 2000 and in 15 years they significantly contributed to a Bangladesh that is more efficient and enterprising of its largest sector. The project was supported by numerous donors; DFID and SDC supported throughout the 15 years, while the CIDA, SIDA, Dutch Embassy, and DANIDA supported different phases. Katalyst throughout the time was hosted by the Ministry of Commerce.
They have benefitted 4.75 million and generates a total of $720 million but the advanced methodology they have brought to agriculture will reap benefits in the centuries ahead. ICE Business Times converse with Gupta Bahadur Banjara, General Manager, Katalsyt and Anirban Bhowmik, Country Director, Swisscontact Bangladesh on germinating an exemplary project.

Cultivating A Culture

Country Director, Swisscontact Bangladesh
General Manager

During the initial phase of the project, Katalyst entered a Bangladesh that was at a crossroads. The agricultural sector was widely dominated by the public sector and the scope for private investment was limited. Anirban equates agricultural policy to this dynamic, “Subsistence farming was seen for production and food security purposes and not from a commercial perspective. Government entities such as Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC), Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE), Bangladesh Fertilizer Association and other were taking the lead in providing agricultural input as well as providing information. However, most forms of aid came as direct intervention such as supply provisions and direct subsidy funding.”
The organization realized that private sector investment and connectivity was necessary for terms of agricultural input. Swisscontact and donors understood that their focus would primarily have to be on including marginalized farmers into markets. Anirban expounds on the difficulties of the project, “Our challenge was to encourage the private sector to consider small and marginal farmers as their clients and contribute to the creation of a policy environment that supports private agri-businesses to grow.” During their project period, Katalyst focused on 30 sectors that included RMG, plastics, and furniture. The third phase of their project focused solely on agriculture and agri-business. Gupta joined during the third phase when the focus was not only on improving the agri-business’ reach, improving farmer’s income, but also in ensuring that the knowledge and experience of Katalyst are anchored within the institutions of Bangladesh, “We worked in three main sectors: maize vegetables and fish. Additionally, we focused three cross-cutting sectors: ICT, Local Agricultural Network, and the women’s empowerment sector.”

The Roots of A New Conversation
Katalyst was introducing a new language to Bangladesh. They needed to open a dialogue that convinces business that they would take and share the risk with investors; they were more interested in investing once Katalyst became a risk-sharing partner. Anirban ensured interested parties that they were credible partners, ”The private sector did not understand that pushing their commercial agenda would serve a development purpose. If you look at the numbers, this increased investment is evident; private sector investment has grown tenfold in agro-processing and agro-input. The mindset and the direction of the sector are transforming from a subsistence to a commercial one and future investment will propel this further.” Nevertheless, Katalyst’s made sure that investments into agri-business must focus on improving the lives of marginalized farmers. They wanted to impact the most marginalized one who would survive with less than $2.50.
The government has taken an active role in order to promote the agriculture sector with significant investments. Gupta details that the government is just as active even with the private sector’s increased investment, “In the case of the government, department of agriculture, department of fisheries, and livestock, under Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock, have a wide network of extension services. There are 24,000 agricultural extensionists who are employed by the government. Each of the upazila and even some cases the unions have them.” However, these extension workers knowledge and skills need constant upgradation. They need resources for reaching out to farmers. Gupta emphasizes the necessity of education in a continually changing sector, “Teaching them new ideas like how to increase productivity, input quality, cultivation methods, crop protection methods, and the use of biopesticides and above all how they can help farmers to adopt more market-oriented commercial farming was our priority. There is a lot of innovation happening with the farmers. This sector includes agricultural traders. These individuals are not just buying from farmers, they are also selling; for example, seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, agro-machinery tools and sometimes leasing and educating them about creating the most from each output will ensure proliferation.”

