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Using Cows to Pull Bangladeshi Farmers out of Poverty

\nMost rural Bangladeshis own an incredibly valuable asset; they just need to learn how to monetize it.\n

More than 115 million Bangladeshis live in rural villages. Those villagers don’t have much, but many do own a cow. In fact, Bangladesh has the third-largest cattle population in Asia (and the 12th-largest in the world). In theory, those bovines were the most valuable and profitable asset that poor Bangladeshis owned. The problem was that some simply did not know how to generate income from their cow.

Take the case of Yusuf Mia. In the mid-1990s, the rural farmer lost his patch of land to erosion. Forced to survive without land to farm, Mia and his family owned only a milking cow. Rather than selling its milk for money, Mia chose to rent his cow to others to generate a meager income. Among the consequences, after his farm literally disappeared, he was no longer able to send his youngest daughter to school.

It’s a story repeated in various incarnations around Bangladesh. But for Farouk Jiwa, a member of the economic development team at CARE, Mia’s story also inspired a solution.

CARE knew Bangladesh’s dairy industry was a prime area where the country’s poor could find gainful income, if only they had access to it. So the staff began working in the country’s rural north to recruit people living below the poverty line (those subsisting on $2 or less per day) into dairy farming. But just pointing them in the right direction wasn’t enough. Dairy farmers didn’t always have access to proper veterinary medicine, the ideal feed for their cows, or a stable market in which to sell their milk. Often, they got wildly different prices for their product, and on occasion, they were outright cheated. To empower rural Bangladeshis through dairy farming, CARE needed to reform the entire dairy process—from cow to market.

The revamped process, says Jiwa, is called a “value chain approach” and CARE’s project in Bangladesh is called “Strengthening the Dairy Value Chain.” “We lay out the entire system where the production is taking place,” Jiwa explains, “who the primary processors might be, who the buyers are, what their challenges might be, whether it's exporting or selling locally, identify the key constraints or bottlenecks in the value chain, and design interventions.”

After recruiting participants (CARE has 17,000 so far; the goal is 35,000 in five years), the CARE team organizes these typically landless farmers—each with one to three cows—into small dairy groups of 25 to 30 individuals. CARE then trains these collectives on issues related to the nutrition and health of their animals. The organization also teaches them how to take their product to market in bulk, resulting in fairer, more consistent prices for milk.

Farmers in the collectives learn to grow better feed, and are given access to crossbred cows and improved vaccinations. So far, the program’s cows have increased their milk production, and thus the farmers’ incomes, by an average of 50 percent.

So far, the program’s cows have increased their milk production, and thus the farmers’ incomes, by an average of 50 percent.

Yusuf Mia is among those who have benefited. Since receiving training from CARE, Mia began using better feed for his cow and saw its milk production double from 1.5 liters per day to 3. That’s resulted in a greater income for his family, which meant his daughter was able to return to her studies.

But the farmers are just the first link in Jiwa’s value chain. There are also 160 newly trained “para-vets,” who provide medical services and support to the farmers. The project has also trained 100 collectors who take the milk from the farmers to local chilling facilities. These people are not mere transporters—they perform quality control tests to make sure the milk is fresh and that farmers haven’t added water to the product.

And on up the chain it goes. CARE is working with local scientists to develop new crossbreeds of cows that will produce greater quantities of milk, while remaining suited to the resource-poor, humid conditions of the country. It also works with local companies to strengthen the dairy industry, by, for example, offering deals on feed and microfinance loans to the farmers responsible for their product supply. The organization has even lobbied the government to add import tariffs to powdered milk from India, a threat to Bangladesh’s domestic dairy market.

The value chain approach, says Jiwa, shows that business and poverty relief are not mutually exclusive. We can relieve poverty in a way that benefits an entire economy, and the people in it. One of the new milk collectors, Sarothi Rani, had been working as a servant after her husband abandoned her and her three children. She now transports the milk of two separate dairy groups—on a bike given to her by a local dairy company on credit—on top of selling feed and medicines to the farmers. “I am happy that I don’t need to work in other houses,” she told CARE representatives. “Day by day, my dignity is increasing.”

Photo of Bangladeshi farmers and their cow by Kevin McKague.

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