Maize Transforms Landscapes and Livelihoods in Bangladesh
Nurul Islam could hardly believe his eyes. Eleven resource-poor farmers had just entered his office in Sherpur, Bangladesh, carrying two kilos of sweets and a pile of cash. “We were amazed when they came in with the sweets and money,” says Islam. “We thought we were taking a very big risk when we made the loans, but they paid back on-time, with interest and gave us the sweets to express their appreciation.” Nurul Islam is a Director of Unnayan Sangha, a non-government organization founded in 1980 to help the region’s poor, mostly through micro-credit schemes. The group had been very active in promoting backyard fish farms and had been extremely successful with 6,000 working fish-ponds on members’ land. They had not, however, thought about maize and the income it might bring to help lift members out of poverty.
The government of Bangladesh has tried to promote maize in the area. It is well-suited to the climate, the availability of water, and farmers’ needs, but most attempts had not worked well. Nevertheless, farmers in the region are growing less and less wheat as a second crop after rice, because the popular wheat variety is susceptible to leaf blight, a regionally common disease that can cut yields more than 15%. CIMMYT, with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has been working with the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) to study the potential of maize in the region, particularly for animal feed.
Maize’s first foothold becomes a large footprint
The beginnings of a mini-maize revolution in Jamalpur and Sherpur began with a single farmer, Mahbubur Rahman, who is also a mechanic. He approached CIMMYT partner, Mahfuzul Hoque, of BARI. Hoque had grown up in the area and understood the soil and the climate. Rahamn asked if his land was suitable for maize as a second crop. The answer from Hoque was a resounding ‘yes.’ Rahman realized that in order for farmers like him to adopt maize they would need shellers. He got the plans and manufactured one power sheller and 48 hand shellers. He also enlisted his younger brother Masudur and another farmer to promote the technology. Soon the group had grown to 16 families and planted 5.5 hectares the first season.
It was members of that group who approached Unnayan Sangha for the loan to get started. They were successful and soon the technology and the crop spread. There was little maize seed available locally and imported seed was often of low quality. Leaders of the NGO realized there was a market for quality hybrid maize seed, and so began community-based production of hybrid seed using two CIMMYT maize lines (CML 283 F and CML 287 M) as parent material. This is their first season and they intend to sell the seed from their half hectare to small-scale farmers who are members of their organization. Some of these farmers give their time and labor to manage the seed plot.
Half a Hectare: a Full First Step Out of Poverty
M Kazal, one of the first sixteen maize producers, was a landless sharecropper. He paid the landowner with about 12% of his harvest. He also had a roadside tea stand near his land on a dusty road in the Sherpur district of Bangladesh. The tea stand made a little money: enough to buy fertilizer for the land he rented.
He, his wife, and two children attended a CIMMYT-sponsored, whole-family-training event on maize production. He sowed little maize the first season, but netted about US$ 175 from his harvest—enough to buy six calves. He fed them maize the following season to fatten them and sold them for US$ 900, earning an additional US$ 600 on the rest of his maize. With the combined profit he decided to make the biggest move of his life: the purchase of a half hectare of land. In two seasons of maize growing he had gone from landless to landowner. “I feel better as a landowner,” he says. “My status in the community has changed.”
Kazal says his first hope is to provide his children the education he never had. His father, sitting beside him in the tea stall, grins with pride. “I find it hard to find the words… I want him to improve.”
Food or Feed?
Any maize in Bangladesh will easily sell as animal feed, but Unnayan Sangha staff are also interested in meeting human consumption needs. They say that 20-25% of their maize farmers are now using maize meal to make chapatti, the standard flat bread in south Asia.
Has maize made a difference in the region? “Definitely ‘yes’,” says Hoque. “Farmers who grow maize now have greater purchasing power and you can see more tin sheds, more new machinery.” And to think—it all began with two kilos of sweets to celebrate success.