How we are bringing prosperity to poor farmers in Bangladesh

Laurie Lee
Harisa Begum, a farmer in Bangladesh who is benefiting from the Krishi Utsho social enterprise

I have just been to Rangpur district in the north-west corner of Bangladesh. I was last in Bangladesh four years ago, and I heard about a new social enterprise that CARE was setting up.

Krishi Utsho is now doing business in Rangpur, and I was excited to see how it was going.

The idea of Krishi Utsho is to make agriculture products more accessible to Bangladesh’s poorest farmers. This should increase their productivity and therefore their income.

The poorest people in rural Bangladesh are farmers. They grow their own food to eat, and hopefully sell some surplus.

But because these farmers are poor – and tend to be further away from bigger towns – the bigger companies selling seeds, fertiliser, feed and other products for farmers don’t tend to find it profitable enough to sell to these farmers, even though there are millions of them. As a result, poor farmers are caught in a trap of not having the best seeds or fertiliser, so they are poorer, so they can't afford the better seeds to grow more.

Krishi Utsho aims to break that vicious cycle, with a social enterprise that has the potential to sustain itself and reach millions of farmer customers in the long term.

Young man with agricultural feed sack on bicycle
A young man with a Krishi Utsho sack of animal feed on his bicycle

We met Dalim, one of the Krishi Utsho ‘franchisees’, in his shop. It was one room in a short parade of shops. At the back were bags of cow feed. At the front was his equipment for collecting milk from dairy farmers.

Dalim has been working with Krishi Utsho for two years and says his business has grown x5.

He has monthly sales now of £1500 (with a decent margin he didn’t really want to discuss in front of his customers!). In the past, he had to go and buy his stock from a wholesaler, now Krishi Utsho delivers to him. Krishi Utsho also gives him 60 days working credit so he will pay it back once he has sold the stock.

As a result, his customers, local farmers, also have easier access to better products.

Arifa said she now has four times as many chickens because she can get better feed.

Rihan said he had gone from one cow 5 years ago, to 12 cows now.

Minhas said he now bought a new hybrid variety of rice which yields 1600kg per hectare instead of the 120kg of the traditional variety.

Samina said she used to have to rely on male relatives to go to town – which also costs money – and buy seeds for her to farm. Now she can buy these herself locally from Krishi Utsho. She’s more independent, and she can also deliver her milk daily to the shop.

Many of the customers have formed a co-operative. They save money collectively and hope to invest in machinery to increase productivity further. They have saved £1000 between 55 farmers so far. Remember that many farmers in Rangpur earn less than £50 a month.

By coming together in the co-op, the famers also had a stronger voice to ask the government to provide public services to their community. And, as often happens when people come together for one reason, they also start working together in other ways too. And we were told how the co-op also prevented child marriages locally.

Harisa Begum with a tray of quail eggs
Harisa Begum with a tray of eggs from her quail farm

One of Dalim’s customers, Harisa, lives 5km away from his shop, in a small hamlet of about 20 households. She noticed that a couple of her neighbours were also Dalim’s customers. But most were not, as they couldn't regularly make the trip to his shop.

She saw an opportunity to bring Krishi Utsho’s products even closer to these farmers. So she started buying more feed from Dalim, and selling some to her neighbours. She started with five bags. She now buys 20 sacks a week and sells to 15-20 neighbours.

Part of Krishi Utsho is to make sure the sellers are knowledgeable about farming, so they can explain to farmers how to improve their yield and how to use the products effectively and efficiently. Harisa has learned this from Dalim and now she is able to educate her neighbours.

Harisa said that at first, some of her neighbours were a little suspicious. But now they can see she is succeeding, and they want to succeed too. She hopes that if all of her neighbours become better farmers, they may even have enough produce to create a market in their own hamlet and shoppers will come to them, instead of them having to travel to sell their products.

Harisa says she has used her economic independence to ensure her own daughters, age 14 and 15, do not marry early, continue their education hopefully to university level, and fulfil their ambitions to become a doctor and a government officer.

So, Krishi Utsho has shown it has the social benefits we wanted it to have. The next test is whether it can be a viable enterprise standing on its own feet. Krishi Utsho is currently supporting 50,000 farmers in north-west and south-west Bangladesh, though 250 franchise shops.

I’m convinced the scope is there to grow, and growth is what will create the economy of scale to make the central support sustainable.

Our vision is to transform these ‘last mile’ village shops into one-stop agricultural solution centres. That will take patient investment. Meanwhile it will be producing great social impact year in, year out.

infographic of CARE role in Krishi Utsho social enterprise

Infographic taken from CARE Innovation Brief The building of an agro-input microfranchise network in rural Bangladesh

Laurie Lee's picture

Laurie Lee is Chief Executive of CARE International UK – Read his blog posts on our Insights policy and practice website