Jonathan Richards works for Syngenta as a Supply Chain Manager, specialising in fungicide products. Jonathan is from the UK, but he works in Syngenta’s Basel office in Switzerland. VSO is working in partnership with Syngenta on the three year Growing Together programme. The aim of the programme is to build the capacity of 7000 small-scale rice, potato and vegetable farmers in the Rangpur and Dinajpur districts of north western Bangladesh, so that farming is more profitable in the long term.
Bangladeshi farmers face many challenges including the adverse effects of climate change, limited land availability, and poor access to markets. An estimated 36 per cent of the population in rural areas lives below the poverty line.1 Few smallholder farmers grow enough food to feed themselves and their families, let alone sell any for a profit.
As part of the Growing Together programme, two groups of senior Syngenta employee volunteers visit Bangladesh each year. The volunteers work on a specific assignment, bringing with them significant expertise in agronomy and business. The project is delivered on an ongoing basis by VSO Bangladesh employees, long term volunteers and local partners. Emma is part of the second cohort of volunteers. She’s a Team Leader focussing on developing a model for a farmer’s business centre.
“I jumped at the opportunity to join this programme as I really want to be part of making a positive difference to peoples’ livelihoods. This is at the heart of both VSO’s and Syngenta’s values, but it is something I haven’t previously had the opportunity to be so directly involved.
I am part of the second group of volunteers from the programme and there will be subsequent groups. Since the first group visited last October, a number of activities have started and are already having an impact.
When we are in the villages, we spend most of our time having focus group discussions with farmer groups and youth clubs. Most of those didn’t even exist before the last group of volunteers, so that’s already a huge impact.
I’ve found it fascinating and intensely motivating to experience firsthand 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.”
Take a risk
“Working for an international company, I have worked in many multi-cultural teams, but this experience has added a new dimension as we learn to collaborate across “business” and “development sector” cultures. And the mind-set of a Bangladeshi farmer is, of course, very different again.
There’s a culture of ‘risk aversion’. Farmers don’t want to sell collectively. They think, ‘it’s my livelihood and I don’t want to take a risk’. Poverty makes the stakes so much higher so there’s a culture of doing what you’ve learnt and not making any changes. There are obvious improvements that are possible through changes in agronomic practice.
Success for me would be to see communities pulling together and self-starting. Real success happens from within the community. When you walk into a meeting and it feels alive and vibrant, men and women equally involved, young and old people listening to each other and the group putting into practice solutions that they didn’t even think were possible.”
“There’s a strong sense of partnership, which is really exciting. Working together with the private sector, government, NGOs and donors has the potential to really change the face of development activities. Most importantly, it could ensure sustainable and scalable outcomes for vulnerable people and communities.
Syngenta is deeply invested in this area – the Good Growth Plan is a very public expression of the company’s commitment to getting “stuck in” rather than simply throwing money at problems. Syngenta are putting forward relatively senior people who channel their energy and knowledge into getting this programme to work really well.
This experience has really expanded my horizons. Although much shorter than the 3, 6, or 12 month volunteer periods that are more typical for VSO, a month is still a major investment from both the business and the individual. It has provided us volunteers with unique experiences and a new, deeper understanding of the growers’ perspective. It enriches us as individuals and will certainly inform the way we undertake our day jobs.
Photo ©VSO/Allison Joyce. Liz Hunt (left) is Syngenta’s Sustainable Sourcing Lead and Jonathan Richards (right) is a Supply Chain Manager. They are pictured eating lunch with Muraduzzaman (far right) from a host family in the Rangpur District of North West Bangladesh.
VSO is working in partnership with Syngenta on the three year Growing Together programme. The aim of the programme is to make farming more profitable for 7000 small-scale rice, potato and vegetable farmers in the Rangpur and Dinajpur districts of north western Bangladesh.