Lovely Begum, residing in Modhya Bazra, Ulipur Kurigram, lost her home years ago to river erosion. However, she, along with her two children, managed to survive on her husband's income, who used to work in textiles.
It was seven years ago when her husband suddenly passed away. The last straw of income was buried with him as well - by that time, Lovely had three kids to feed.
Looking at their faces, she started cattle farming - took a loan, bought cows, fed them, and sold them at a better rate - a popular form of income in "char" areas.
It usually takes her 10-12 months to get her cattle ready for the market. She is, sometimes, deprived of the expected price as the cattle lack nutrition, fall sick, or do not grow properly.
Besides, Lovely often loses count on how much she spends on her cattle. So, she cannot put an estimate on her profits. She wants to get her cattle better food and treatment but cannot arrange it because of insufficient resources.
She had been drowning in despair until last year when two men from a Social Enterprises named – bhalo, came to her village claiming to have a solution. They offered cattle farmers a four-month package at Tk12,500 which includes nutrition, doctor, and some other facilities, promising it would help their cattle grow better.
Though Lovely was confused, she took the risk of trying the package. After five months, her decision proved to be wise when the cattle became fit for the market in four months.
She has been availing the package from them ever since and is now making two times more profit than before.
'bhalo' is an initiative that intends to improve the lot of smallholder farmers; becoming their friends in need.
How it all started
bhalo, in simple words, intends to be an enterprise that connects the disadvantaged smallholder farmers to quality inputs and services that can aid in generating greater profit.
The founders of bhalo; Subrata Kumar and Susanta Saha, spent years in the development sector. They were even colleagues at Swisscontact worldwide.
Because of the pattern of their work, they got to observe the sufferings of farmers living in remote areas.
Statistics say, in an agricultural country like Bangladesh, among 16 million farmers, 13 million are underprivileged.
Subrata, who became the spokesperson of bhalo, said, "We tend to hold the middlemen responsible for our farmer's misery, although middlemen are only partially accountable, and the entire working ecosystem - starting from production to sales - are somewhat hostile to them".
Subrata says the problem of sales originates from the very process of production. The farmers are not sanctioned loans with terms that are favourable to them, they are deprived of quality inputs like seeds and pesticides, no one is there to guide with proper advice. Sometimes, they are conned by others for lack of knowledge.
They have to chase multiple channels to resolve these issues. Nowhere do they receive any adequate support. The remoter the area, the acuter these problems become.
In 2012, Swisscontact took notice of these issues and started a project to address them, with resources from the Embassy of Switzerland and Government of Bangladesh. They went to remote areas and started counselling everyone involved with the agriculture sector.
Soon, Subrata realised, bringing together all the players was not easy.
This is when he thought of bringing all of them under one umbrella that would work as a bridge between smallholder farmers and the channels they require for their work.
He took a leap of faith and started developing the idea and left Swisscontact in 2018 to execute the model he envisioned. When he shared it with some of his colleagues, they joined him.
They founded the organisation in 2019.
They chose the name bhalo (good) considering it would be easy for farmers to understand and relate to.
Together, they approached companies like Reneta Limited and ACI Godrej Agrovet Private Limited, who appreciated their idea and agreed to be a part of it by selling them their products at distributor price.
What do they offer?
With the collaboration of those companies, bhalo has created different packages for crop farmers and cattle farmers. The package for crop farmers includes good quality seed, crop protection, and consultancy at Tk2,500 for each bigha of land.
For cattle farmers, it is a four months package of Tk12,550 which includes food and nutrition for cattle, veterinary follow up, overall farming counselling and complementary health insurance coverage for farmers and their spouse.
Also, unlike some other organisations it gives farmers flexibility in paying back the money after selling the cattle.
So far, they have helped 800 farmers in a year under this business model.
Their future plan is to introduce loaning facilities for which they are talking to organisations like BRAC. They also plan to connect farmers with buyers and supplied cattle to parmeeda.com, a boutique e-commerce outlet, for Eid.
The ultimate plan is to become a "one-stop" shop for farmers that simplifies trade for them.
The upward growth of bhalo was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Still, they are hopeful about the future.
"In agriculture, you do not make a profit right away. You invest and wait. It takes time to get results. This is the reason people are less interested in investing in agriculture," said Subrata.
"We are still a non-profit organisation. We will have a for-profit entity soon to raise investment and grow the business, but our social mission will not change."
He said, starting in 2019, he still has not drawn any salary on his name from this company whereas he has invested a lion's share of his savings into this venture.
He does part-time consultancies to support the business and is being patient about it.
Subrata thinks, to change our economy, more entrepreneurs should come forward with business models for farmers.