Growing Together Program
Feature Desk

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Philip Goodwin, CEO of VSO, visited the “Growing Together Programme” which is a three and a half year partnership between VSO and Syngenta that makes farming more profitable for 7,000 small-scale rice, potato and vegetable farmers in the north western Bangladesh, and is expanding to reach 100,000 farmers in the next couple of years. This program has led to the opening of the first retail banking branch in the community, which gives farmers access to proper financing, away from high interest micro finance.

Outline of the project

The Growing Together program is a unique program co-created by Syngenta and VSO, which aims to sustainably improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Bangladesh and to create thriving rural communities.

The 3.5-year partnership combines Syngenta’s agricultural expertise and technology with VSO’s international development expertise and provision of volunteering opportunities for employees.

Growing Together aims to address the issues faced by smallholder farmers by:

Providing training - replacing existing techniques with more efficient methods that produce higher yields through use of demo plots and field days.

Working with farmers to diversify their crops, enabling farmers to better react to market demand as well as helping them become more resilient to changing conditions.

Support the development of farmers’ groups that have greater access to markets and benefit from increased bargaining power - leading to better prices.

Syngenta has a strong commitment to sustainability and helping smallholders to increase productivity. In its Good Growth Plan, Syngenta has set itself the highest sustainability targets to be reached by 2020 and is working closely with multiple partners to find common solutions in addressing global challenges of food security. The Growing Together program aims to increase internal awareness about the challenges of smallholders and to contribute in helping improve the community’s economic and food security.

Since it began at the end of 2015, the Growing Together project benefited 7,000 marginalised farmers and over 1,300 young people in the northwestern part of the country. Farmers adopted more effective methods of rice and vegetable production, which increased their yields. They received quality seeds and training, and achieved a fair price for their produce, leading to increased incomes.

Farmer Centres provide smallholders with access to various services, boosting farmers’ productivity and income through better inputs and access to market. One Farming Centre supports dozens of Farmer Groups with approximately 30 members in each group. There are 230 farmer groups in the project at the moment, and approximately 30% of the famers are women. The Farming Centres act as a hub for sales and learning; farmers elect board members to support the management and communication with stakeholders, receive training, have access to fair price seeds, machinery for rent, fertilisers and pesticides, and learn to sell their products as a group to obtain much higher incomes.

A key focus of the program is the development of a Social Franchise Model that allows the Farmer Centres to operate sustainably. Its success means this model can be replicated in other parts of Bangladesh and has the potential to be adopted in other countries.

Social Results:

VSO have already seen changes in farmer behaviour in just one year. 80% of farmers have reported practicing new agronomic techniques and technologies, which are designed to reduce their reliance on inputs, improve yields and increase productivity. These are farmers who prior to this program had never received any Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) training, support, or had any exposure to NGO program. 60% of farmers are now engaged in value chain initiatives, which have already resulted in increased income from their crops. For the first time ever, farmers are fully aware of the dangers of pesticides, and are starting to use personal protective equipment. They have set up farmers’ groups, opened bank accounts for the first time in their lives, and have started group savings accounts.

  • At the end of the first year (2015), 450 farmers were surveyed and the results were impressive:
  • Farmers involved in the program saw yields increase by 20% or more
  • 90% of farmers increased net income by at least 50%
  • 70% of farmers at least doubled their income
  • Participant farmers diversified crops by more than 20%
  • Pesticide and chemical fertiliser use was reduced by up to 23% and 13% respectively

The program is currently assessing the results from 2016 and, as part of this, will carry out a social impact assessment to fully understand the difference the program has made.

Access to finance:

Before Growing Together, farmers received high-interest loans (15-30% interest) from micro-financing institutions and did not meet the criteria to receive bank loans. Collectively as a farmer group, they receive a single loan to be divided among the members while making monthly deposits to be used as capital for the next growing season.

Santal Tribe is among the most marginalised and ultra-poor in the community, who usually work as seasonal labourers on farms and earn less than $200 a year. With the initial micro-loan provided by the Growing Together project, 13 members had enough money to rent a plot of land, which they farmer jointly as a farmer group.

“We eat one meal per day, and if we’re lucky, a meal with meat every three months. Now we can afford to have three meals per day and eat meat or maybe fish once a month,” said BanuAra, 45.

Libli Banu, a 24-year-old with two kids, who admits, she never dares to dream about her family future, said, “I’ll collect enough money and buy my own land someday. Maybe we will own cattle and sell their milk. I also want to open a small shop in the market and plan for my kids’ education because I never really had one.”

The opening up of retail banking branches in the hubs through the partnership with Bank Asia is the next big step in moving farmers to proper financing, and away from back-street moneylenders and high-interest micro-finance. These branches will be operated by selected local youth club members, providing real job opportunities and future prospects to the youth. The first two bank branches will be ready to open in mid-January. Also, four Farming Centres are currently being constructed and will be open at the same time. 

Upcoming:

With nearly 10,000 farmers currently in scope, the Growing Together project recently revised its ambition and now intends to reach 100,000 farmers in the next couple of years. The sustainability of the project revolves around a social franchise which will service a network of potentially 100 Farmer Centres, managed by local entrepreneurs, allowing farmers to access quality inputs, mechanisation and national/international markets for aggregated outputs (crops).

The key to sustainability is a different perspective towards value chains, which are often seen as linear and transactional – meaning everyone wants to buy at the cheapest price and sell at the greatest profit without caring about the health of the entire value chain. Growing Together is based on a “nested value chain” approach that puts the famer at the centre. By reaching out to a wider range of businesses through the social franchise (e.g. agricultural businesses, food businesses, banking and insurance companies) Growing Together aims to establish direct relationships between smallholders and private sector companies with a mutual vested interest in the health of the communities. 

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