A holistic approach to sustainable nutrition

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The term monga describes seasonal food insecurity that affects vulnerable landless labourers in northern Bangladesh as a result of decreased employment opportunities for the rural poor between rice planting and harvesting seasons. The monga season also negatively affects household nutrition. During this time, households generally reduce food consumption to one meal or less per day, with a corresponding decline in diet quality. People consume insufficient quantities of milk, eggs and vegetables. Most households report using credit to purchase food. Poor and extremely poor households report that they experience eight to ten months of food insecurity annually. In this article we examine learnings from a ten-year MCC initiative in northern Bangladesh to improve household food security and nutrition through regular seasonal food transfers, livestock promotion, connections to markets and nutrition education.

A holistic approach to promote sustainable alternative livelihood options was required to combat such a deeply rooted and persistent problem. To address this situation, MCC Bangladesh, with funding from MCC’s account at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB), implemented the Monga Mitigation Project from 2006 to 2016, working with 2,500 households. The project focused on increasing households’ livestock assets and improving participants’ knowledge and practice of livestock management. MCC chose this approach because participant households had little or no agricultural land, but did possess some experience with livestock management. The first phase of the project experimented with a variety of asset transfers, from chickens and goats to different cow breeds. Through action research, we found that hybrid dairy cows were the most appropriate asset for promotion, given the good market for milk in Bangladesh. The project also worked to educate participants about caring for these livestock and to establish complementary services through the training of veterinary service providers. While these services were free at first, over the course of the project participants gradually took on the costs of these services themselves. MCC also encouraged participants to access government services and to form good relationships with other private service providers like para-vets and fodder stores.

Scarcity of fodder and high prices of cattle feed made it difficult for poor families to bear the feeding expenses of rearing cattle. At the beginning of the project, the project only supported its targeted participants leasing land for fodder cultivation, including Napier grass. However, when most of the land owners did not renew the land leases, MCC shifted focus to supporting other community members involved in selling and marketing fodder grass in order to increase the availability of fodder for participants’ cows. By the end of the project, the area of fodder land had expanded through newly created businesses in the project area and participants reported easier access to fodder for their livestock.

The monga project also focused on increasing the long-term sustainability and productivity of assets by developing value chain linkages. The severe milk shortage in Bangladesh, coupled with high levels of unmet demand from both consumers and dairy processors, made dairy cows a highly appropriate asset for promotion. Therefore, in its second phase, the monga project worked to develop linkages with milk chillers so that the participants could sell their milk upmarket and increase their income. Although this proved challenging to implement, ultimately it increased income among participants. Connections with milk chillers meant that milk could be sold in the city for a higher price rather than just in the local community.

Besides long-term support aimed at increasing household income, the project also addressed immediate nutritional needs during the monga season. For instance, MCC provided lentils during the monga period to meet basic protein nutritional requirements and distributed fruit saplings and vegetable seeds for planting, the produce of which could be harvested during the monga season. Participant households received training in improved nutrition practices, including complementary feeding, exclusive breastfeeding and improved dietary diversification.

The project did encounter problems due to high poverty and illiteracy rates among participants. Given the acute seasonal food insecurity faced by participants, there was temptation to liquidate assets, and providing technical knowledge was difficult at times. To overcome these issues, MCC staff continuously encouraged participants to consider the ultimate goal of increasing their assets over the long-term. MCC also gave high priority to incorporating participants’ perspectives of community needs when designing and implementing the project. For example, MCC scheduled trainings, especially targeted at women, outside of planting and harvesting periods when participants could join. MCC staff reported back to participants on the project’s progress, with project activities modified based on participant feedback. So, for example, after one feedback loop MCC increased the quality of mustard oil cake distributed for livestock feed.

After ten years of MCC implementing this project, participants who used to be monga-affected now have assets that increase their self-confidence, income and food security, leading to improved household nutrition. Income from livestock production has improved participants’ daily life and economic status: the project end survey showed an average 300% increase in income over the income levels recorded in the baseline survey. Income sources include selling vegetables, livestock and livestock products like milk and dried dung for fuel. Improved income has had positive effects, including on participant households’ access to education, medical treatment and even land for agriculture and housing.

More secure livelihoods and earning opportunities have also improved households’ stable access to food, ultimately improving nutrition. The project’s final survey found zero months of food insecurity, compared with eight to ten months of food insecurity before the project started. Additionally, participants reported notable improvements in eating more food (meals and calories) of better quality, including higher consumption rates of a protein-rich diet. The integrated approach of diversifying livelihoods to increase income, increasing homestead production and providing nutrition training and continual motivation has had a positive impact on household nutrition.

Additionally, the project targeted women as direct participants in trainings and as legal livestock asset holders. Women were targeted because they are highly invested in care for their families, so they were considered more likely to use project inputs for the long-term good of the household. This targeting improved women’s power in household decision-making and increased their control over resources.

The project always considered the sustainability of community development by working to improve participant capacity to rear livestock without project support. MCC trained participants to cope with challenges as they arose, gradually withdrew project support and linked participants with alternate sources of most essential project services: these strategies prepared project participants to continue rearing livestock when project services ended. The project also worked to set up strong bonds within the community by implementing events designed to help community members support each other.

Providing encouragement to participants, appropriate selection of participants and holistic nurturing of assets and services to increase sustainable income were key to overcoming the persistence of the monga season. Long-term planning and holistic intervention are necessary to bring about sustainable changes in any sector. Rather than simply distributing livestock, this project supported value chain linkages and complementary service to farmers and families to sustain new assets. All of the project activities worked together to help improve participants’ food security and nutrition and develop new agricultural livelihoods to sustain those positive changes.

Md. Shahjahan Ali Sarker is a program officer and Md. Mokhlesur Rahman is program director with MCC in Bangladesh.

Learn more

CARE Bangladesh. Pro-Poor Analysis of the Dairy Value Chain. Dhaka: CARE Bangladesh, 2008. Available at www.carebangladesh.org/publication/Publication_6751088.pdf.

Rao, C.K. and Puis Odermatt. Value Chain Analysis Report on the Milk Market in Bangladesh. Dhaka: Livelihoods, Empowerment and Agroforestry Project (LEAF), 2006. Available at www.scribd.com/doc/28847769/Bangladesh-Milk-Market-LEAF.

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