Hundreds of thousands of small farmers in Bangladesh are shifting their fields to high value crops like fruit and flowers to meet growing demand and leave subsistence farming behind.
Jhikorgacha, Bangladesh – It was late afternoon and Shahan Ara was feeling dizzy. She had not had time to eat since morning.
"I had to pluck all the flowers in my field," she said during a break on her farm in the Jessore district of southwestern Bangladesh. "We are working hard to send flowers to the market ahead of the national Independence Day celebration."
In a country where subsistence farming is still common, Shahan Ara is a rarity. Rather than grow rice, she cultivates flowers—a high value crop that is more complex to farm but commands higher prices at the market.
“Further expanding my farm and business is my dream.”
Her jump from traditional farming to high value crop cultivation was supported by her participation in the Bangladesh government’s Second Crop Diversification Project. The project, financed through a $40 million loan from the Asian Development Bank, is part of a broad national effort to expand agricultural productivity and increase farmers’ incomes.
Agriculture is the heart of Bangladesh. More than 70% of the population is directly or indirectly engaged in the sector and virtually all arable land in the country is farmed. Rice is the dominant crop with paddy covering three-quarters of all farmland. This has brought self-sufficiency in food grains but also an increased reliance on imports for higher value crops.
Expanding the production of high value crops like fruits, vegetable, pulses, and spices, as well as cut flowers and potted plants, is reducing local prices of these goods, raising farmer incomes, and making more nutritious diets affordable for the poor.
Since 2012, the project has helped more than 250,000 farmers—more than half of them women—double their income by switching to high value crop farming, according to Project Director Golam Maruf. About 70,000 hectares of land is now devoted to this kind of farming, and about 200,000 farmers have received more than $60,000 in loans to make the shift.
The story of Shahan Ara
Shahan Ara did not complete grade school and she has faced many setbacks. She lost her husband in 2000 and was left alone and in debt with three children to support. Out of desperation, she started cultivating the gladiolus flower on leased land.
Since those difficult early days, Shahan Ara has received training in floriculture, and fertilizer and water management. She has learned how to protect roses and stunning, colorful gerbera flowers from pests and the shock of transportation to the market. She has also received loans and opportunities to visit and learn from other flower farms. Her business has expanded significantly since her involvement with the crop diversification project started in 2012, leading to an increase in her income of 150 percent, she said.
Shahan Ara is now a member of the Bangladesh Flower Society and interacts with flower traders at the national level. "I can sell flowers directly to my buyer in Dhaka; there is no middleman now," she said. Her success has allowed her to purchase a plot of land and build a house for her family.
She has also become an advocate for flower farmers in her area. "We have urged the government to establish a permanent central flower market in Dhaka," she said. "We also need a cold storage in my sub-district. I dream of owning a truck to carry flowers to the market directly."
Diversifying crops, boosting incomes
The project has introduced or promoted 35 high value crops, with a focus on helping women farmers. In addition to improving the overall efficiency of farms, and linking them to markets, farmers have to learn specialized skills to cultivate the often delicate and temperamental high value plants, said Mohammad Zahidul Alam, an agriculture officer in the Jhikorgacha Upazila area.
For flower farmer Selina Begum, this has involved learning the latest techniques for nurturing seedlings of the gerbera flower, rather than buying seeds, which can be expensive and risky because it can bring plant diseases into the farm. This knowledge is helping her farm grow along with her flowers.
"Further expanding my farm and business is my dream," said Selina Begum. "I want to set up a perfume business."Stay up to date Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest issues, news, events, jobs and data in your e-mail inbox.