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By Annie Bergman, World Ark contributor
Photos by Dave Anderson 

NOTABARIA VILLAGE, Bangladesh — Renuka Khatun is guarded when it comes to sharing her dreams. She gazes into the distance with a set smile when asked about her future, gestures that suggest she’s afraid to voice any hopes, even to herself.

Goats and cows are providing new opportunities to thousands of small-scale farming families in northwestern Bangladesh.
Goats and cows are providing new opportunities to thousands of small-scale farming families in northwestern Bangladesh.

Fifteen years ago, Khatun, 32, and her husband, Bablu Pramanik, 35, got an auspicious start to their marriage when a wealthy neighbor gifted them the use of two goats — a practice not uncommon here. The couple steadily grew their herd and periodically sold the animals to buy a cow, ducks and chickens. Their small farm earned enough that Pramanik no longer had to work as a hired laborer. He bought a small motorcycle, which he converted to a taxi. They had a son, Mohammed Mizahur Rahman. Their foundation seemed solid. “The days were good. We managed well,” Khatun said. 

But when Khatun suffered complications during the birth of their second child, Mohammed Robin, the family sold nearly all they had to pay medical bills. With most of the animals and vehicle gone, and with little land to work, Pramanik became a seasonal farm laborer once again. His work was sporadic and dependent on harvests. He made 200 taka a day ($2.50) on good days. When added to the 30 cents they could bring in from the sale of eggs each week, the couple made about $840 a year.

It is her present reality that stops Khatun from imagining what could be for her family of four, or of thinking that her sons could know a different kind of life. “I can’t think ahead too much,” Khatun said. Still, she is optimistic that working in a new Heifer project might help her see them through, she said.

After officially opening offices in Dhaka in 2012, Heifer Bangladesh, together with local partners, began work to implement new projects that provide microfinance loans to small-scale farmers to cover the cost of a dairy- or meat-producing animal. The program initially focused on cattle, but will soon change to goats to meet local needs and market demands. 

The approach was chosen for two reasons: first, microfinance programs are pervasive and successful in Bangladesh; and second, demand for both fresh meat and dairy is extremely high in the South Asian nation. The new program aims to increase the incomes of at least 120,000 small-scale farmers, primarily in the northwestern region of the country, who make less than $1,800 a year.

The women in Madhabpur village owe much to Monira Begum, front. She helped bring a Heifer project to her area, and where they all struggled to save about 10 cents a week, they now have approximately $1,000 in savings.
The women in Madhabpur village owe much to Monira Begum, front. She helped bring a Heifer project to her area, and where they all struggled to save about 10 cents a week, they now have approximately $1,000 in savings.

To start, farmers are brought together in self-help groups, where they undergo a series of trainings. The groups pool and save money — 10 taka (12 cents) or a handful of uncooked rice per week — and also learn about proper care for their animals. This provides the women a community and savings to fall back on should setbacks arise. They can also take loans from the group savings for group-approved activities. 

To develop goat and beef production to meet the incredible demand in the country, Heifer Bangladesh is working to introduce appropriate breed selection methods and improved fodder and forage production. It also supports other players in the value chain, training community animal health workers and ensuring farmers have access to markets. 

But the program is not without its challenges. Bangladesh remains one of the least developed countries in Asia, with more than half of the people living below the international poverty line. A prevailing attitude in Khatun’s region, too, is that the poor should remain poor. 

In May of 2014, just three months after she began caring for the cow she received as part of the project, Khatun was proud to say that she knew she was giving her animals better care than in the past. She was anxious about selling the cow in another three to four months’ time and was expecting to make roughly a $180 profit after repaying the loan equivalent to $205 that she took to buy the cow.

And, despite what she said about not thinking ahead, she admitted she was making plans for the money, with her children’s education her top priority. Mizahur Rahman already talks about wanting to become a doctor. 

“I want to invest in cattle. It’s the promise of profit,” Khatun said.

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