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Independent.ie

Thursday 19 April 2018

The Irish man who swapped the corporate world to help lift 100,000 Bangladesh farmers out of poverty

Mike Palmer getting feedback from a farmer's group in the Rangpur region of Bangladesh. Photo: Abir Abdullah
Mike Palmer getting feedback from a farmer's group in the Rangpur region of Bangladesh. Photo: Abir Abdullah

Majella O’Sullivan

Getting off the corporate treadmill was a motivating factor for Mike Palmer to move to Bangladesh where he has been helping farmers.

The business development expert from Innishannon, Co Cork has been using his skills to develop agriculture in rural Bangladesh, where holdings average from around one-tenth of an acre to one acre.

Using more than 20 years experience in high-profile leadership roles across the public and private sectors, Mr Palmer is now using the same skills to help impoverished farmers grow their business and source markets.

"When I was younger I had dreams that I was going to get off this treadmill of the corporate world and try to buy a bit of land and settle down and live the good life, but some of that desire faded over time, I suppose," he says.

It was some years later and when he had his family almost raised that life took another turn.

"I had been working in the technology space but during the course of my career I did a Masters in Business Administration and started to think about doing development work at some time in the future," he said.

Bangladeshi farmer sitting on a boat, picking water lily Munshigonj, Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi farmer sitting on a boat, picking water lily Munshigonj, Bangladesh.

"As the MBA progressed, I realised 50pc of it was common to the MSc in International Development Management so I chose to just keep studying."

When the company he was working for began restructuring, redundancy presented the opportunity for a career change.

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"When I finished up main stream employment I began looking around in the development space for work opportunities and I quickly found out that all my wonderful corporate experience was not quite useless, but not quite as fabulous as I had thought."

Realising that fieldwork was going to be very different from a corporate office, Mike was keen to gain experience and got in touch with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) in Dublin, an international development organisation fighting poverty in 24 countries.

He had a conversation with VSO Ireland, signalling his interest if any suitable opportunity came up.

"Lo and behold, something did come up," he added. "I never dreamed it would be in Bangladesh but when I was offered the opportunity I said, 'yes' and here I am."

Women are working to dry the red chillies in the sariakandi, Bogra.
Women are working to dry the red chillies in the sariakandi, Bogra.

In early 2016, he began working on one of VSO's Growing Together partnerships.

The Growing Together partnership was developed with corporate partner, Syngenta, a Swiss agrichemical and seed company, and aims to improve the livelihoods of 10,000 smallholder farmers in Bangladesh.

"When I came over first the project was focussed in the Sundarbans area, which is a province in the south west coast, where soil erosion near the Bay of Bengal with water rushing down from the Himalayas have combined to create a salinity in the soil so that places that used to grow rice are no longer capable of it," he said.

Farmers have had to adapt and have turned their old rice paddies into aquaculture ponds.

People are processing jute on in Dhaka, Bangladesh
People are processing jute on in Dhaka, Bangladesh

"The programme was particularly focussed on getting women in aquaculture to develop business models and bring income into their households.

"This gave the family a better livelihood but also gave them more decision-making power in the community, a better standing and real confidence in themselves," he said.

To date, the programme has had excellent results with some farmers reporting an increase of 80pc on vegetable yields.

This year, the Growing Together partnership reached 10,000 farming households in Rangpur, with potato farmers reporting close to an average 200pc increase in yield and an even larger increase in prices.

Almost half of Bangladeshis rely on agriculture for their livelihoods but climate change, land scarcity and poor access to markets keep 36pc of people in rural areas below the poverty line.

Too few smallholder farmers grow enough food to satisfy themselves and their families, let alone sell any surplus for profit. Food security is a growing cause for concern.

Using their collective expertise, VSO and Syngenta are working together on a three-year partnership to sustainably improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Bangladesh.

Farmers are trained in good agricultural practice with 90pc reporting a 50pc increase in their incomes.

'Farmer hubs' or centres have allowed farmers to secure contracts with private sector companies that guarantee an agreed price.

Mike admits his expertise has come from the business rather than the agricultural side and he helps farmers develop business plans for their enterprises.

"What I do is look at what these people are doing and how that can be assembled into a business case so that we can go to financial institutions and get access to finance for the ultra poor and marginalised so they can expand what they're doing and lift themselves out of poverty."

He says Bangladesh is a country with many banks and financial institutions and micro finance loans available but a lot of that is out of the reach of people living in remote corners of the country.

"What we're able to do is make connections between them and the banks by presenting their business activity as a successful venture and the sector they're offering it in as one of the key potential export markets for Bangladesh," he added.

Currently, Mike is based in Dhaka and working with six VSO sponsored farm centres in the north of the country.

He's trying to encourage the farm centres to go out to the farm gates and collect the product, which can then be marketed to the bigger traders in Dhaka or the larger regional city markets.

"The farmers in the north in impoverished areas are feeding their families from a tenth of an acre but are actually making a go of it and are trying to get their product as a collective unit, like a cooperative, so it looks like a bigger producing farm. "The large traders begin to recognise that we're there and we're going to be there every day and that they can depend on the product and it's high quality, using sustainable practices with the right level of protection.

"They understand that we're going to get good product for them at a fair price, for both the farmer and the trader," he said.

Challenges

One of the challenges for him is to convince farmers to release more product steadily and more often, to ensure supply.

The tendency in Bangladesh is for farmers to store their product and only sell it when they require cash.

There is also reluctance on the part of the person collecting the goods that they do not want to be the ones "caught" with it at the end of the day.

"We recognise that as a big fear but we need to turn the farm centre managers into entrepreneurs and deal makers so that in the morning the first thing they're doing is ringing their trade partners.

"We're trying to get them to think with a little more risk and salesmanship to make sure the farmers' product is going to make its way to the market.

"We need to get them to think about planning, projecting and forecasting but the closer you are to poverty, the more you think about today and possibly about tomorrow.

"You don't necessarily have the luxury to be thinking about two weeks, two months or two years ahead.

Mike says the impact of VSO's Growing Together project is incredibly impressive.

But it's only a job done well when he has made himself redundant.

"What we hope to see is 100,000 farmers involved in five years and we're transitioning from a project to a registered social enterprise," he added.

He's aiming to make each of the farm centres he's working with a profitable business but also with a social function, providing a community centre with health clinics and youth clubs, managed and used by local people.

Fighting poverty in 24 countries

VSO Ireland is part of an international development organisation that recruits volunteers to fight poverty in the developing world.

The organisation works directly with local partners in the core development areas of health, education and livelihoods.

It has opportunities on volunteer projects in 24 countries in Africa and Asia. Every placement is unique, and volunteers with a wide range of skills are recruited. It has been working in Bangladesh since 1974.

To volunteer, you need both professional experience and qualifications. The majority of placements are for a minimum of 12 months, but some shorter placements are available.

Volunteers work with households and communities to increase their bargaining power, enhance profits and improve their access to markets.

All VSO volunteers receive a comprehensive support package, including flights, accommodation, immunisations and anti-malarials, medical insurance, training and a monthly allowance.

It is funded by the Irish Government through Irish Aid, donations from individuals, corporate partners, trusts and foundations.

To see current volunteer vacancies or to find out more about VSO Ireland, visit www.vso.ie/volunteer/vacancies.


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