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Small fish bring big benefits in Bangladesh

Mola contains high levels of vitamin A, calcium, iron, zinc, and phosphorus (© Holly Holmes/WorldFish)
Mola contains high levels of vitamin A, calcium, iron, zinc, and phosphorus
© Holly Holmes/WorldFish

Most rural Bangladeshi households depend on farming and fishing for food and income. But faced with the challenges of low productivity, and limited access to resources and training, farmers and fishers struggle to produce enough food to nourish and support their families. As a result, rates of poverty and food insecurity remain high, with women and young children particularly at risk from malnutrition.

It is estimated that 41 per cent of Bangladeshi children under the age of five are moderately stunted, and more than one third are underweight. Malnutrition early in life has irreversible effects on a child's brain development and cognition. Women who lack adequate nutrition have little energy to meet their heavy workloads, and when pregnant or lactating cannot sustain their infants with enough nutrients for healthy growth and development.

Nutrition and new technologies

To help combat these issues, a Small Fish and Nutrition project* has worked to increase the quantity of the small micronutrient-rich fish, mola, in household ponds and natural water bodies, and diets of rural Bangladeshi households in Rangpur, Dinajpur and Sunamganj districts. Mola (Amblypharyngodon mola) is an indigenous fish species, which contains high levels of vitamin A, calcium, iron, zinc, and phosphorus, and is also an important source of animal protein. Culturing mola and carps in ponds connected to rice fields can yield up to 7.4 tonnes of fish per hectare, and up to three tonnes per hectare in stand-alone ponds, providing an opportunity to further boost household income.

Mola can be used as a complementary food in the diets of young children (© Holly Holmes/WorldFish)
Mola can be used as a complementary food in the diets of young children
© Holly Holmes/WorldFish

At the start of the project, mola had a relatively high mortality rate when transported from its natural habitat to household ponds, which was overcome through the development of simple technologies and good practices. For example, in capturing mola brood stock from natural water bodies and to prevent overfishing, nets with a large mesh size are used to catch only large mola. Once caught, farmers are encouraged to keep them in a hapa (inverted mosquito net tied to four bamboo poles), and to aerate the water by splashing, before being transported in plastic bags or earthen containers in the cooler early morning.

Methods for feeding and harvesting the fish have also been fine-tuned to achieve optimum growth rates and production for the benefit of rural families. For example, mola feeds on natural food organisms, so the project recommended that cow dung, urea and triple superphosphate are added to the bottom of the pond during pond preparation to stimulate growth of natural organisms. Mola spawn two to three times a year so partial harvesting of adult fish must occur frequently to prevent food scarcity in the pond.

Cooking demonstrations have also been provided to highlight the ways to prepare mola, and how to use it as a complementary food in the diets of infants and young children. Traditionally, when women clean mola for cooking, some discard the head - the part richest in vitamin A. But by cooking the whole fish, grinding it into a paste, and mixing with rice and vegetables, women are able to make an affordable one-pot meal (khichuri), which is child-friendly and high in micronutrients.

Empowerment

In Bangladeshi communities, women are often restricted to the home and are excluded from decision-making. However, by taking a 'household' approach to the research and development process and working with both men and women, the project laid the foundation for social change and the empowerment of women. Throughout Bangladesh, there are more than 4 million household ponds enabling women to tend to the fish alongside their duties in the home, and have easy access to fish for home consumption. However, further work needs to be done to develop a technique to allow women to easily harvest mola from the pond in small amounts.

Women have monitored the progress of fish production (© Holly Holmes/WorldFish)
Women have monitored the progress of fish production
© Holly Holmes/WorldFish

Throughout the project, local women have monitored the progress of fish production, which has provided them with knowledge and training in both data collection and aquaculture, and increased their role in managing the homestead. Many women reported that their role as researchers gave them greater physical mobility, status, and respect in the community. "After we started the project, we learnt many things, spoke with many other people and are now going out from our houses," explains Jeheda Begum. In some cases, husbands and wives are now making joint decisions at home and sharing the workload in maintaining the pond. These changes signify shifts in the social norms of the community - one of the hardest changes to achieve.

Scaling up

Through its research, training sessions, and instruction manuals, the Small Fish and Nutrition project has directly benefited 2,000 families and increased fish production 3.5 fold in household ponds. Government extension officers and NGOs have also integrated the promotion of micronutrient-rich small fish into their package of interventions being implemented in other regions of rural Bangladesh, as well as Cambodia and Nepal. In addition, the World Bank is supporting advocacy and awareness of the importance of these technologies for improved nutrition in Bangladesh.

* Funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

Written by: Holly Holmes and Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, WorldFish

Date published: January 2014

 

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