Rain was pouring, but it did not dissuade people from gathering around the recently inaugurated aggregation centre at Montoliya area in Teknaf, Cox's Bazar.
Sayed Ahmed, Amir Hossain, Mohammad Yasin, and the people who gathered around the centre were either owners of nearby local shops, or merchants. They come here on Saturdays and Sundays to buy various vegetables, eggs and chickens, which are later resold at their stores or local bazaars.
"The vegetables you get from here are fresh and are free of preservatives and pesticides," said Sayed Ahmed. "We also get a better deal for anything that we buy from here. Everything is four to five takas less than the market value."
The Montoliya aggregation centre is one of the 26 centres built by the UN's World Food Programme (WFP). All of the centres were constructed to bring together smallholder farmers and potential buyers and retailers, to improve incomes of Bangladeshis living close to and affected by the influx of the Rohingya in those areas.
Designed by internationally renowned architect Marina Tabassum, the Montoliya aggregation centre is a two-story innovative bamboo structure. The design integrates passive cooling and uses renewable materials in its construction.
The ground floor is used as a publicly accessible floor where the farmers sell their fresh produce. It also includes an office and toilet facilities. The upper floor is a private space for the farmer community to interact among themselves, and features a space for children.
"We chose borak bamboo for the main structure, steel nodes as connectors, muli bamboo for facades and tin roof. The building stands on a shallow foundation that is in brick," said Marina Tabassum.
"We used predominantly natural material for the building and the reasons are many folds. This is an example of how we can make a durable large construction using locally sourced environment friendly material and design."
"We hope to change the perception of bamboo as a temporary/vernacular material. In the age of climate crisis, we need to reduce the use of anthropogenic materials and promote the use of natural materials," she added.
The locations for the aggregation centres were established based on geographical convenience for the farmers. The site for the centre at Montoliya was selected because it was determined to be the most central point for that community, and was easily accessible by both farmers and buyers.
Inside, the fresh produce was being sold only by women. Amongst the sellers was Elmun Nahar. A mother of two, she primarily makes a living as a local artisan; she works as an independent tailor and also sells nakshi kanthas she makes.
After her husband's passing, however, she became the sole breadwinner of her family. Elmun grows various crops to feed her family. Her surplus is sold at the centre.
"In the past we had to go to local bazaars to sell our excess produce. It is not easy for women to sell their yield at bazaars. Many of us have children who we have to look after – it becomes difficult for us to breastfeed our babies in that setting and we don't have dedicated washrooms either," she said. "The aggregation centre features a washroom, a dedicated room where our children can stay and where we can feed them in privacy," said Elmun.
Similar points were echoed by another beneficiary of the centre, Sabina Yasmin.
"If we go to the bazaar, I am required to pay a tax. I need fare to get there and there is no place for us to sit either. I have a young boy who I cannot breastfeed if he is hungry," she said.
"At the aggregation centre we don't need to pay a tax, and we have a lot of facilities – we are given a tomtom rickshaw for transport, we have a bathroom we can use and we can tend to the needs of our children."
A community-based construction
This particular aggregation centre was a community-based construction. Consultation meetings were held with the local community (especially the female farmers), where the objectives were shared and participants were asked to share their opinion.
Impacts of climate shocks in the area were also heavily taken into account when determining what the structure should look like.
Marina Tabassum specialises in environment friendly structures. The idea was to create a building which was sustainable, environmentally friendly and, most importantly, operated as a safe space for the female farmers in the area.
"We prioritised process driven design. We included the beneficiaries, in this case women farmers, in the process from the very beginning. The programme of the centre was developed through engagement with the farmer community and the local craftsmen," she said.
"We did hands-on building workshops with the local builders to make them understand the new building techniques that we introduced. There was a lot of newness in the design, so the daylong workshops and community engagements were very productive to give the people a sense of ownership for the buildings," Marina added.
"The design uses local natural materials like bamboo for construction. We developed a new system in our office at MTA (Marina Tabassum Architects) where we use structural bamboo with steel connectors that creates the main frame for the building. This is structurally strong and durable."
"Bamboo is an age-old vernacular building material. Through technological knowledge and innovation, we can use its potential as a structural material and elevate its capacity in new techniques of building that are sustainable and appropriate as a climate response," she added.
A building that sinks back to the ecosystem
Smallholder female farmers have little to no access to local markets due to cultural or religious restrictions. They are however able to sell their produce locally and to WFP's Fresh Food Corners in the e-voucher outlets in the Rohingya camps at the centre.
The centre is open for beneficiaries and local buyers on Saturdays and Sundays. The market opens at 7 AM and closes around 10 PM to 12 PM. The produce is priced slightly lower than the market rate.
"We are amongst the marginalised in this country. Most of our husbands are fishermen and are away during the day. They work on fishing boats and we lose a day's income if they go to the local markets to sell our produce," said Topura Begum, another beneficiary of the centre.
The top floor is used by the women farmers as a community space where they hold their meetings and conduct training. With the aid of WFP, they have organised workshops on tailoring, making nakshi kanthas, various jute-based crafts, etc.
The workshops are designed to teach the local community skills which they can later use to earn a living.
The land for the aggregation centre was donated by the community. Part of the construction cost was provided by female participants, while the brunt of the cost was borne by WFP.
"The two storied building is a dismantlable knock-down system using steel joints that allows mobility in times of shifting locations. Our idea is that the women farmer community can move the building to a new location when their agreement with the landowner expires after five years' time.
Two storied structure allows a compact footprint. As such the open space surrounding the building can be used for landscape and small-scale farming by the community," said Marina.
"Environmentally sustainable designs reduce the carbon footprint. The process begins at the inception of design, to sourcing material, to construction, to use of the building. How a building sinks back to the ecosystem is also part of the sustainable design process. It needs to be a circular process," she added.