Engaging students for family food security and 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.]

As a small country with a large and rapidly growing population, Bangladesh has to make the most of its fast-disappearing agricultural land. Although the government of Bangladesh prioritizes modern and sustainable agricultural technologies to maximize crop production, many farmers’ beliefs in traditional agriculture methods, despite poor production, make them resistant to using new practices that improve production. Resistance to using improved agricultural practices that promote higher production has been a significant factor in food insufficiency and poor nutrition in rural Bangladesh, especially among land-poor farmers. This article explores how MCC Bangladesh has worked with young students to increase the adoption of new, more productive, agricultural practices.

MCC assists families experiencing poverty to increase their income from agriculture and livestock production and their access to diversified food in order to improve food security and nutrition. Encouraging farmers to shift from traditional techniques to new agricultural practices is not easy, especially among those who are older and have lower levels of formal education. MCC Bangladesh has found that young and literate farmers are generally more willing to try new techniques.

In particular, students are often willing to adopt new ideas. In Bangladesh, students are also often part of household decision-making. Despite limited financial resources, most poor families try hard to send their children to school. Families hope that, after gaining an education, their children will be able to improve the family’s financial status. For this reason, families sometimes depend on their children to make household decisions even while the children are still studying. This cultural context led MCC Bangladesh to involve students in a food security project focused on using modern agricultural techniques for improved family food security and nutrition.

Under its Research and Extension Activity Partners (REAP) project which ran from 2010 to 2016, MCC Bangladesh worked in Chattra Union, Pirganj Upazila in Rangpur district, Bangladesh. A total of 900 students in grade eight from six different secondary schools were selected as a primary participants. These students took part in the project up to grade ten. Each project year, new students were selected to join, with priority given to students from households experiencing poverty. These students received training in different agricultural technologies at school outside of regular class time, with technical support provided by MCC Bangladesh staff. The project also trained school teachers in agricultural technologies to improve their understanding of the project and to equip them to support their students.

At home, students discussed what they learned about these new technologies with their parents and other family members. When their parents expressed interest, MCC Bangladesh staff arranged for demonstrations of different agricultural technologies at their homestead. These agricultural demonstrations focused on best practices for rearing milk cows and goats, calf fattening, raising chickens, fruit tree cultivation, integrated pest management and making different types of compost for homestead gardening. Each household worked with at least two or three new techniques, with the entire family involved. MCC Bangladesh staff and the school teachers frequently visited participant students’ homes to monitor and discuss the new agricultural activities.

Students’ motivation encouraged households to focus their work on these new agricultural activities. Significant changes to nutrition occurred among the selected farm families over the project period. Families’ diversified agricultural activities provided them with more fresh vegetables of greater variety, more eggs and meat, more milk and more income from new agricultural activities like cattle rearing. With the extra income, families could afford to diversify their diets while meeting other family needs as well.

Some students have been particularly successful in generating income through the new agricultural activities. For example, one young woman in Sokhipur village received training in vegetable cultivation, cattle and goat rearing and compost production. MCC also provided her material support so that she could start raising goats and making compost. Now, besides being a respected source of agricultural knowledge in her community, she sells goats and compost to pay tuition fees for herself and her three sisters and has further expanded her family’s livelihoods by purchasing two cows.

In addition to agricultural work, the REAP project also provided peace education to targeted students and parents. These trainings, alongside other community peacebuilding work, helped ensure that conflicts that might arise from students teaching parents and encouraging new practices at home could be peaceably mediated and resolved.

Through this project, MCC Bangladesh learned that involving students in extension work to diversify agricultural activities addressed the challenge of motivating farmers to adopt new techniques. Through the work of students to improve families’ skills and capacity, parents were motivated to try modern agricultural practices, while students gained additional skills and knowledge. Ultimately, the combination of approaching parents through students and setting up demonstration plots on families’ own homesteads ensured sustainable changes to food security and nutrition due to changes in participants’ knowledge, attitude and practice.

Md. Arefur Rahaman is sector coordinator for food security and Md. Mokhlesur Rahman is program director with MCC Bangladesh.

Learn more

Quasem, M. A. “Conversion of Agricultural Land to Non-Agricultural Uses in Bangladesh: Extent and Determinants.” Bangladesh Development Studies 34/1 (2011): 59-85.

Ballantyne, Roy, Sharon Connell, and John Fien. “Students as Catalysts of Environmental Change: A Framework for Researching Intergenerational Influence through Environmental Education.” Environmental Education Research 4/3 (1998): 285-298.

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.

Conservation agriculture and religious motivation

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Farmers in every region of the world are adapting to a changing climate. In Africa in particular rainfall is becoming increasingly unreliable, forcing farmers to seek out new ways to conserve precious soil moisture for food production. A growing number of MCC partner organizations in sub-Saharan Africa are promoting a style of farming called conservation agriculture (CA). MCC works with a number of church-based organizations,
including the Mennonite church in Tanzania and the Brethren in Christ Church in Honduras, Zambia and Zimbabwe, to promote CA. This article examines the promotion of CA through “Farming God’s Way” and assesses how that framing impacts the adoption of new agricultural techniques.

