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  • Writer's pictureSyed Akhtar Mahmood

The entrepreneurial farmers

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

Consider the following charts. These show the separate trajectories of three crops, sugarcane, potatoes, and vegetables, in the years since independence. The first shows the trends in acreage devoted to these crops and the second the trends in output. In both cases, the values are indices, with the 1972 values set to 100 (the data comes from FAO and government sources).

What strikes us immediately is the differing trajectories of the three crops from the 1990s onwards. Till the end of the 1980s, the acreage devoted to all three crops had similar trends, i.e., a modest increase. In 1990, acreage devoted to sugar cane, potatoes and vegetables were 33 percent, 53 percent, and 34 percent higher than their 1972 levels, respectively. But then the three crops parted ways. Sugarcane acreage started declining steadily from the early 1990s and, by 2019, acreage was almost half (58 percent) the level in 1972. By contrast, more and more land was being devoted to vegetables and potatoes. By 2019, vegetable acreage was four times, and potato acreage six times that in 1972. The production trends shown in second chart almost mirror the acreage trends. This suggests that much of the change in production has been due to acreage changes, not changes in productivity, i.e., yield per acre.

These charts focused on three crops, but a similar story can be told using other crops. The story is that of entrepreneurial farmers. The farmers of Bangladesh have been proactive in responding to unfolding opportunities. They found crops that are more profitable than what they had traditionally cultivated, and gradually, and sometimes rapidly, switched to these. Given the scarcity of land in Bangladesh, this has meant moving out of some crops to make way for others. The changing fortunes of sugar cane vis-à-vis vegetables and potatoes is a manifestation of this. The heartening aspect of this story is that most of the entrepreneurial activity underpinning such stories has come from small farmers.

The unleashing of the entrepreneurial spirit was evident right from the beginning. In the early seventies, farmers started adopting high yielding varieties of the traditional rice crops, Aman and Aus. Incidentally, adoption rates were higher for small farmers than the larger ones, who were still uneasy about changing long-standing practices. Then came the expansion of the boro crop, aided by irrigation. The emergence of this third rice crop, a crop in winter, when rice was not traditionally grown, helped ensure rice supply throughout the year. Then came the switch from rice to non-rice crops, the story with which I had started, and from crop agriculture to non-crop agriculture, such as fisheries, livestock, and poultry.

Finally, as a complement to the diversification of agriculture came the rise of the rural non-farm sector. Consider the following statistics. In 2010, 47 percent of all rural households were primarily engaged in agriculture. By 2016, this proportion had fallen to 27 percent. The expansion of rural non-farm activity has helped reduce poverty. According to the World Bank’s latest poverty assessment report for Bangladesh published in 2019, during the period 2005-2010, 69 percent of rural poverty reduction was among households primarily engaged in agriculture. However, the pattern changed during 2010-2016 when 59 percent of poverty reduction happened among households whose primary sector of employment was industry or services. Households with higher shares of non-farm income are less likely to remain in or fall into poverty.

Several factors contributed to the unleashing of the entrepreneurial spirit in the villages of Bangladesh. Bangladeshi scientists came up with new varieties of rice and other crops which the agricultural extension workers took to the doorsteps of the farmers. Government policies, projects and programs played a vital role. An example is the liberalization of agricultural input markets in the late 1980s and early 1990s that increased the supply of fertilizer and other inputs, such as irrigation equipment and good quality seeds. Another is the decade-long massive expansion in the rural road network that started in the late 1980s, which enhanced connectivity and integrated markets. The 1998 opening of the Jamuna bridge enhanced connectivity further, especially for the northern districts of the country. It is not a coincidence that the significant increase in the production of potato, a crop grown largely in the northern districts, happened after 1998.

NGOs played their part through micro-finance and provision of advice to both farmers and rural non-farm entrepreneurs. And who in Bangladesh does not know the story of Shaykh Siraj who, through his television programs over several decades, spread the story of innovation to the farmers of Bangladesh, inspiring them to innovate and venture into new terrain.

A few days ago, Nicholas Kristof’s column in the New York Times caught the attention of many the world over. There he told the inspiring story of the spread of female education in Bangladesh and its impact on poverty reduction. That story is important. However, the story of the entrepreneurial farmers of Bangladesh is no less inspiring and, in terms of growth and poverty reduction, perhaps even more so than that of female education. They have transformed the rural economy of Bangladesh and the face of its villages.

Entrepreneurship in Bangladesh is not all about garments, pharmaceuticals, and e-commerce. The Bangladeshi farmer also has a powerful story to tell.

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