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Growing Together: Big business nurtures Bangladeshi farmers

Research published this week suggests more than half of working Brits would like to volunteer to make a difference overseas, if they had the support of their employer. With this level of demand it's small wonder that corporate volunteering is on the rise.  

But what exactly does corporate volunteering look like in practice, and who does it benefit? We take a look at Bangladesh, where senior figures at agribusiness giant Syngenta are working in partnership with 7000 local farmers in Rangpur and Dinajpur districts.

An uneven playing field for farmers

Members of a farmer group tend to their communal crops in Durgapur Bangladesh Allison Joyce

Members of a women’s farmer group tend to their communal crops in Durgapur Village, Rangpur, North West Bangladesh

Most food produced in Bangladesh has been grown in the same way for centuries. The majority of people living in rural areas do some kind of farming, but lack of access to modern techniques and market know-how means that not everyone is growing enough food to feed themselves and their families, let alone sell any for a profit. Seven in every twenty people here live below the poverty line.

Monjusree Saha has been head of programme coordination at RDRS (one of VSO’s key partners in the field) for 27 years and is all too aware of the frustrations felt by many people struggling to make the living they deserve off this fertile land.

“This area is famous for good quality rice, vegetables and fruits. But considering the amount of labour and time the farmers put in, they are suffering,” explains Monjusree.

“A middle man may sell the produce for 800 Taka (£6.60) and give the farmers 400 Taka (£3.30), so the farmers are missing out on 50% of the takings. So I feel it’s very important to teach the farmers about marketing.”

Worlds colliding

Liz Hunt is Syngentas Sustainable Sourcing Lead Allison Joyce

Liz Hunt is Syngenta’s Sustainable Sourcing Lead

As part of the Growing Together project delivered through VSO, senior Syngenta employees are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with 7,000 of these farmers to level the playing field and turn working the land into a commercially viable activity. The contribution of these corporate volunteers, like Liz Hunt, means valuable expertise in the business of food production can be shared.

“I still work with farmers all the time in the US, but there it’s farmers with several thousand acres of land!” says Liz.

“The farming here is very manual. Here, seedling production is very new, cutting-edge technology, whist in my world it has been around 60 years. It really puts into perspective where we are at now and it’s really satisfying to see the farmers’ potential and development.”

To help farmers become more profitable, Liz is leading a team of volunteers that demonstrate the gains that can be made through working in collectives, and have put together a training framework covering areas including leadership, finance and farming techniques.

“This is sustainability in practice [and] demonstrates that it is about preparing for the future and making sure we can supply enough food for a growing population,” says Liz.

Mutual benefits

Abdul Latif from Kafikhal village in the Rangpur, Bangladesh Allison Joyce

Abdul Latif (aged 59) is from Kafikhal village in the Rangpur 

On an individual level, employees gain skills and perspective from volunteering overseas. The attraction is clear and demand within workforces for opportunities like this is high, but there are also big rewards for the companies that invest in this kind of volunteering.

Syngenta Supply Chain Manager Jonathan Richards reflects:

“It has provided us a new, deeper understanding of the growers’ perspective. It enriches us as individuals and will certainly inform the way we undertake our day jobs.”

VSO Knowledge Exchange

VSO is leading in the field of corporate volunteering, and in 2015 launched VSO Knowledge Exchange. Backed by the UK government, it exists to forge innovative partnerships between the private sector and enterprises in developing countries that could solve some of our most pressing global issues for good.

For Richards, the experiences working directly with Bangladeshi growers have left a lasting imprint:

“I’ve found it fascinating and intensely motivating to experience first-hand what life is like for a smallholder farmer in Bangladesh. It is so different to just reading about it.”

“We’ve had some wonderful moments. Despite the challenges of the poverty the farmers live with, we’ve found a common sense of humanity that is really uplifting. Their smiles will stay with me for a long time.”

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