In the Media

In the Media (57)

 Primary Schools in Bangladesh to Go Digital

A Huffington Post article
By Zunaid Ahmed Palak and Safiqul Islam

The Bangladesh Prime Minister this week launched the latest addition to the country's digital curriculum to reach 20 million primary school students, continuing to revolutionise one of the most under-resourced education systems in South Asia.

As governments worldwide scramble to cultivate a generation of tech-savvy children, Bangladesh is continuing to push the boundaries of digital learning through interactive multimedia content. Even in the remotest corners of the country, the newest generation will now be using computers from their first year of school.

On 14 February, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina launched interactive lessons for Grade 1-3, a joint initiative by the Government of Bangladesh, BRAC and Save the Children in response to the success of content previously developed by BRAC for Grade 6-10. By mid-2016, interactive lessons for Grade 1-10 (primary, junior and secondary education) will be accessible online on any device.

"Getting tech-based education to every corner of the country is a high priority of the government. Digital content contains lessons for all of us; it makes us all into teachers and we all become students," said the Prime Minister.

The 'tab school' in the slum

Korail, one of the largest slums in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is home to an estimated 40,000 people. It is never quiet. There is one building that has recently become particularly loud though. It is a rough tin shed, which rings with the sound of students laughing, talking, and singing their multiplication tables, along with animated voices for hours every day.

The shed, one of tens of thousands of schools run by BRAC, is known as the 'tab school'. In selected schools, BRAC has already started using tablets to access interactive multimedia digital learning content. Nur Nahar, the teacher in the school, laughs when she explains that her job is not only teaching, but also being taught. Her classes now revolve around digital media, which, prior to their introduction in her classroom, she had never even seen before.

"Digital content makes learning happen much faster," Ms Nahar said. "I have never seen many things in the world, and I never will. My students definitely have not either, but now they can see anything in the world in my class. Many topics, like mathematics and science, are hard to explain using just text. With pictures and videos, I have lots of new ways to show them why things happen and how. I had never heard of a tablet before this class. I was scared to use it but now I use it every day to explain things."

"Children are coming to school earlier and there are fewer students dropping out," she added. "Since this programme began, learning does not stop when class ends. It continues, every day, for so many more people than just my students. Children go home and show their families and everyone they know what they've learned on whatever device they can find. Every morning they come back knowing more than what I taught them so I have to work much harder than before to keep up."

Reaching 20 Million Students

A gender-responsive, modern, secular curriculum for Digital Bangladesh

Digitising the national curriculum is acting as an impetus for reviewing and updating content. As lessons go online, a team of educators, policymakers and child psychologists ensure that all content is age-appropriate and children can identify with the animated characters.

In public schools, the content is being accessed on computers that the government has already placed in more than 5,500 digital classrooms across the country as part of its Digital Bangladesh initiative. In BRAC schools, where 1 million students are currently enrolled, the content is starting to be accessed on tablet devices.

Congratulating the government, BRAC founder and chairperson Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, KCMG said, "We introduced computer aided learning in 2005 to bring technology into the education sector. We appreciate the government taking it all over the country - it will change the future of education".

From Satkhira to Silicon Valley

The benefits of digital learning for Bangladesh's next generation will stretch far beyond the walls of Nur Nahar's classroom. In a country where students in developing countries like Bangladesh, the potential for information technology is huge. Approximately one in every four people live below the poverty line in Bangladesh, but more than 80 per cent use a mobile phone, and one in every three are online. The country is gearing up to move from manufacturing into the knowledge economy and IT is predicted to become its biggest source of foreign revenue. Bangladesh is already the home of, BKash, the service which Bill Gates himself now invests in, saying it will revolutionise banking for the poor. With students becoming familiar with computer-assisted learning from the first grade of primary school, and mobile-enabled devices rapidly becoming popular across the country, digital learning boasts a similar potential; to revolutionise education in Bangladesh. Every screen can become a space for families to experience animated learning.

As the online learning ecosystem is exploding universally, and Digital Bangladesh is bringing internet access to even the most remote corners of the country, students will be primed to tap into global opportunities. With global poverty being compounded by national inequality in almost every country, learner-centric education will build the confidence and creative mindset that students need to build their own path out of poverty or unemployment. The ultimate tool for leveling the playing field, there will be nothing stopping children in a flood-prone corner of rural Satkhira from learning computer programming to the same level of quality as children born in Silicon Valley.

Zunaid Ahmed Palak is the state minister, Ministry of ICT, Government of Bangladesh. He is the youngest minister in the history of Bangladesh.


