In Bangladesh, Pumpkin Plus transforms rural lives through the innovative technology of growing crops on sandbars. They are a finalist for the 2024 Food Planet Prize.

KURIGRAM, Bangladesh –

Bangladesh sits on the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, crisscrossed by the Padma, Brahmaputra, Meghna and Karnaful rivers. Though rivers have long been lifelines for the communities setting up shelters along their shores, the past decades have brought about destructive change. Riverbank erosion has cost the local population their homes and agricultural lands threatening their food security, and livelihood.

Mosammad Apruza is one of those locals. Married at 16, and now mother to three children, Apruza makes a little over $100 per month as a farmer in Bongram village located on the Brahmaputra river bank in Bangladesh’s Kurigram district, one of the districts most affected by river erosion.

Pumpkin Plus farmers work in a sandy field in January.

Riverbank erosion causes people to lose land—and to then move house. When the water recedes, a temporary landmass of riverine sand and silt called chars emerges. This newly exposed land typically belongs to the Bangladesh government. In some cases, there are land disputes where people have official documents showing the land originally belonged to them. Since the lands are shifting due to river erosion, the original land records don’t always match. In those unsure cases, the government often leases the land to farmers for agricultural purposes.

Apruza has long been growing fruits and vegetables for her family on these transitional sandbars; she sells any surplus to make extra money. It has been a meager supplement, but last year, she got a bit of good news. She was invited to join an innovative project from the World Food Programme (WFP) and Bangladesh-based non-profit National Development Programme in partnership with Pumpkin Plus—an agribusiness company that aims to transform rural lives by increasing the production of farming on the chars.

In Bangladesh, chars, or shifting landmasses of riverine, sand, and silt, are home to millions of people.

Nazmul Islam Chowdhury, an agriculturist by training, founded Pumpkin Plus in 2018 and is the organization’s CEO. The idea came to him over a decade earlier, when he was walking with some local children on char land in 2004 during his association with non-profit Practical Action. “When I saw the end of the embankment close to the water channel, it suddenly struck me that it was possible to grow crops on this and make it profitable for farmers,” he recalls. A year later, he started supporting farmers through Practical Action; through the next decade, their objective sharpened to help farmers steeped in poverty grow high-nutrition crops such as pumpkin on sandbars during the dry season.

Sand, of course, is not fertile land. The innovation of Pumpkin Plus lies in its planting technique. Farmers dig a 1×1 foot pit filled with a combination of silt and 10-12 kg of cow dung. This helps the pits retain water and become temporarily fertile to grow crops. They then plant pumpkin seeds that Pumpkin Plus sells them. And from October to April, the sandbars bloom with pumpkin.

Pumpkin Plus founder A.Z.M Nazmul Islam Chowdhury travels with villagers by boat to visit the pumpkin fields.

The first stage is laborious, and often threatened by climate disasters, including sudden sandstorms and floods. But the technique has proven resilient: In the case of sandstorms, for example, Pumpkin Plus helps farmers protect the crops with plastic sheets that stabilize saplings so strong winds can’t uproot them.

Chowdhury describes growing pumpkins on sandbars as a “fight against poverty.” His conversations are peppered with pumpkin recipes. “I call pumpkin a golden magic ball, and a vehicle for change. It is high in nutrition and can be added to a variety of dishes in our local cuisine to fight poor nutrition levels,” says Chowdhury. Bangladesh ranks seventh in the world among countries most affected by the climate crisis, and the country is severely affected by food insecurity. According to the WFP, 40 million people in Bangladesh suffer from hunger, and 11 million from acute hunger.

A farmer inspects his pumpkin field. Pumpkins are particularly hardy crops that can grow in difficult conditions.

Each disaster left us poorer and more devastated. When the organization gave us a demonstration that we could grow pumpkins in pits and earn a living, I could not believe it was a possibility,” Apruza says. But the results were impressive: “I earned around 45,000 BDT ($410 USD) in one season of growing pumpkins.” Apruza is just one of 1,895 smallholder agri-entrepreneurs that have been trained by Pumpkin Plus in the last five years.