CA has three main principles: minimal soil disturbance (no plowing), ground cover (mulch) and crop rotation. For many farmers, these principles have contributed to greatly improved yields, even during very dry growing seasons. The no plowing and mulch principles can have significant positive impacts on soil moisture levels, but they are also
countercultural for most farmers. Farmers in most communities where MCC’s partners work have for generations tilled and cleared land (with clearing often done by burning plant material) in preparation for seeding. These culturally entrenched practices go back generations and die hard. Asking a farmer not to till before seeding is something like telling city homeowners not to cut their lawn. “That’s not the way we do things around here. What would the neighbors think?”

So even as farmers actively look for new techniques to respond to drier conditions, convincing them to try CA with its counter-cultural elements has proven challenging. To overcome this cultural barrier, some organizations bring biblical and spiritual principles into their conversations about CA with farmers, integrating biblical ethics with scientifically sound agriculture practices in order to connect with and influence farmers more effectively. These organizations seek to persuade farmers that CA is akin to farming God’s way. In fact, a growing movement that started in Zimbabwe actually calls itself Farming God’s Way. For its proponents, Farming God’s Way is not a farming model per se, but rather a perspective from which to present, promote and understand CA.

Mulch, for example, in standard CA parlance is simply referred to as mulch. Mulch is plant material that covers the soil to conserve moisture, suppress weeds and foster plant growth. Farming God’s way, however, describes mulch as “God’s blanket”. Farming God’s Way promoters explain “God’s blanket” to farmers thus: If one observes the natural, God-created world, one rarely sees soil not covered with some sort of plant material. God’s intention is thus for soil to be covered with plant material, even in human cropping systems: applying “God’s blanket” participates in God’s creative and sustaining action while protecting the soil for future generations. Suddenly, with this explanation, once skeptical farmers are now more convinced that mulching and CA as a whole are worth a try. MCC partners who present CA as farming God’s way report that it smoothes the road for change in many communities. This approach apparently works equally well for Muslim and Christian farmers alike. In fact, even non-religious farmers do not seem to be turned off by the argument. Furthermore, framing CA using “farming God’s way” language provides better community entry, using existing community structures such as churches and church youth groups.

Organizations that promote CA as farming God’s way are not trying to pull the wool over farmers’ eyes with talk about God and the Bible: they are sincere in their belief that CA mimics the natural world more closely than conventional farming and is therefore closer to God’s intended way of farming. However, farming God’s way proponents also realize that talk about God only goes so far. To be sure, CA often leads to dramatic increases in yield. In fact, recent reports suggest average yield increases of over 100% for first-time CA farmers. Increased yield obviously offers extra motivation for farmers, regardless of their desire to be good stewards of God’s creation. But along with entrenched notions of how to farm properly, the extra work required by mulching presents a real barrier for many farmers. In some communities, farmer adoption levels have not been as strong as expected, mostly due to the perceived increase in labor requirements, particularly in the first year of using CA approaches. But farmers tend to be innovators. Some farmers have come up with alternatives to mulching that serve the same purpose, like growing beans
along with corn (intercropping). The beans cover most of the bare ground around the corn, acting as a sort of living mulch. The extra bean harvest makes the additional work worthwhile.

While farmers prove time and again to be innovators, organizations promoting farming God’s way have not always encouraged this innovation, holding to an overly dogmatic or narrow understanding of what it means to farm God’s way. Yet lived reality challenges such dogmatism, and proponents of farming God’s way have begun to learn that diversity is also a part of God’s created order. Most MCC partner organizations now encourage farmers to embrace the three CA principles in general and then adapt them to their own particular farming circumstances. MCC’s partners hope to convince more than 20,000 African farmers to try CA farming within the next few years. One of the challenges will be
to present CA not only as God’s way, but also as a way toward a more sustainable and food-secure future for farmers. One might argue that these two things are mutually inclusive, but farmers rightfully require evidence of CA’s effectiveness, given that their families’ livelihoods are at stake. A current initiative funded by the Canadian government in eastern Africa and implemented by MCC and its partners seeks to gather better information about crop yield and other food security metrics in order to provide a more complete picture of how CA methods improve the lives of farmers and their families.

Some MCC partner organizations that promote CA avoid framing arguments for CA in religious terms, choosing to rely solely on agronomic arguments. Most organizations, however, choose a balance between God and yield, making the case that CA practices mimic the created order while also demonstrating CA’s practical benefits. MCC does not mandate a specific approach to promoting CA, opting instead to listen and learn from its partner organizations about what works best. For now, however, the initial evidence seems to support the hypothesis that framing CA in religious terms fosters adoption of CA practices.

Vurayayi Pugeni and Dan Wiens are disaster response and food security coordinators, respectively, for MCC.

Learn more:

Investing in Communities: The Benefits and Costs of Building Resilience for Food
Security in Malawi. Teddington, UK: Tearfund, 2010. Available at http://tilz.tearfund.org/en/themes/disasters/disaster_risk_reduction_drr/cost_benefit_analysis_of_drr/.