Monday, 15 February 2016 18:00

Mobile money in Bangladesh



A Dhaka Tribune article by Hitoishi Chakma and Maria A May

In a recent Bloomberg interview, Bill Gates shares: “Banking is more fundamental than I realised. There have been attempts (at banking for the poor) by microfinance groups, cooperatives, but the transaction fees were always too high. Until we get those services down with very low fees and in digital mode, banking will only be for those who are better off.” In Bangladesh, where 95% of the population have access to mobile phones but only 20% have a formal bank account, the significance of such an opportunity for a banking revolution is even more pronounced. Indeed, since 2011, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made over $21 million in grants and equity investments in bKash.

Bangladesh has seen one of the world’s fastest growing mobile money ecosystems develop in the past two years. This growth has propelled bKash to become the second largest mobile money provider in the world, only behind Kenya’s mPesa. Ideally, this growth in digital money is also an opportunity for pro-poor financial service providers such as microfinance institutions to significantly expand financial access.

We are only to look at Kenya’s M-Shwari, that gives users instant access to short-term credit and secure savings for inspiration. As of 2015, one in five Kenyan adults are active M-Shwari customers. With the use of mobile money picking up here in Bangladesh, it is fast turning into an opportunity to ensure that everyone can enjoy the full benefits of banking products. Mobile money fees in Bangladesh, when comparing small transactions such as Tk400, are among the lowest in the world.


Yet for all the adoption of mobile money we have seen in Bangladesh, there remains one key segment of the population that has yet to embrace it - women, especially poor women living in rural areas. Despite the rich history of women’s participation in microfinance and savings groups, when it comes to mobile money, over 80 percent of the mobile money users turn out to be men. What explains this lag and what can we do about it? Especially when poor rural women can benefit immensely from access to such services that would enable easier remittances, create new savings mechanisms, and even make purchasing airtime hassle-free.

Since 2014, through the Gates Foundation-funded Innovation Fund for Mobile Money, BRAC has been piloting different projects in providing digital financial services for the poor. This experiment with mobile money aims to see how existing BRAC services can be transformed into more effective and valuable solutions for the poor. Over the past one-and-a-half years, these experiences ranged from providing digital microfinance in remote communities to offering flexible school fee payments that allows low-income parents to pay in small installments. Overall, the projects have targeted women and girls, focusing on their needs in products and financial education.

However, as we have found from the pilots, it is not easy for a rural woman to master mobile money. These women often report that they are satisfied with the ability to simply receive calls and may lack the basic numeracy skills required to navigate the mobile money menus. This has prompted us to begin providing financial education, where we provide basic numeracy skills and develop financial management skills. In places like remote Hatiya, where literacy levels are low, it can take three to six months of financial education before a woman feels confident carrying out her own transactions.

While this is a lot of work, it is easy to assume that women are lagging behind in adopting mobile money because of an information gap. Certainly, limited information and literacy create challenges, but in fact, the barriers to adoption go much deeper.

A recent exploration of the problem using human-centered design techniques solidified these convictions. One of the central comments heard repeatedly from women is that they do not identify themselves with becoming users of mobile money, which is the domain of the businessman. Additionally, many women lacked confidence in their ability to use the service preferring to use cash instead. This shows that, like most of us, they are present-biased and seek to avoid the immediate difficulties associated with learning to use the service even though it would bring them greater benefit in the future. By simply relying on agents their basic needs were being met and many commented on carrying out transactions with agents as “fine.” Fortunately, these issues can all be addressed, but not through traditional financial education. Instead, this requires more creativity from mobile money providers and NGOs on how they design their services.

What inspires BRAC the most is the increasing number of women from Hatiya to Panchargarh who, despite all of these issues, are now expert mobile money users, confidently buying airtime, making deposits into their savings accounts, and managing their remittances. Their needs superseded their unfamiliarity and fear of technology. Many received significant support from BRAC’s staff and/or local bKash agents, who they trust and can access as needed. Given the challenges of reading the English menu, many used rote memorisation through mnemonic techniques to make these transactions.

Ultimately, necessity drives innovation. Till date, despite the potential present, womens’ demand for mobile money in Bangladesh has not been activated. Reaching these women is a must, if a banking revolution is to be ignited for the poor through mobile money.

The original article can be found at:


When the non-profit BRAC was set up over 40 years ago, it was a temporary effort aimed at helping rural populations that had been affected by a devastating cyclone and civil war. Today, BRAC is one of the biggest NGOs in the world, and responsible for lifting 150 million people out of poverty. Farming First TV had the opportunity to interview BRAC’s Founder, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed at the Borlaug Dialogue in Iowa, where he was honoured as the 2015 World Food Prize Laureate, to find out the secrets of success behind the Bangladesh-based NGO. 

 For centuries, Bangladeshi farmers had faced a hunger season, known as monga. Sir Fazle told Farming First how giving farmers access to rice varieties that matured more quickly allowed a third crop, potatoes, to be planted in between the two rice growing seasons. “It was long assumed to be a part of the enduring fabric of rural life in northwest Bangladesh. But today, we are starting to see the disappearance of monga and, in many places it has gone completely,” he commented.

