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Making markets work for women in Bangladesh

Donkey-based transport has helped 450 women market vegetables and spices (© HKI)
Donkey-based transport has helped 450 women market vegetables and spices

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), a mountainous area bordering Myanmar and populated by Bangladesh's ethnic tribal population, has a more temperate climate than the rest of Bangladesh, and fertile land at a variety of altitudes, so it is uniquely positioned for diverse, year-round agricultural production. Women here are largely responsible for farming, practising jhum (traditional slash and burn agriculture) on communal plots. Until recently, ethnic exclusion and geographic isolation have hampered tribal women in accessing markets, which are typically controlled and dominated by Bengali traders. But through a series of innovations, including market surveys, new cultivation techniques and donkey-based transport, 450 tribal women have become part of a successful value chain for high value vegetables and spices, resulting in a nearly four-fold increase in monthly income and improvements in food security and nutrition.

Improving the women's understanding of the market was a key first step. Under a project implemented by Helen Keller International (HKI), and funded under a DFID/Government of Bangladesh-supported 'economic empowerment of the poorest' programme, 45 women group leaders carried out market surveys before the start of each growing season over a three year period (2009-2012), to identify products likely to yield the most profit. This involved visiting district-level markets and interviewing input suppliers, shopkeepers, consumers and other market actors using a standardised survey format; project staff helped to facilitate these meetings, to overcome any ethnically-driven reluctance.

Learning from the market

Surveys with vegetable sellers, for example, revealed a scarcity of fresh vegetables, which vendors frequently purchased from farms more than 600 kilometres away; restaurants reported that except for hat (bi-weekly market) days, they could not obtain sufficient vegetables. With this information, female farmers were able to target what they should grow, knew what price to demand from buyers, and focused on supplying vegetables on days when the hat was closed.

Surveys with vegetable sellers provided women with information on what they should grow (© HKI)
Surveys with vegetable sellers provided women with information on what they should grow

This planning represented a dramatic departure from traditional cultivation strategies, when the same products were grown year after year with no awareness of expected price. "Conducting the survey every season was key," explains HKI Marketing Specialist, Nazmul Huda. "Through interviews with the major buyers of spices, female farmers found that though turmeric was highly profitable in 2010, its price halved in 2011 and 2012. At the same time, the price of ginger and taro increased. The market survey meant women knew this in advance and could plan seed purchase."

Since the 1960s, state-sponsored migration and land acquisition have created land shortages. As tribal populations were pushed further into the hills, population pressure dramatically depleted soil quality and reduced production. HKI introduced contour farming techniques to cultivate products prioritised by market surveys, producing higher yields and reducing input costs, particularly for water and fertiliser. Contour farming required a large input of labour upfront, but once earthwork was completed, labour inputs were reduced and larger plots could be cultivated. This saved the time women used to spend walking to scattered jhum plots, enabled them to pool resources and facilitated group marketing of produce.

HKI also trained women farmers on post-harvest handling and processing techniques and arranged visits with vendors and buyers to observe which traits brought the highest value. At the most basic level, women were able to improve the presentation and subsequent sale price of fresh fruits and vegetables through sorting, cleaning and grading. In other cases, equipment and advanced training enabled women to produce processed spices, pickles, jams and jellies.

Overcoming barriers

HKI trained women farmers on post-harvest handling and processing techniques (© HKI)
HKI trained women farmers on post-harvest handling and processing techniques

Horticultural markets are far from the hill areas where tribal populations live. To address geographic barriers, HKI introduced donkeys to female farmer groups living and farming far from roads. Trainers from the Donkey Sanctuary in India were brought in to train local veterinarians to provide medical care and instruct female farmers on care and feeding. Once their care was established, the donkeys significantly saved on labour needed to access markets, as a selected 'market middle-woman' in each group could use the animal to transport produce from several female farmers. This was key in marketing fruit and vegetables, which are prized for freshness.

Social and ethnic barriers required multiple strategies. While market surveys provided supply and demand information, which enabled women to negotiate on more equal terms with traders, HKI also provided intensive training on marketing skills, such as determining sale price, negotiation and bookkeeping, and helped women negotiate directly with market committees to gain dedicated space for sale. Workshops organised with vendors and buyers further helped middle-women develop business networks and identify niche buyers. While such organised events may not continue beyond the end of the project, the relationships made with vendors and buyers, often outside their ethnic group for the first time, are expected to persist. Vendors and buyers appreciate the role of tribal women in the agricultural value chain, making sizable input purchases (particularly when they work as a group), and supplying products with high market demand.

Written by: Erica Roy Khetran, Country Director-Bangladesh, Helen Keller International

Date published: November 2012


Have your say

Excellent article Erica (posted by: Nizam Ahmed)

Opening the market for rural women and enabling them recogni... (posted by: Grace Jokthan)


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