From Saplings to Subsistence: The Farmer’s Portfolio

Photographs from Katalyst

Initially, farmers neither considered nor had the ability to diversify their crop pattern. They would grow crop only for food security purpose, never considering the marketing of crops. As a project implementer, Anirban worked diligently to fit cash crops into the farmer’s harvesting patterns, “Farmers are now looking to maximize their returns. They treat their crops like a business portfolio for marketing instead of looking at it only as a means of food security. The other issue was mono-cropping, diversity of crops, and crop intensity was low. Rangpur is a notable example of these matters. In 2005, regions in northern Bangladesh would only see two types of crops being grown, tobacco, and rice.”
Although a more proactive culture in commercial farming was spreading, the supply chain would ultimately end of outside Bangladesh, leading to the maximum profits being filtered out of the country because the agro-processing industries had to import the significant portion of their raw materials. Gupta started by observing the constraints, “One of the primary setbacks we noticed in the sector was the supply chain. We sent our private investors to Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines for a more comprehensive understanding of how to train, procure, grow and transport quality foods.” Katalyst realized that there was a cycle following this observatory period. It took anywhere from 18 months to three years in order to show farmers that they could maximize their profits with upgraded practices.
The processing industry was suffering from the high cost of raw materials, uncertain amounts, and changes in the international prices. Gupta cites maize as an example of this trend, “Poultry consumption has gone up over 20% per annum with the rising consumption. The main ingredient for poultry feed is maize and almost 70% of it would be imported into the country. It ultimately led to most of the profits leaving the country. Initially, the only company manufacturing feed was Saudi-Bangla but now there are at least 8 to 10 companies that are manufacturing it.”
Maize is a very resilient and profitable crop which grows throughout every season in Bangladesh. Katalyst realized that if maize can be grown in Bangladesh, farmers will have greater income from more diversified crop and the local poultry feed mills would become more competitive, as the raw material is sourced locally. This will ensure higher value addition in the local economy, which otherwise was going out to meet the import bills.
The challenges also included:

  • develop private seed companies’ capacity to create the distribution network for introducing and popularising quality hybrid seeds
  • teach the modern maize cultivation techniques
  • fit the crop in a rice-based cropping pattern without compromising the food security
  • link the farmers into the supply chain of the poultry feed mills so that they can sell their produce at a good price.

Links to Leverage: Connecting Million Across Acres
Anirban illustrates the global perspective, “Agro-processing is a growing sector, maintaining a diverse line of products and consistency with the help of a localized supply chain. In Bangladesh, however, the industry is still in its early stages, despite tremendous improvements in the last few years. Due to an absence of a localized supply chain system, the processing industry was suffering in regards to a high cost and inadequacy of raw materials.” He cites the rapid increase of fish prices in the past five years which has led to market saturation and a decline in profitability, as the cost of input is going up. “The private sector and the policymakers also need to consider that mass production only for domestic consumption is not enough to allow the next frontier of agriculture growth to be driven by agro-processing. From a long-term perspective, one type of fish could be cultivated for primary domestic consumption, while a specialized variety could be used for processing to cater to the needs of the domestic and export markets.”

Anirban delves into the geographical influences on the cultivation process and the supply chain, “If we are exporting, then we need to think of the food safety and biosafety requirements of the export destination. For that, the quality and the food safety has to be ensured at each level. Agro-processing company owners need to understand the importance of creating a specialized supply chain.”
The agricultural sector in Bangladesh continues to depend on a traditional implementation of agro-chain management. Furthermore, Anirban concludes that western ways of supply chain management cannot be applied in Bangladesh because the contexts here are very different, “When there are hundreds of acres of farmland, everything is mechanized and much more efficient and aggregation of raw materials is much easier. But the reality of Bangladesh is that we have a fragmented land pattern. The experts involved in agro-processing have to deal with thousands of farmers, so the supply chain management and aggregation mechanism have to be super-efficient, innovative and westernized model of agro-chain management is not going to work in this context.”

Keeping Up with The Kernel: Quality Seeds for Better Crops
Sectors have a universal commonality, they start from the ground up. In the agricultural sector the term is quite literal; without a standard seed, growth of a quality product will cease to exist. Traditionally, large companies in Bangladesh provided seeds in bulk at a high price. Gupta, along with his team, conducted research to gather data regarding the consumer trends among the farmers, “At Katalyst, our mandate was to help the farmers increase their incomes, so when we went to the farmlands to investigate, we found that 95% of the farmers are not buying the quality seeds. Due to a scarcity of farm areas, the farmers don’t have enough land to utilize entire packets of costly seeds. If the loose seeds cost Tk. 10, then the quality seeds would cost Tk. 250, we came up with this idea of designing new seed packets which are 1/5th of the original size that would cost 1/5th the price as well.” Initially, the company was not interested. They thought that providing smaller packets would eventually lead to lower profitability, as nobody would purchase the larger packets anymore.
Lal Teer was one of the companies Katalyst proposed the idea too, and they decided to pursue this venture on a trial basis in a specific location. The results were very interesting. “The sale of the bigger packet was not reduced, it was also increasing, and the mini seed packets were sold in a lapse of packets. We did an assessment of who was buying purchasing the packets. We found that most of the people who were buying the packets were not just the farmers, but also women who were growing cucumbers and small vegetables in front of their houses. After this successful trial run, other companies have also started using this method. In 2014, we submitted this case to the DAC and out of 45 submissions, we came first.” This method of packaging variation isn’t new or innovative and has been in practice for ages, perfectly demonstrated by mini packs of shampoo. All Katalyst had to do was convince them to take a risk and implement a package variation intervention.