“We have…succeeded in disrupting a pattern of suffering that had prevailed for centuries”

Providing farmers with finance and access to markets in order to sell their produce, was a second strand of activity that BRAC undertook in order to help rural people prosper. Sir Fazle told us how he had seen that farmers in rural areas were not getting a fair price for their milk.

“I thought, if we could collect milk… refrigerate it, and transport it to Dhaka, we could easily pay (the farmer) 15 taka per litre — roughly twice what she was getting at that time — and still cover our costs. This led to the establishment of the BRAC Dairy enterprise.”

BRAC now operates several social enterprises, that are all focussed on providing high quality inputs and services for the poor. These businesses generate $150 million in profit each year, which is all directed into financing BRAC’s non-for profit work such as healthcare and education.

For more information on Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and BRAC’s work, visit the World Food Prizewebsite.

21 December, 2015: As the importance of early learning gains support, there is a growing need to ensure that practice in the sector reflects this emphasis on whole child development and the skills and capacities children need to thrive. In light of this, the LEGO Foundation is pleased to announce a 3-year, 4.7 million USD partnership with BRAC focused on promoting the importance of learning through play in Bangladesh, Uganda and Tanzania.

BRAC 708x300
Photo by: Alison Wright/BRAC

Over the course of this 3-year commitment, we will jointly develop and pilot the Play Lab concept, which is a model for integrating play-based learning into the lives of young children between the ages of 3 and 5. We aim to educate and impact both children and their caregivers. Our approach to program design and development ensures that we are able to reach the most vulnerable children and their families.

With this pilot project we aim to launch 240 Play Labs for 7,200 children; train nearly 500 adolescent girls as play leaders, and educate parents on the importance and value of learning through play. Additionally, we commit to design environmentally sustainable play spaces for homes and communities that otherwise lack play spaces.

To stay up-to-date on play-based education, we will launch a global network of experts who will gather best practices on learning through play, develop curriculum and materials, and act as advocates for children's right to play.

The project will be monitored and evaluated, so that we are able to establish an evidence-based model of scalable Play Labs that exemplifies a low-cost, high-impact intervention capable preparing children to overcome future challenges.

This commitment strengthens the LEGO Foundation’s efforts in East Africa and marks our first major investment in learning through play in Asia.



17 December, 2015
A NextBillion article by Emily Coppel and Tarini Mohan


Faruque Ahmed, executive director of BRAC International, recently wrote for NextBillion about the need for women entrepreneurs to bolster economic recovery in post-Ebola West Africa. One of the most effective ways to counter the repercussions of Ebola and specifically address food scarcity and the destruction of agricultural value chains, he wrote, is to empower female farmers. Here, Tarini Mohan and Emily Coppel of BRAC write about a new scientific method has the potential to change the way NGOs develop empowerment programs for female farmers and dramatically improve outcomes in West Africa and beyond.

“Data not only measures progress, it inspires it. What gets measured gets done. Once you start measuring problems, people are more inclined to take action to fix them because nobody wants to end up at the bottom of a list of rankings.”

– U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 2012

Women’s empowerment programs have surfaced as a key component of the international development agenda. Although many organizations working in international development make grandiose claims of their programs’ ability to empower women, with few tools available to actually measure empowerment, it is hard to tell if these claims are based on fact or whether they are an organizational appeal to funders.

Until recently, no major development agency had devised a mainstream method to track and measure changes in the level of women’s empowerment in any field, but particularly in agriculture, where it has significant potential to improve food security on a global scale.


No fewer than 27 different studies have found that male farmers achieve higher yields than female farmers. The yield gap is as high as 25 percent. This is not because women are poor farmers. It is entirely explained by the severe constraints women face in accessing productive resources, such as land, seeds, fertilizer, pest control measures, extension advice and mechanical tools.

Empowering female farmers and enabling equal access to inputs could not only increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent, but also put more resources in women’s hands, which would strengthen their voice within the household. Empowering women in agriculture is a “proven strategy for enhancing food security, nutrition, education and health of children,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. “And better-fed, healthier children learn better and become more productive citizens. The benefits would span generations and pay large dividends in the future.”


In March 2012, USAID, along with the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, developed the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) to track women’s involvement in agriculture. It monitors five domains of empowerment: decisions about agricultural production; access to and decision-making power about productive resources; control of income; leadership in the community; and women’s control of their time. A woman or man is considered empowered if (s)he has “adequate achievements” in four out of the five domains, or is empowered in some combination of weighted indicators that makes up 80 percent of the total adequacy score.

Practitioners can also look at the segment of women not empowered and identify in which of the five domains the problem lies. This helps practitioners to improve program design in a targeted way to better reach clients. Apart from the five domains, the WEAI also includes the Gender Parity Index, which compares the level of women’s empowerment to the level of men’s empowerment.

