The chickens were too small.
That’s what Sir Fazle Hasan Abed thought when he looked at poultry grown by small family farmers in his native Bangladesh in the 1970s.
Compared to their commercial competitors, these chickens were scrawny and sickly little birds—and no way to keep poor people well fed. Growing bigger and healthier chickens became a goal of Abed’s anti-poverty group, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, now formally known as BRAC.
Later this year, Abed will be recognized as the 2015 World Food Prize laureate. He’ll formally receive his honor in Des Moines in October. I was able to attend this prestigious event in 2013 when I participated in the TATT Global Farmer Roundtable.
The World Food Prize is viewed globally as the Nobel Prize for agriculture. Conceived by Norman Borlaug, it recognizes an individual for lifelong efforts to improve the food supply. In years past, it has gone to scientists who develop better seeds through biotechnology, government officials who promote good farming, and humanitarians who bring food to the poor.
Abed is the founder of BRAC, the world’s largest non-governmental organization. Working in Bangladesh and 11 other countries, BRAC often is credited with lifting 150 million people out of poverty.
None of it would have happened without Abed’s vision and leadership—including his ability to look at undernourished chickens and think about how to make things better for ordinary people.
Born into a distinguished family in 1936, when the British Empire still ruled Bangladesh, Abed showed promise in school. He traveled to Scotland, where he studied naval architecture at the University of Glasgow. Then he became an accountant. In his early thirties, he returned to Bangladesh at the behest of his employer, Shell Oil. Abed was well on his way to becoming a corporate leader in the developing world.
Over the next two years, though, natural and unnatural disasters devastated Bangladesh—first a massive tropical cyclone, then a civil war. More than 3 million people died and another 10 million lost their homes.
After seeing the devastation, Abed quit his job and devoted himself to improving the lives of his impoverished countrymen. He started BRAC; determined to make it different from other agencies. Instead of handing out aid, and thereby encouraging dependence, BRAC would try to help people help themselves. It become active in the economic development of rural areas and made microloans available to people without capital. He understood and appreciated the contribution of small holders to food production and security.
From the start, BRAC has concentrated on agricultural and food security, collaborating with farmers to grow more crops and produce more livestock. The traditional tools of education and training are important, but BRAC always has understood that farmers also need access to technology.
The story about the chickens is instructive. Abed and his team knew that poultry farmers needed better feed and cheaper vaccines. So they encouraged the cultivation of corn as a reliable source of food. That was a fairly straightforward solution. Making vaccines more available required genuine creativity: BRAC invested in affordable vaccines and delivered them via bananas, which are widely available in Bangladesh.
“The result was a massive increase in productivity and efficiency in the poultry industry,” says the World Food Prize, on its website.
BRAC understands that improving crops requires scientific research, innovation, and a willingness to embrace new technologies. It has worked to develop rice that can tolerate salt water and flooding as well as corn and sunflowers for fallow areas. On my farm in South Africa, I have seen with my own eyes the difference that technology can make.
The positive influence of BRAC may have helped create the conditions for Bangladesh to become a leader in GM farming. It recently introduced pest-resistant brinjal (or eggplant)—the first GM food crop in South Asia.
“Everything we did in Bangladesh we did with one focus: getting poor people out of poverty because we feel that poverty is dehumanizing,” Abed recently told The Guardian newspaper.
If we hope to feed a planet of 9 billion people by 2050, we’ll need innovations and attitudes like these—as well as organizations like BRAC—to play leading roles.
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed—he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II five years ago—is a worthy recipient of this year’s World Food Prize.
I am hopeful that this important recognition will encourage others to focus on giving women and other poor people the tools they need to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty. It can change the world.
Eve Ntseoane is an emerging farmer, raising maize and beef cattle in Kaalfontein, Emfuleni Municipality in Gauteng Province, South Africa. Eve is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).