On the Edge of Mighty Rivers: Pumpkin Plus on Restoring Bangladesh’s Ecosystems for Biodiversity

Every year on May 22nd, the International Day for Biological Diversity is celebrated, bringing awareness to the importance of Earth’s biodiversity and how it can mitigate climate change. However, rising populations and various human activities are driving biodiversity loss at an unprecedented rate. Additionally, climate change is already impacting water supplies and may seriously impact our ability to grow enough food to meet increasing demands. Thanks to agricultural innovations like Pumpkin Plus, many aspects of land management for food production have changed.

In this interview with Pumpkin Plus, Yogeeta Sharma and Nazmul Islam Chowdhury sat down to discuss Pumpkin Plus’s innovation and how it contributes to building a shared future for all.

Why does Pumpkin Plus use sandbar cropping and what is it?

To increase productivity, the agricultural sector started using chemical fertilizers  and pesticides and other high-input technology, which came at the price of groundwater depletion, land degradation, yield stagnation, loss of agri-biodiversity and the long-term impact on farmers’ and consumers’ health.

Now the time has come to scale up food systems that have a positive impact while improving crop quality, soil and human health. Pumpkin Plus — with support from Water Energy for Food (WE4F) — does that by helping farmers grow crops on river sandbars left behind after the rainy season.

“Sandbar Cropping” involves digging holes in the sand and filling them with compost, manure and seeds to grow pumpkin, squash, and other crops. This method is a cost-effective solution that transforms silted, barren sandy lands created by seasonal flooding into productive, arable farmland.

The pumpkins produced on the sandbars can be stored in houses for over a year, helping farmers and householders have an additional income source, improving food security, and managing lean seasons. Additionally, Pumpkin Plus provides education and training to the farmers to increase their knowledge, skills, and experience and foster sustainability of production.

How does your innovation help prevent biodiversity loss and land degradation? In what way does it impact climate change?

Expansion of agricultural land is associated with important greenhouse gas emissions, threats to biodiversity, and loss of soil carbon. Our innovation can be advantageous when appropriately deployed because it relies on barren lands that do not contribute to biodiversity loss or deforestation.

To ensure Pumpkin Plus reduces water use, we completed a Master of Science  research-based study in collaboration with the Science and Technology University in Dinajpur on a comparative assessment of flood irrigation and raised bed reservoir-based irrigation, which showed 98% savings of water by adopting simple technology.

Additionally, Pumpkin Plus collaborates with the Ministry of Agriculture in Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation to test the impacts of solar irrigation. The last two seasons have shown a very positive impact by reducing 50% of irrigation cost. However, it needs external support due to installation costs. We are networking for low-cost portable solar irrigation techniques and have started negotiating to test its feasibility.

How does Pumpkin Plus’s services help farmers’ bottom lines?

The innovation, agribusiness model, and the approaches help farmers find paths for their survival and a sustainable way of living. The “Pathways From Poverty” model combats multiple social, political, and environmental shocks through positive life-changing impacts at all levels from grassroots to state and the beyond.

What steps a company, NGO, or farmer should take to increase their biodiversity-focused activities?

Following steps can be taken by an organization:

  • Raise awareness and train employees in biodiversity and how it relates to their jobs. Also, promote and encourage nature-friendly initiatives by them and provide due recognition to such actions and practices
  • Mobilize resources and establish appropriate partnerships to support and monitor actions taken in the field
  • Integrate biodiversity into discussions with policymakers so that this issue in progressively embedded into public policies.
  • Make sure to use the best farming and crop protection practices, and support farmers so they can adopt environmentally friendly farming practices.
  • Shift from traditional ideas and plan for future risk management, this will enable organizations to be better prepared to combat the unseen challenges ahead.
Have you faced any kind of challenges when implementing this innovation?

Sandbar cropping does have its own challenges related to capital and labor: competition for land, the time commitment related to growing crops, the need to protect crops from theft, weather patterns that delay the cultivation process, and unavailability of agricultural inputs, including seeds, fertilizers, and irrigation.

However, these challenges can be managed by providing long-term support for technology, financing, institutional linkages with agencies, and service enabling sandbar cropping. Pumpkin Plus also leverages its policy advisory support capabilities to develop vision papers and cross-country replications.

Since 2005, Pumpkin Plus has overcome climate-related concerns by keeping metrological information as an early warning by building networks with weather forecast authority, which the innovator has had since 2005.

Nowadays, we see frequent natural disasters, and women and children are the most vulnerable to these disasters. How do you support these communities?

Pumpkin Plus has significantly impacted Bangladesh’s base of the pyramid and displaced communities. The income generated by selling sandbar crops enables these bases of the pyramid farmers to build assets like the purchase of domestic animals, boats, rickshaws, and bicycles. Pumpkin Plus also trains women and youth between the ages of 20-40 years so they can hold and continue using the technology.

One notable change has been women’s empowerment in Bangladesh’s delta region, along the riverbanks. In the past, because of extreme poverty and fragmented family conditions, women were the most deprived members of society, facing adverse conditions in terms of social oppression and economic inequality. Now over 80% of the women using our innovation play an active role in farming and contributing to family income, asset generation, and their children’s education. Their importance and role in family decision-making has improved significantly and they have been empowered not only in the socio-economic dimension but also in familial, cultural and psychological aspects.

In the years ahead, what does Pumpkin Plus hope to achieve?

By 2050, Bangladesh’s population is expected to be more than 200 million people, so Pumpkin Plus’s long-term goal is to sustainably address Bangladesh’s food demand. The vision is to shift base of the pyramid, agrarian households from a traditional charity-based approach to a commercial agribusiness system.

In the next couple of years, we expect to train producers, establish marketing networks, and install a village-based market system to protect producers by reducing traditional intermediaries’ control by shifting to a producer-driven value chain. As a result, we will build the capacity of women and the youth as future leaders in the food production sector.

Pumpkin Plus is a new generation agribusiness company with visionary ideas to transform agriculture from a charity-based approach to a producer-led commercial model by encouraging private-public partnership and forming a multi-stakeholder’ platform. They also conduct R&D for crop diversifications, new innovations, update farming systems, and develop community-led market systems and knowledge generation and management for others for wider replications for greater benefit of underserved communities struggling for food security, income, and unemployment. Simultaneously, Pumpkin Plus influences national and global policy for innovative food systems through improved connectivity with government, the United Nations, the private sector, academia, development professionals, and researchers.

Yogeeta Sharma is a Communications and Knowledge Management Specialist for the WE4F South and Southeast Asia Regional Innovation Hub. Previously, she has worked with various USAID programs and gained essential experience in the development sector. She loves bringing innovators’ vision into a virtual reality here at WE4F.