The most compelling feature of the WEAI is its international comparability. Women’s empowerment is by essence context-dependent; for example, how empowered a woman feels in society is largely driven by the socioeconomic, cultural and political features of that particular society. To address this, the WEAI was constructed after a review of hundreds of women’s empowerment indicators in more than 30 studies across several countries in subjects ranging from economics to psychology. The primary purpose of these indicators was international comparability and to construct an index that comes as close to universal applicability as possible.


The most accepted definition of empowerment – one that was developed by Naila Kabeer, professor of gender and development at London School of Economics and Political Science, is the expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them. Thus, empowerment arises from some state of disempowerment.

Currently, the majority of international development organizations use proxies to measure empowerment ­– such as a woman’s education level or employment status – rather than measuring empowerment itself. For example, claiming that a woman is empowered if she already has access to credit would not be correct for two reasons. First, the woman’s access to credit represents a static state, rather than a dynamic one, if the time period being studied is one in which she always had that access. Secondly, resources like access to credit can be thought of as “enabling factors,” or important inputs to foster a good environment for empowerment to take place, not as measures of empowerment itself.


BRAC, the world’s largest development organization, operates programs in agriculture aimed at empowering women and the poor by helping them to build secure livelihoods for themselves. Through our sustainable agriculture programs, millions of women have gained access to markets, resources and financial services. These women, by existing measures, have been empowered, but using a formal index like the WEAI would help BRAC and similar organizations improve their programming and impact.

BRAC fosters an enabling environment to achieve women’s empowerment. It does this by operating programs primarily in rural areas, to combat food insecurity, financial constraints, inadequate healthcare, education and vocational training of a large pool of youth, as well as by focusing programming on and targeting primarily women. Being a part of the rural community, BRAC tried to identify the real needs of the communities and what would allow them to flourish; it identified food insecurity and unemployment as the most pressing needs. BRAC is aiming for a multiplier effect by running a last-mile delivery system through female community agriculture promoters and agriculture input distribution.

BRAC helps secure female farmers’ livelihoods, thereby elevating women’s importance in the household through trainings, providing access to information on crop production, credit services through BRAC’s microfinance program, and encouraging use of high-quality inputs (disease-resistant seeds, fertilizers and pesticides) at an affordable cost.

BRAC, to date, has measured enabling factors to gauge women’s empowerment levels. Its results have been positive, showing that women who participate in its programs have greater control over their income from farming and increased access to financial services. However, BRAC and many other development and agriculture NGOs would benefit by adopting a more systematic way to measure women’s empowerment using tools like the WEAI. It would not only be a more accurate measure of empowerment, it would also help to improve program design and outcomes.

BRAC is giving serious thought to adopting the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index.


To some extent, women’s empowerment will always be an empirical question, but adoption of the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index is a step in the right direction, as it maps out the sphere in which corrective action needs to be taken.

Adopting this index is not as simple as this article may make it sound. It is quite a time burden on staff, and may distract from the overall initiative. However, once use of the index becomes routine, it could become the very basis for the agriculture program of various organizations.


Monday, 14 December 2015 18:00

Leaving it behind

 20151212 IRP001 0
12 December, 2015
An Economist article

In a small hut overlooking a muddy river, a dozen women are trying to explain how they fell into destitution. After a few stories of husbands falling ill or vanishing, of ill-paid work drying up, of children sickening, of resorting to begging, almost all are crying. This is quite usual, says Sagarika Indu. BRAC, the large aid organisation she works for, has chosen these women and about 1.6m others since 2002 precisely because they are among the most desperate, ground-down people in one of the world’s poorest places.

But then something unexpected happens: the women invite your correspondent to visit again in a couple of years. Is this mere politeness or confidence in the future? It could be either—because they are very likely to be much better off by then.

Roughly 700m people are thought to live in extreme poverty, defined as getting by on less than $1.90 a day. That is huge progress: more than 1.9 billion lived on less than the equivalent amount in 1990. Yet the gains are uneven. Poverty has plummeted in China but declined more slowly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. And the poor are diverse. Among them are a particularly desperate bunch: the “ultra-poor”, who routinely go hungry. In Bangladesh, most are landless, illiterate rural women with children.

In the 1990s it became clear that microfinance, then the most exciting tool in development economics, was not reaching the very poorest people, recalls Sir Fazle Abed, BRAC’s founder. Microlenders offer small loans at lower interest rates than moneylenders charge. Costs are kept down by assembling small groups of borrowers and encouraging them to exert pressure on each other to repay their loans. One reason the poorest were not borrowing, Sir Fazle says, was that other villagers viewed them as hopeless cases.