The earnings have helped Apruza diversify her income— she now also raises cows and earns money from selling their milk. The day we visit Apruza, first at her work site, and later at her home, she shows us a new pumpkin she had harvested. “It will see me through the next three days,” she says. “I will add it to my fish curry today, and make vegetables with it on other days.”

Farmer Shewly waters her pumpkins (right), and farmer Farmer Mossamat Afroja holds up her son, and a pumpkin (left).

While other crops can be grown on sandbars, Chowdhury notes that pumpkins are particularly hardy and can be easily stored. But he’s also realized that farmers benefit from rotating their crops and experimenting with other vegetables like squash. “Hence the ‘plus’ in our company name. We have to keep reinventing with time,” says Chowdhury.

That includes expanding beyond just farming. Pumpkin Plus’s current scope of work involves typically procuring seeds and then selling them to farmers at a price lower than the market rate, and, when possible, facilitating the sale of pumpkins. It also provides consultancy services to government bodies, profitable organizations, and nonprofits. “We pivoted to a business model as this is the way this innovation can be scaled up and made mainstream,” says Chowdhury. “A commercial venture would mean this innovation can be replicated and made profitable nationally and in cross-boundary ventures.”

Thirty-two-year-old Mohammad Rabiul Islam’s story is one of resilience, and something of a success story for Chowdhury’s mission. As a teenager, Islam migrated from his village Taluk Shahbaz in Rangpur district to the southeastern city of Feni, over 450 km away. He worked in other people’s farms, earning around 4,000 BDT ($36 USD) a month—paltry compared to the amount of money he now makes as a farmer. In 2010, he saw that people in his village were growing pumpkins in the char. He decided to give it a shot.

Steady, well-paying work can be difficult to come by. Here, day labourers transport bags of rice in Char Udne.

An emotional Islam recounts how growing pumpkins helped his family fight poverty. “We were steeped in poverty as a family. Now, things are different,” says Islam with tears in his eyes. He credits Chowdhury for teaching him the technique of sandbar cropping and changing his life under his mentorship.

Over a decade later, Islam now has over a dozen daily wage laborers working on his field during the busy season. He pays female daily wage laborers 250 BDT ($2.28), and men 420 BDT ($3.83) per day (gender discrimination is still an issue in the labor force). He advises his neighbors on pumpkin seeds, and also facilitates the market sale of other farmers’ pumpkins at a marginal profit.

Last year, a viral disease impeded Islam’s pumpkin production. But instead of simply submitting to this turn of bad luck, Islam decided to do his own research, spending 70,000 BDT ($638) on seeds, plus fertilizer and labor. He sold his pumpkins this year for 0.6 million BDT ($5,468). “The profit is almost double of what I earned last year,” he notes.

Villagers work in the char fields.

Most importantly, Islam became a leader through the viral disease crisis. “This year, I purchased a different variety of seed and have had no issues so far. I also introduced other farmers in the area to the new seed varieties,” says Islam.

For Chowdhury, the primary objective of Pumpkin Plus had always been to “help people help themselves.” “Now, our main objective is imparting hands-on knowledge to them and making them future leaders,” he says.

Scaling up has brought some challenges, though. While a viral infestation on a crop is determined by multiple factors, a few farmers who bought seeds from Pumpkin Plus reported their produce suffered from a viral disease. Pumpkin Plus suggested a replacement, but farmers, beholden to market demand, were keen to continue with the same variety. Chowdhury took up the issue with the seed supplier, and the farmers will be switching seeds in the next season. “We will be closely monitoring the production, and take accountability for this,” he says. “We have also informed the company in Thailand from whom we procured the seeds via an importer.” These are important steps; the long-lived project relies on the trust of the community it serves.

Pumpkins are a particularly hardy crop, making them ideal for farmers in precarious climate conditions.

For Apruza and other female farmers, the focus now is on expanding their production. They want to have steady incomes to supplement their husbands’ incomes, says Musammad Nurnahar Begum, who has three children.

“If we were eating one time in the past, we hope to have two meals a day in the future. We want our children to study well. We want to have enough money someday to be able to relocate to the city for a better future for our kids,” she says. “These are our aspirations.”