Sowing the Seeds of Innovation

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Bangladesh has made commendable progress since its independence in achieving food security, despite frequent natural disasters and population growth (food grain production, for example, tripled between 1972 and 2014, from 9.8 to 34.4 million tons, according to the World Bank). With one of the fastest rates of productivity growth in the world since 1995 (according to World Bank, Bangladesh is averaging 2.7% per year, second only to China), Bangladesh’s agricultural sector has benefited from a sound and consistent policy framework backed by substantial public investments in technology, rural infrastructure and human capital. However, agriculture in Bangladesh is heavily dependent on the weather since entire harvests can be wiped out in a matter of hours when cyclones hit. According to the World Bank, the total arable land in Bangladesh is 61.2% of the total land area (down from 68.3% in 1980). Farms are usually very small due to increasing population, unwieldy land ownership, and inheritance regulations. The three main crops—rice, jute, and tea—have dominated agricultural exports for decades, although rice is grown almost entirely for domestic consumption, jute and tea are the main export earners. In addition, Bangladeshi farmers produce sugarcane, tobacco, cotton, and various fruits and vegetables (sweet potatoes, bananas, pineapples, etc.) for the domestic market. However, changes in climate and increasing population density are the two most prominent challenges for agriculture in Bangladesh. In order to combat these challenges, specialists in agri-sector are coming up with numerous innovations with which we can hopefully change agri-business in the near future. Some of the innovations in the sector are highlighted below:

Small Packets for Larger Solutions

Katalyst was one of the largest market development initiatives in the agriculture sector of Bangladesh. It worked together with the private and public sectors in order to fully integrate rural farmers. As a result of their initiatives, poor farmers got better access to quality input, services, knowledge, and products, which ultimately translated into increased income. One of the initiatives by Katalyst was to partner with Lal Teer to introduce mini pack seeds.
Over the years the characteristics of farm size have changed in Bangladesh. Farmers now cultivate around two acres of land and large packets of seeds are no longer appealing. Katalyst realized this was an issue and educated the agro-input companies about the gap in supply and demand. They encouraged companies to introduce mini seeds to the market and it was this small intervention that was revolutionary. At project commencement, the sales target by the company was a modest 100,000 mini-packets. However, sales beat that target, with the company selling 558,000 packets in six months. That year, Lal Teer went on to sell 1.3 million packs. The packets were initially launched in three districts. Later, after experiencing a rapid sales increase, they expanded distribution to 55 districts. The number of cumulative beneficiary households from mini packet use grew from 236,000 to 339,000 and on to 458,000 in three subsequent seasons in 2012. Repeat buying rose from 15% to 41%. Until December 2014, a total of 579,418 farmers reaped benefits and the number is ever increasing.
Geodata Based Information Services for smallholder farmers in Bangladesh (GEOBIS)
G4AW is a program by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs within the policy priorities for food security and water, which is executed by the Netherlands Space Office (NSO). G4AW is executing the project GEOBIS which uses spatial and other geodata for providing effective time and location-specific advisory services to smallholder farmers in Bangladesh. It is aimed at improving agricultural productivity and farmer incomes, upgrading agricultural zoning and improving the management of weather-related emergencies.
The program aims to provide farmers with weather-related information, advice on the usage of seeds, land preparation, sowing, transplanting, irrigation, fertilizers and agrochemicals, and preventive and remedial measures for pest control and diseases.
Farmers will be informed through mobile phones, call centers, a website, app-based services, as well as personal advice via extension officers and Lal Teer’s field staff. Since illiteracy rates are high and the usage of smartphones is limited, the network of extension officers will initially be the most important channel in conjunction with the mobile phone. Throughout the project, GEOBIS partners will encourage and expect the involved farmers to become more knowledgeable and technologically independent.

Agriculture Weather Index-Based Insurance

The state-owned insurance company Shadharan Bima Corporation (SBC) first offered a crop insurance product in 1977 but discontinued it in 1996 as a result of persisting problems with the scheme.

Some of the reasons SBC’s crop insurance failed include:

  • The program was introduced without adequate preparation. It lacked a clear policy and was devoid of a defined structure, proper training and understanding of crop insurance by the SBC staff and other relevant stakeholders
  • The project was not integrated with mainstream agriculture development policy but was simply created as an insurance scheme
  • The program was expanded too fast, without adequate evaluation of the pilot project

However, due to improvement in satellite imagery and other modern devices, insurance companies are now encouraged to start crop insurance again. As Bangladesh has not had any crop insurance products since the failure of the SBC, there are no successful schemes to draw lessons from and any new schemes will require piloting to make adjustments and a fit-for-purpose product. At present, Green Delta Insurance Limited is working on crop insurance and the project is being co-financed by a DFID program Business Finance for the Poor (BFP-B).

Smart Feeder for Fish

In Bangladesh, one of the major costs of fish farming is the cost of feeding. This comprises 70-79% of the total cost. Due to overfeeding and high feed conversion ratio (FCR), the farmers incur unnecessary costs. As a result, overfeeding is an issue that directly affects productivity in freshwater fish farming in rural Bangladesh. E-Fishery is an Indonesia based startup which aims to solve the problem by providing internet-based tech to monitor and control feeding. The machine automatically dispenses food after sensing the fish’s appetite. Additionally, it can adjust the amount of food to be provided, depending on the fish. The farmers can control fish/shrimp feeding performance directly from their smartphones or laptops, anytime and anywhere.
Furthermore, it creates a database recording daily food consumption and temperature, which can be monitored by experts who can provide suggestions accordingly. Interestingly, it is also convenient for handling the business remotely. It reduces the labor cost by 30% by ensuring less or no water quality deterioration, resulting in optimum feeding mechanism. The price of the machine is approximately Tk. 100,000-110,000 and the payback period for the machine around 1-1.2 years. The lifespan of the machine is around five years or more. E-fishery has partnered with ACI to market the product in Bangladesh.

A-Card, Credit card for farmers

USAID Agricultural Extension Support Activity played a significant role in the introduction of the A-card. It brought together Bank Asia as a banking partner, mPower (a software company) and Care Bangladesh as technical partners and Dhaka Ahsania Mission and Society Development Committee (SDC) as farmer level implementation organizations to carry out the project. A-card was an initiative that helped farmers gain access to microfinance. It had an inbuilt NFC (near field communication)-enabled chip, which enables two devices to establish communication when they are within 4 cm of each other. Designated retailers equipped with smartphones that have a “payment gateway app” take payment against agri-inputs by deducting money from the farmers’ cards. The smartphones acted as their PoS (Point of Sale).
The USAID project wrapped up recently, but its positive impact is encouraging various banks to take an interest.
Bangladesh has achieved remarkable success in food grain production in the recent past which has made the country nearly self-sufficient in food grains. Seed, fertilizer and irrigation technologies known as Green Revolution technologies have been playing major roles in the growth of agriculture production. However, supply and markets of these modern inputs suffer from a lot of uncertainties. Embracing these innovations by fixing the problems of adaptation of these new technologies will enhance the potential of agro-business in Bangladesh.

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