BRAC came up with a scheme to help the ultra-poor. It gives them a small stipend for food, followed by an asset such as a cow or a few goats, which they are expected to manage. Field workers visit weekly for the next two years, teaching recipients, for example, how to tell when a cow is in heat and how to get it inseminated. The aim is to help women “graduate” from extreme poverty to the normal kind—as Sir Fazle puts it, “to help them back into the mainstream of poor people”. Then, perhaps, they can start borrowing.

Later research showed that microfinance was not the cure-all that had been thought. But BRAC’s graduation programme proved highly effective. Large randomised controlled trials (explained in the next article) show that it makes people wealthier and raises their spending on food and durable goods. It works outside Bangladesh, too. A study published earlier this year in Science showed that similar programmes run by other NGOs boosted consumption in Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Pakistan and Peru, with the effects lasting at least a year after they ended. The only failure was in Honduras, where many of the chickens given as assets died.

Such programmes are pricey. In India and Bangladesh they cost more than $1,000 per household at purchasing power parity. In Peru, where field workers are better paid, the cost was $5,742. If they are to expand—and about 30 countries are mulling or testing them—two questions must be answered. Do the recipients stay out of deep poverty or slip back? And how exactly do they work?

The results of two big research projects, presented at a conference in London on December 9th, provided some powerful hints. Esther Duflo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that women who were offered cows, goats and intensive training in the Indian state of West Bengal not only did not fall back into indigent poverty but kept climbing out of it. Seven years after the programme began their average monthly consumption was almost one-third higher than it had been after two years. The gap between these women and the untreated control group grew much wider.

Other research explains why. Oriana Bandiera and Robin Burgess, both of the London School of Economics, and four others followed 21,000 people in 1,309 Bangladeshi villages. They tracked ultra-poor women, some of whom were randomly assigned to the graduation programme, and also kept an eye on everyone else. Of the 21,000, only 6,700 were deeply poor at the start. The rest were a mixture of fairly poor, middle class and upper class (by rural Bangladeshi standards, that is: they do not swan around in Hermès).

The poorest women, it turned out, did far more hours of income-generating work: 991 per year on average, compared with 553 for middle-class ones. Yet they packed them into fewer days: the average ultra-poor woman worked for only 252 days a year, compared with 302 for a middle-class woman and 325 for an upper-class one.

The reason is that they toil mostly as domestic servants and in the fields—and casual agricultural work is seasonal. During planting and harvest they work extremely hard; the rest of the year they do little. Better-off women usually rear livestock, which is not only steady work but pays about twice as much per hour. When the poorest women are given cows, they quickly fill their idle time (see chart). They also cut back a little on domestic and field labour.

This is a clue to why microfinance does not reach the poorest. Ms Bandiera and Mr Burgess estimate that the internal rate of return for ultra-poor women going through the graduation programme is between 16% and 23% per year, depending on the assumed opportunity cost of time. That is roughly the interest rate on a microloan. So it ought to be worthwhile for a poor woman to borrow money to buy a cow (and returns would be even higher if they did not require the training BRAC’s field workers provide). The problem is that no microlender would lend them that much.

Some questions remain. The big one is whether the schemes would work in cities. Slum-dwellers are seldom as indigent as agricultural labourers, but they can still get trapped in poverty, and cannot be rescued by gifts of cows. Urban populations are growing so much faster than rural ones that this question is becoming urgent. Another is whether the programme can be run more cheaply. BRAC will soon test sending field workers to visit each recipient once a fortnight instead of once a week.

Their words are heard
For all the advances in research, some things defy measurement. Near Bonabalia, another group of women, recent graduates of the ultra-poor programme, have gathered. What is striking is not so much their greater wealth (reflected in their finer saris and mobile phones) but the way they stand straighter, and their direct looks. Their relatives have started talking to them. Asked to explain how their lives have changed, one of the first things they say is that they now get invited to weddings.


Thursday, 29 October 2015 00:00

Millions of mouths to feed? He did it.


Bangladeshi poverty fighter Fazle Abed is the winner of the 2015 World Food Prize. (Courtesy photo)



Sometimes called the “Nobel Prize for food and agriculture,” the World Food Prize recognizes people who have made breakthrough contributions towards improving the world’s food supply. This year’s winner is a former accountant from Bangladesh.

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, knighted for his work by the British crown, founded BRAC (formerly known as Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) in 1972 following Bangladesh’s devastating cyclone and war of independence.  More than 40 years later, BRAC has helped nearly 150 million people out of poverty.

Focus on women and children

Abed supports girls’ education and women’s empowerment. (Courtesy of the World Food Prize)

Beyond supporting a range of businesses, including fish hatcheries, tea plantations and milk processing centers, Abed has made it his business to help women in rural villages. They learn modern farming techniques, such as how to efficiently apply fertilizer to crops. Abed established programs that have enabled millions to disburse more than $1 billion through microfinance organizations. The loans have allowed women to create small, sustainable businesses producing iodized salt or raising cows, along with dairy and poultry farming. 


