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‘A handful of rice’ helps women keep Bangladesh’s indigenous community afloat

DHAKA: When Doli Barman founded the first food bank in the village of Kawapara in northern Bangladesh two years ago, she wanted to ensure that her community would be free from hunger in times of crisis.

The impoverished area of ​​Niamotpur in Naogaon district, an area inhabited by some 6,000 landless indigenous people, has often suffered from food emergencies.

The food bank’s simple idea, called Musti Chal (“a handful of rice”), has already helped it stay afloat during one of the biggest crises of recent years – the coronavirus disease pandemic ( COVID-19) – and now empowers local women to make small investments and become self-sufficient.

“One of the main goals of this food bank was to extend support to group members during times of crisis,” Barman told Arab News.

Musti Chal was established just months before Bangladesh entered its first COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. In communities like Barman’s, which depend on daily wage labor, pandemic-imposed shutdowns have deprived good many of their livelihoods, increasing the country’s poverty rate to over 40% from 20% before the outbreak.

“Our people were saved from starvation,” Barman said. “From the food bank, we lent rice to community members, which they later repaid.”

In her village, the food bank is now managed by 30 women. They saved a handful of rice from their kitchen every day. After a week, they collect all the remaining rice and sell some of it. They save the money they have earned and, after a while, invest it together in small projects like fish farming and pets, which generate additional income.

They also lend money to community members with little or no interest, preventing them from getting into debt by borrowing from loan sharks.

“This is how the food bank serves the community. We want to grow together,” Barman said. “Now that I have the food bank, I’m much more confident than before. Before, I felt quite helpless every time I fell into a fit.

Together with other Musti Chal members, she has now managed to save around $250, which the women want to allocate for investment. This week, she says, they are going to buy some cattle to raise.

In running the food bank, Bartender’s group received training from the Borendro Development Organization, a local non-governmental organization funded by the Manusher Jonno Foundation, which helps uplift indigenous communities in the area and helped create similar food banks in other villages.

“Initially, we provided training and logistics to the participants for running the food bank,” project coordinator Mohammed Anwar Hossain told Arab News. “Each group meets once a week to review their accomplishments and discuss future plans. We have a plan to expand additional support to groups to increase the fund, which will help Indigenous peoples achieve financial independence.

In Chargasa Vutkuri, a neighboring village of Barman’s, women are already considering expansion.

“Now we plan to rent a pond for fish farming in the locality. There is also a plan to buy cattle,” she said. “All of our 25 members are now growing together as one big family. We understand that the strength of unity will provide us with enormous potential for growth.