By developing high-yielding seeds suitable for shifting climate conditions, Lal Teer hopes to help farmers in Bangladesh feed the country’s 165 million people – while also increasing their income
When her husband was paralysed by a stroke, Shirina Begum faced a bleak future: a sick partner to care for, a family to feed, and no regular income. But once she started planting seeds for vegetables on her small plot of land, everything changed.
Jump forward five years, and Begum’s bumper crops of aubergine, bitter gourd and more are bringing in enough money that she can even put her daughter through college – she hopes she’ll be a doctor.
It’s an impressive turnaround, and one that reflects a seismic shift in Bangladesh’s seed sector over the past two decades. For Begum, the game-changer was access to vegetable seeds produced by Lal Teer Seed, the country’s largest private seed company, which was only able to enter the market after reforms in the 1990s ended the public sector stranglehold.
“Before using Lal Teer’s seeds, I couldn’t cover our costs,” says Begum. “But now I am getting more harvests, my income is increasing, and my family’s lives are more comfortable.”
One of the world’s most densely populated countries, Bangladesh has long struggled to feed its people. Most Bangladeshis still lack sufficient nutrition, and one in three children under the age of five are affected by stunted growth, according to 2016 research by the World Food Programme. With a population of 165 million that’s forecast to pass well over 200 million by 2050 and the impacts of the climate breakdown intensifying, this pressure is only set to grow.
By developing high-yielding seeds suited to shifting climatic conditions, and distributing these up and down Bangladesh, Lal Teer is intent on changing the narrative. “We have limited land. We have to produce more is the simple answer,” says Lal Teer’s managing director, Mahbub Anam.
Lal Teer joined Business Call to Action in 2016 with a promise to provide 30% of the quality seeds needed to secure Bangladesh’s food supply by 2020. Today, it sells more than 130 varieties of 33 different vegetables to approximately 17 million customers, and releases up to seven new varieties a year. Its biotechnology lab is working to halve seed development time, and the company has even expanded into livestock breed development, charging a team of breeders, veterinary staff and nutritionists with boosting the meat and milk yields of Bangladeshi cows.
This all marks a long journey since the company was first dreamed up, over coffee in one of Dhaka’s international hotels, following a chance meeting between Abdul Awal Mintoo, now Lal Teer’s chair, and Dutch seed entrepreneur Simon N Groot, the latest recipient of the World Food Prize, awarded by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Director of operations Tajwar Awal credits the company’s reach in part to early on-the-ground marketing campaigns, which saw teams sent out across the country, sometimes trekking for miles, boxes on heads, to reach remote villages. Once there, they would stay for days, ensuring everything from seed transplantation to irrigation was handled correctly. Some farmers were invited to the capital for training in agronomy and horticulture.
“From there it was a slow build that grew and grew and grew to a point where farmers were vocalising for us, also teaching other farmers,” says Awal.
This grassroots approach continues today. Lal Teer is working with an international consortium to bring drought and saline-resilient crops to farmers in southern Bangladesh, for example. It also trains them in drip irrigation, raised-bed farming and other techniques designed to mitigate the effects of the region’s increasingly salty soil, which has ravaged crop production and worsened malnutrition.
Innovative distribution methods have meanwhile helped empower women like Begum across the country, says Awal, pointing to the company’s mini packets, which provide homestead farmers with a handful of assorted vegetable seeds. This allows them to use small areas of land to boost income, without forking out for large bags that will mostly go to waste.
When women start growing extra veg at home, it also improves their children’s diets, adds Awal: “They can sell some to the market, barter with their neighbours, but also keep some in the home.”
Despite the advances, there is still huge unmet demand for high-quality seeds in Bangladesh, says Deepthi Kolady, an agricultural economist at South Dakota State University. This has consequences across society: “When your seed quality is low and you put in all these resources, then wastage happens,” she says. “That yield gap is very high, so that translates into food supply, and prices, and farmers’ net income.”
To maximise the benefits of private research, government must also play a role, says Kolady. Beefing up and enforcing copyright law is an obvious first step, she says, since rife intellectual property theft is likely deterring would-be investors. Lal Teer reports losing 25-30% of sales to fakes, for example.
The advance of climate change also adds urgency – a challenge Lal Teer is well aware of. As well as breeding more resilient seeds, it has piloted a platform called Lal Teer Geobis that uses satellite data to SMS farmers with early weather and soil-related warnings, and offers advice, via an app and call centre, on problems such as how to deal with particular pests. So far it has registered approximately 900,000 farmers.
An early customer, Shahinul Islam Bokul, has already seen the benefits: when intensive Cyclone Fani hit the Bay of Bengal in April, Lal Teer’s advance warning and advice allowed him to take action to save his bitter gourd crop, and help other local farmers do the same, he says. For Bokul, such progress offers hope for the future: he has set up a farmers’ club in his village, which meets regularly to share the latest technology.
Lal Teer’s Anam, too, is optimistic, in particular thanks to the enthusiasm for farming he sees among educated young Bangladeshis. “Today, many of our farmers’ families – sons, daughters – are taking undergraduate degrees or even a master’s, and then they are going back to the fields,” he says. “That’s a very bright sign.”