BRAC’s innovations helped cut Bangladesh’s child mortality rate from 25 percent to 7 percent. How? Abed trained women to teach others how to mix a solution of water, salt and sugar — a combination that prevents dehydration. Instructors’ wages were based on how well households understood this lesson, in essence making this effort one of the world’s earliest incentive-based social entrepreneurship programs.

“Only by putting the poorest, and women in particular, in charge of their own destinies, will absolute poverty and deprivation be removed from the face of the earth,” Abed said after he learned of his nomination for the award. 

Take Christina John, a farmer in Dodoma district in Tanzania. As a result of the vegetable seeds and field management lessons she received from BRAC, which began operations in the large East African nation in 2006, her income increased fourfold. She now earns enough money to send her children to school.

Feeding millions

Today, BRAC operates in Bangladesh and 10 other countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, reaching an estimated 135 million people. 

“At a time when the world confronts the great challenge of feeding over 9 billion people,” said World Food Prize President Kenneth Quinn, Abed and BRAC “have created the pre-eminent model being followed around the globe on how to educate girls, empower women and lift whole generations out of poverty.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that “Sir Fazle’s and his organization’s recognition that engaging women in STEAM fields — science, technology, engineering, agriculture and math — benefits our local and global communities.”

Abed’s work has benefited millions, especially women, around the world. (Courtesy of the World Food Prize)

The roots of the World Food Prize

The World Food Prize was conceived in 1986 by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Norman Borlaug, an agronomist who grew up on a farm in Iowa. The father of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, he crossbred thousands of wheat varieties, created “dwarf wheat” and developed a new agriculture technique that saved hundreds of millions of people from death and famine.

Recipients of the award have hailed from all over the world, including India, China, Cuba, Denmark, Sierra Leone, Brazil and Ethiopia, where Gebisa Ejeta brought drought-resistant sorghum to Africa. U.S. winners include food scientist Philip Nelson, who revolutionized bulk food transportation and storage.

Abed will receive the World Food Prize on October 15 in Des Moines, Iowa, during the Borlaug Dialogue, a three-day international symposium that attracts agriculture and development experts from more than 65 countries.


Sunday, 25 October 2015 18:00

Nutritious food for a billion people

One in three people in the world is malnourished. Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, iron, and zinc can cause blindness, reduced IQ, vulnerability to disease, and even death. Biofortification—breeding new, more nutritious varieties of staple food crops to increase their micronutrient content—is one promising approach for combatting micronutrient malnutrition among vulnerable groups in many developing countries.

Thanks to the work of HarvestPlus and its partners, biofortified crops—namely vitamin A sweet potatoes, iron beans, and high zinc rice and wheat—are now being grown by farmers and consumed by millions of families every year in more than 30 countries throughout the world.

The program has an even more ambitious goal: to reach one billion people by 2030.  Can it be done? How? 

At a recent IFPRI policy seminar, a panel of experts from HarvestPlus as well as the research and NGO community discussed ways to scale up biofortification and ensure that nutrition remains a global priority.

  • Mainstream it.
    To reach one billion people, biofortified crops must be mainstreamed into the strategies and plans of a wide range of development organizations, governments, and companies.  According to Howdy Bouis, Director at HarvestPlus, this process already is well underway: the World Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the UN World Food Programme, the African Union, international NGOs such as World Vision, national governments, and private seed companies all either are including or have plans to include biofortified crops into their programs.
  • Reach more urban people.
    ”If we want to reach a billion people, we also have to reach the urban population,” said Anne Marie Ball, HarvestPlus manager of partnerships in Africa.  Some city supermarkets are already offering products made with biofortified crops, such as bread from orange sweet potato. “When mothers know that vitamin A is in the food, they make a choice. You want a better future for your children.”
  • Convince national policymakers.
    Mahabub Hossain, an advisor at BRAC and a member of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, emphasized the importance of getting national policymakers on board—particularly ministers of finance.  “It’s more than an issue of nutrition,” he said, noting that messages that show the link between good nutrition and economic productivity are powerful.
  • Partner with private companies.
    The panelists agreed that engaging the private sector is crucial to expanding biofortification’s reach. This, too, is already underway. Seed companies like Zamseed in Zambia and Nirmal Seed in India are now marketing and selling biofortified seeds. To scale up, HarvestPlus and their partners must get even more private sector partners on board, and bigger ones.
  • Create incentives and move demand.
    Demand for biofortified crops is already high—but it could be even higher. If countries establish national biofortification policies, enacting laws to sell more nutritious varieties of seeds and crops, and if companies see the benefit in buying and processing these crops from farmers, that will go a long way toward spurring demand. Having the right economic incentive structures in place also will ensure current efforts to scale up biofortification won’t take a step backward. As Bonnie McClafferty, formerly with HarvestPlus, put it, “Farmers will move away from [vitamin A] maize if they can make more money on [traditional] rice.”

