This article was originally written by Swati Chawla and published by VEGA Member VSO International.
Swati Chawla is the Global Head for HR Analytics & Reporting for Syngenta, currently based in Switzerland. Swati spent four weeks in Rangpur, North West Bangladesh – working with farmers and buyers to identify the needs of the agricultural community as part as part of VSO & Syngenta’s ‘Growing Together’ project.
160 million people live in Bangladesh and this figure is set to increase by 17 million by 2025. There is an increasing challenge of feeding a rapidly growing nation while managing the adverse effects of climate change, limited land availability and poor market access.
In 2014 VSO and Syngenta discovered a shared vision: empowering smallholder farmers to increase their yields and income and create thriving agricultural communities. Three years on and having engaged 63 volunteers from Syngenta’s business alongside a host of international and Bangladeshi longer term volunteers, Growing Together is working with 10,000 farmers and has engaged a range of new partners along the way.
“Living in Rangpur, in North West Bangladesh, we got to experience first-hand the life of smallholder farmers and their families. Throughout my time in Rangpur we were able to interact with people at every part of the agriculture value chain. This not only helped us understand the customer better but also gave us insights into how we could help in their economic and social empowerment, through interventions at the top of the chain, as well as the bottom.
Our overall objective was to enable economic and social empowerment of smallholder farmers and their families, through diversifying the crops they were growing, and gaining improved access to markets. We also provided training in safer and more effective agriculture practices.
My team was tasked with working on ‘Women’s Business Development’ and aimed to improve business development opportunities for women, and female farmers in particular. I worked on researching potential business ideas, and evaluating ‘seedling’ businesses, and developing the business case for the funding of the projects.
I originally applied for the Growing Together project because it felt like the right time for me to reconnect and contribute to the community, having left India 8 years back. I felt that I had been lucky to get exposure to developed markets and I wanted to share that experience and learning with communities back in emerging markets.
Anyone returning to the subcontinent after a few years, like me, is surprised at the sheer speed of progress. I was positively surprised to see the progress made in terms of technology adaptation, improvement in acceptance of girl children, infrastructure and access to education. It was heartening to see the progress made even in rural areas, and the contribution the Growing Together has made to that. The project has touched many lives and made a very positive impact in a very short period of time.
One experience I’ll always remember was meeting with a group of women from the Santal tribal community in Rangpur. These are the minority community in Bangladesh, who typically work as day labourers on farms, performing hard labour for a very little in return. The women said they sometimes walked for two hours one-way to get to their workplace, as there wasn’t enough work in the neighbouring area in off-season.
Upon asking what really mattered to them they said ‘money in hand’. This really defined our thought process on what we needed to do. They were hard working and hungry for work and we had to find avenues to bring more work to them that would give them ‘money in hand’. When asked what they used the money for, the top two responses were ‘educate our children’ and ‘improve sanitation in our homes’. This fundamentally clarified our premise that economic independence for women would lead to social empowerment of their families and the society.
Another moment that will stay with me is meeting a schoolboy who was trying to earn money to fund his education. The boy, who was the son of a farmer, spent three hours every day after school standing outside a historical site and selling books on local history to tourists. Instead of spending his time in playing with his friends he had chosen to do this so that his education would not burden his parents. He told me that the job came with perks as it allowed him to practice his English with the tourists, and he was already getting better grades than his friends in English.
The boy’s positivity and attitude taught me a great lesson in life, and left me wanting to do more for the community so that more parents could afford to educate kids like him.
If are you an experienced professional keen to share your skills and experience with people in Africa or Asia, learn more about how VSO will support you on this journey and apply to volunteer: https://www.vsointernational.org/volunteering/volunteering-pro
Thousands of the people VSO works with are denied access to education, healthcare and opportunities for employment which prevents them from escaping poverty. VSO focuses on delivering lasting change in three areas: education, health and livelihoods. We aim to break the cycle of poverty and ensure that some of the world’s poorest and most marginalised communities have access to more responsive, equal and inclusive services.