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Five Achievements of VSO’s Crab Farming Project in Bangladesh

For the past seven years, VSO has been changing the lives of Bangladeshi workers by helping them set up crab farming projects. Alexi Duggins shares five ways that crabs are changing lives for the better.

If you want to make a living in southern Bangladesh, shellfish are your friend. Thanks to Bangladeshi shrimp and crab being the area’s most lucrative exports, millions of people in the area depend on fishing and seafood farming for their livelihoods. Nonetheless, they’re often very poor, largely working for low wages on farms run by wealthy companies that have the technology to make a success of this complex aqua-culture. In 2010, VSO Bangladesh set up a project to redress the balance by supporting low-income Bangladeshis to create their own crab farms by helping them access funds to make a go of it. Here are five of the project’s biggest achievements:

©VSO / Abir Abdullah

Sathi Das (27) catches a crab with the small bamboo made box at her farm, Narkeltola, Mongla. She started crab farming after getting training organised by VSO in 2014. 

1. It’s challenging patriarchy

The gender balance of the workforce in large ghers (aquatic farms) is often fairly equal and women generally perform the same tasks as men. But women earn less, simply because they’re female.

To combat that, VSO’s crab fattening project trains farmers in how to grow mud crabs from infants to maturity. Through a fund contributed to and managed by the farmers, and supported by a local NGO, they have access to the money needed to raise and sell the creatures to seafood export companies. And it focuses entirely on women. The recruiting and training of female farmers has been such a success that they’re currently forming their own government-recognised co-operative movement, enabling them to support other would-be women crab producers. 

“The co-operative enables them to pass on knowledge to new female farmers. It will give them access to technology, to fair capital, to good export prices,” says Shafiqur Rahman of VSO Bangladesh. “It’s letting women empower themselves. Our dream is that one day they will be able to compete with the big fisheries companies.”

2. It’s a bigger success than imagined

A typical monthly income for a crab farmer used to be about 5,000 taka (£44) a month. With this money, they’d struggle to feed or clothe their families, often living hand to mouth. VSO realised that if women farmers could access 50,000 taka (£420) to purchase the equipment needed to properly run crab farms, their income would improve sufficiently to live a better quality of life and pay the loan back within 18 months.

Or so they thought. “People did so well that they were returning the loan three months early,” explains Rahman. “It’s been incredible. Some of them have made net profits of 100,000 taka (£848). We never thought they’d make that much money.”

Crabs after the catch, Narkeltola, Mongla. ©VSO / Abir Abdullah

Crabs after the catch, Narkeltola, Mongla. 

3. It’s improving nutrition

Crab farming isn’t the only thing that VSO’s project has trained female entrepreneurs in. Owing to a history of poor diet among the participating community, VSO has shown the community how to grow organic vegetables and organised for a government officer to provide lessons in nutrition.

Previously people in the area would barely eat any vegetables, partly because local farmers didn’t grow them, meaning vegetables weren’t readily available.

It’s also a big step forward for families surviving almost entirely on the small amounts of rice they were able to afford, and the occasional bit of fish they’d catch. 

“They definitely didn’t eat vegetables beforehand, because they just had no knowledge of a balanced diet,” says Rahman. “Now we’ve trained them, that’s all changed. And as they’re farming them organically, nothing harmful is going into the soil, so it won’t get into the water and do any damage to their crabs.”

4. It’s preventing overfishing

Prior to the VSO project, small-scale crab farmers found the baby crabs for their farms by fishing for them with nets in the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. With around 90% of nearby communities’ livelihoods involving fishing in these forests, crab stocks in the area were rapidly dwindling. The VSO project has encouraged farmers to look to sustainable sources to feed up the crabs 

“We want to farm in a way that doesn’t do any environmental harm,” says Rahman. “So we began connecting our farmers with the local baby crab hatchery, that doesn’t create any environmental pressure.”

Crab farmers are growing 100,000 baby crablets on a 50-km-square farm.

However, with the rapid success of the project, demand soon outstripped supply and one hatchery proved incapable of meeting the farmers’ needs. So VSO has partnered with the hatchery to train participants and now crab farmers are growing 100,000 baby crablets on a 50-km-square farm, creating a business that’s fully sustainable.

Crab farmers in Bangladesh ©VSO / Abir Abdullah

Sathi Das's husband used to go to the Sunderban forest to catch crabs but sometimes the pirates took all the crabs and asked for ransome. 

5. It’s safe

Before VSO recruited women crab farmers to the fledgling project, many women farmers feared for their husbands’ lives. Their family incomes generally relied on their spouse fishing in the Sundarbans forest, which meant the frequent threat of tiger and crocodile attacks, as well as snake bites. But worse than this are the pirates that trawl the area, looking for small-time fishermen to kidnap and hold to ransom.

“I heard of one man in the area who’d been caught seven to eight times by the pirates and if he wanted to escape with his life, he had to pay them at least 15,000 taka [£125] each time [more than some families would earn in a month],” says Rahman.

But thanks to the VSO scheme, the husbands of VSO crab farmers now work with their family, assisting their wives rather than risking life and limb for low-paid subsistence work. Or, in the words of Rahman: “Now they’re able to stay at home with their wives and make money safely from their own pond on their own land. It’s so much better for them all.”

Read on to see a photo essay from a VSO volunteer, Stephanie-Marie Müller, and discover how she is supporting our Growing Together project which works to improve the livelihoods of thousands of smallholder farmers in northern Bangladesh. 

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