In his concluding remarks, IFPRI Director General Shenggen Fan reminded the audience not to forget the roles of trade and policy research. “These are policy issues,” he said.  “Research on policy can identify successes and help us scale them up.”

All agreed that there is no one solution to malnutrition. “A diverse diet is where we want to be,” said Bouis. “We need all pieces of the puzzle, and agriculture has to be part of the solution.” The other pieces of the nutrition puzzle? Vitamin and mineral supplementation and commercial fortification.

Reaching one billion people at risk of hidden hunger with biofortified crops will represent a key step toward achieving the recently adopted UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

The potential for youth to multiply agricultural production globally is huge.

Increasingly, however, young people from rural areas see their futures in urban centers, rather than in the fields—spurring a global wave of urban youth migration.

“Often young people don’t want to be in agriculture because they don’t see opportunities in agriculture,” said Rekha Mehra, Senior Associate for Gender and Economic Equity at Creative Associates International, speaking at the 2015 Making Cents Youth Economic Opportunities Summit in Washington, D.C.

“For young men and women to have opportunities in agriculture, it is critical to grow agriculture,” she said, leading an Oct. 7 panel of experts on inclusion of youth, women and girls in agriculture value chains.

Roughly half of the world’s population is younger than age 30, with 9 out of 10 youth living in developing countries. And some 70 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas, where farming is a major source of employment, according to the World Bank

Bringing youth back to the land

As youth migration to urban areas grows and population levels climb, the need to bring young people back to agriculture is also expanding.

“Farming is an aging business, and young people are getting away from farming,” said Joyjit Deb Roy, Senior Vice President of Programs at Winrock International.

Yet upon arrival to cities, said Deb Roy, many young people from rural areas are finding only low wage jobs and poor living conditions, or end up unemployed. “But we can reengage the youth and bring them back to the land,” said Deb Roy.

By working with young farmers and rural communities to improve agriculture value chains—through micro-lending, vocational education, training in better planting, harvesting and selling practices, land grants, mentorship through youth farming groups and more—development practitioners can help build compelling counter arguments to convince young urban migrants of the income-generating opportunities back home.

Making women visible

Young women farmers face unique challenges in maximizing their   contributions to and income from agriculture.

While nearly 2 in 5 agricultural workers in developing countries are women, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, many of them do not identify their own labor as a key part of the agriculture value chain.

“If you ask most women who you see out in the fields working, they will say ‘I am not a farmer,’” said Mehra.

And not only are women invisible to themselves as farmers, she said, but often they are overlooked in agricultural development—where their potential to generate income and enhance the agricultural value chain is immense.

From planting to marketing to selling, women and girls play a variety of roles along the agriculture value chain, often in surprising ways, said Mehra.

To maximize the income-generating opportunities for these women and their families, “we need to be sure that we’re looking at both women and men. If you don’t look, then you definitely won’t find them,” she said.   

Planting seeds for the future

In order for the seeds of training and support to youth farmers to truly take root and reap benefits beyond the life of a given program, improvements to the agriculture value chain must be sustainable.

“If you do something without a sustainability component, you leave the beneficiaries vulnerable. Because they may not continue doing it if it is not sustainable,” said Esau Tugume, former Area Coordinator for the Agriculture Extension Program for BRAC International in Uganda.

In Uganda—where 78 percent of the population is under 30 and youth unemployment is 64 percent—sustainability in youth employment and agriculture is pivotal.

Working with young female farmers ages 15 to 30, the Agriculture Extension program provided access to better seeds and farmable land—something that is often not available to young women.

But to ensure long-term success, the women and girls received trainings in life skills, financial literacy, and vocational skills for better farming as well as ongoing peer mentorship through a local club, which Tugume said is one of the most critical components for lasting gains.

“These girls have been mentored and they are monitored by a leader,” he said, “So the beneficiary feels like she is part of the project. She owns it.”

Improving agricultural value chains and giving young men and women the tools and skills they need to grow their crops and their incomes is about more than boosting food production.

“We are all here to support young people in developing countries to lead hopeful and fulfilling lives,” said Mehra. “In doing so one of the most important things if giving them opportunities for meaningful work”


Flo kit includes reusable sanitary pads and equipment for washing and drying them discreetly. Photograph: Flo

Even in 2015, menstruating females in Asia and Africa are shunned as unclean and have difficulty getting hold of sanitary products. A 2011 survey for the Indian government found that only 12% of women across India use sanitary pads. Others use old rags, and unhygienic substances such as sand, sawdust, leaves, mattress foam and even ash to stem their monthly bleeding, with implications for their health and education. Menstruating girls in both Asia and Africa are unable to go to school during their periods, or drop out of school altogether.