Irrigating the Industry: How A Drop Can Create Ripples

The massive project implemented by Swisscontact took their investments beyond the field; they have influenced the way media houses, academics and development practitioners’ percept the agricultural sector. Anirban credits Shykh Seraj to promoting a field of agro-journalism, “Any form of journalism would focus on the struggles of farmers. Agriculture journalism was limited to BTV; Shykh continued his coverage when he moved to Channel i. We also intervened with media engagement to bring the challenges and successes of commercial agriculture; training and introducing agriculture journalism to universities and the media. Now, it has become a popular medium in promoting the diversification of agriculture and offering solutions to the farmers’ problems.” Katalyst experience helpful for development professionals as they applied the learnings in other sectors, thus Katalyst created a multiplier effect.

The diversity and consumer habits must be taken into consideration in Bangladesh when penetrating the market. With the limited amount of land, Katalyst comprehended the practicality of integrating contact farmers into the supply chain as opposed to procuring land for agricultural ventures. Gupta recalls their work with ‘Direct Fresh’ as a journey of companies changing their sourcing habits, “Direct Fresh was looking for a huge chunk of land in order to conduct farming and sell their products on an e-commerce platform. We helped them contact farmers to supply their products because it was much easier than buying a large chunk of land. Our collaborations started with 600 farmers and now they have 3,000 farmers working with them.”

Off the Hook: Creating Profits from Ponds

In Bangladesh, land mass is very finite, especially due to a growth rate of industrialization coupled with competing use of land for housing and other infrastructure. Therefore, it was important to increase the productivity in terms of farming in order to meet the needs of the nation. Innovative methodologies were implemented so that the rate of production was higher from the same amount of land. After the success of this process, Katalyst applied the same ideology to the fish sector. Aquaculture in Bangladesh initially wasn’t a commercialized sector. In most cases, farmers would provide fingerlings from the ponds in their backyards to the markets. This was a traditional system that lacked in diversification and yield. Gupta elaborates on how Katalyst introduced dietary diversity by promoting commercial aquaculture across the nation, “There were very few varieties of fish cultivated commercially, so we introduced tilapia, pangash, and koi fish. Commercial cultivation of these fishes was largely uncommon, yet some of these now have a surplus and many companies are trying to process them as a fillet for exporting purposes. If you look at all the pesticide companies, only one company initially had aqua-chemicals, but now all of them sell it. Pangash was known as the fish for the rich, but now in comparison, there are points when it came down by Tk 100. We created the momentum by proving that it is possible to do business with marginal farmers. Along with income source diversity, this has led to nutritional diversity and better health.”

Quantifying an Informal Sector
Bangladesh’s many sectors, with agriculture at the forefront, employs 47% of the labor force in the under informal sector. Measuring these gains proved to be a challenge for Katalyst as they worked through businesses, public institutions, media, and academia to benefit farmers. To measure its contribution to the farmers’ gain, Katalyst implemented a mixed method (combination of quantitative, qualitative) analysis in order to enumerate their findings. Though they would monitor the participants under their interventions, even those under multiple interventions. Cross connections of these interventions would lead to proliferated growth in certain instances.

If one were to observe their mini-seed packet, many factors would come into consideration:

  • The number of packets being sold
  • The actual use of these packets
  • The yield and aggregate benefits
  • Behavioral changes, crop rotation or cultivation with the intervention of a quality seed

Katalyst triangulated information and invest in a rigorous process in order to identify the impact of their indirect interventions. The rigorous results measurement culture that Katalyst has instilled advanced the sector considerably. The results of all three phases of the project were measured under Donor Committee for Enterprise Development (DCED) standards and the processes were independently scrutinized with the remarkable validity of the results.


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