Japanese design student Mariko Higaki Iwai hopes that she can help make the lives of girls and women better with her design for a simple reusable pad, which has won some high-profile awards and plaudits from development professionals.

“What I loved about it is that it gives the possibility of addressing the issue of washing and drying [a pad] with dignity,” says Archana Patkar, programme manager of the UN’s Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), who has spent 20 years working on menstruation in Asia and Africa.

Iwai’s invention allows a girl to discreetly carry a reuseable pad in a pouch around her waist to school, store a soiled one until she returns home, then wash and spin-dry the pad with a spinner that cunningly converts into a hanger covered by a burlap cloth so it can be hung outside to dry without embarrassment. Flo recently won a gold award from the Industrial Designers Society of America and is shortlisted for an international award from the James Dyson Foundation.

Iwai developed the prototype and a business plan for its global production and distribution during a 17-week course at the Art Center College of Design in California last year, with a multidisciplinary team of Sohyun Kim, Tatijana Vasily, Charlotte Wong and Benjamin Freedman. They named it Flo because they wanted to remove the stigma. “Flo is flow of blood from menstruation, flow of water that cleans the pads, and ‘go with the flow’, to accept who you are and what your body goes through,” says Iwai.

The team decided to focus on reusable pads because sanitary pads are too expensive for people who live on less than $1.25 a day. But they quickly realised that their product would have to tackle social as well as practical barriers: in most parts of the world social norms prohibit girls from washing used rags with other clothes or drying them in public. This mean they must be furtively washed, then stuffed under mattresses or under the eaves of roofs, where they never get dry, and can become breeding grounds for reproductive infections and illnesses.

Iwai says it was heartbreaking for her to discover during researching the product how badly girls were affected during their periods, with many even put in isolation in their communities. “It’s 2015 and such things shouldn’t be happening now. That was what we wanted to solve.”

Flo would not be the first reusable menstrual pad. In Africa there is the AFRIpad, and in India the Uger pad. Patkar says there are also affordable eco-friendly disposable pads, such as the Anandi pad in India, and in Africa pads made of banana fibre by SHE Enterprises, founded by Harvard Business graduate Elizabeth Scharpf.

Patkar points out that she had not seen the Flo kit, “but I love that it looks at the drying aspect, and no other reusable does from the range I have seen.” The important thing is it could help girls to manage their periods in privacy – a key issue in patriarchal societies such as India. Washing reusable pads means women are also not having to dispose of blood-soaked sanitary pads, “which pollute the environment as the waste disposal chain chooses to ignore them, perpetuating the silence and stigma all the way down the chain”.

But cost, at an expected retail price of $3, could be prohibitive in some of the remote rural areas they work in Senegal, Niger, India and Nepal, Patkar says. Ingeborg Krukkert, who leads programmes in Asia for international water, sanitation and hygiene NGO IRC, agreed that cost would be a barrier.

Krukkert added that Flo’s potential will also be limited in countries whose governments are not working to tackle the issue. “These kind of ‘hardware’ solutions to menstrual hygiene are great, but they won’t help at scale to achieve the SDGs [sustainable development goals],” Krukkert says. “What’s needed is for the governments to be on board and take responsibility to act on this.”

Some countries are taking responsibility. India and Senegal have recently announced major initiatives to improve menstrual hygiene, including providing girls toilets and hand basins in schools and public places, and WSSCC is also working with Cameroon and Niger.

In Bangladesh, the country’s largest NGO, Brac, has been working on improving menstrual hygiene at both the community and school level since 2006, with funding from the UK’s Department for International Development, among other donors. Over the first four years of the programme absenteeism of female students during menstruation reduced from 44% to 33%.

But Patkar points out that the 17 SDGs, agreed by 150 world leaders last week at the UN General Assembly in New York, does not have a single mention of menstruation in the 35-page document – despite the fact that at least eight of the 17 goals are related to improving the lot of women. Krukkert points out that even the mention of “hygiene” was dropped from early drafts of SDG 6, covering the human right to clean water and sanitation, at the beginning of this year, and was only reinstated in September after a campaign by 90 NGOs.

Patkar says that menstrual hygiene management is a “huge blind spot” even for people working in water, sanitation, hygiene, as she found during a 2004-study (doc) of menstrual hygiene management around the world.

“It’s deplorable that the Wash sector hasn’t talked about this,” says Patkar. “I think the worst thing we can do is perpetuate the silence around these issues by not specifically naming them in the SDGs.”

Whether Flo will be able to contribute to breaking the silence over menstruation remains to be seen. “The development of the product is in the very early stages,” says Iwai, who is still in her last year at college. She says it’s important that Flo is extensively field-tested in many different countries to see how women interact with it. “It’s a prototype that still needs research. We don’t want to make a product that isn’t needed and ends up in landfill.”

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