While Bangladesh has made significant progress in reducing undernutrition in recent years, a large proportion of the population still do not consume enough vitamin A, iron and zinc to meet nutritional requirements.
In rural areas, more than 30% of the population is stunted, 29% are underweight and 21% are wasted. Young children, pregnant and lactating women are particularly at risk.
The first 1,000 days of life from conception to around two years of age is a critical window during which children must receive adequate nutrition. Without sufficient nutrients, they risk stunting or inhibited brain development and cognition. These are irreversible and make it difficult for them to learn at school and perform at work later in life.
"In the past I had to purchase all my food. I could not always eat mola, but now I can have it whenever I desire. I consume a lot of my vegetables, more than required.” - Shushila Mondal, fish farmer.
To help improve nutrition security in rural, Bangladesh two USAID-funded projects, the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia Bangladesh (CSISA-BD) and the Aquaculture for Income and Nutrition (AIN) project, are providing training and inputs to help families cultivate micronutrient-rich small fish and vegetables.
Indigenous small fish species such as mola (Amblypharyngodon mola) have been found to be particularly rich inmicronutrients and highly nutritious as they can be eaten whole including the heads, organs and bones. Similarly, the roots and leaves of orange sweet potato (OSP) are rich in vitamin A and can be easily grown around the banks of the pond.
Women were key targets for the projects as they generally play the primary role in homestead vegetable gardening, are more vulnerable to undernutrition than men, and are typically responsible for cooking for the family.
“Despite having the land and pond earlier, I could not utilize it for fish farming and I purchased fish instead. I was unaware of the possibilities,” says Shushila Mondal from Milemara village, Khulna district.
Shushila is one of 3,921 women farmers to date to receive training from CSISA-BD on vegetable farming, and polyculture of mola with larger fish species like carps – covering all aspects from pond preparation, to feeding and frequent harvesting techniques, along with nutrition and gender awareness.
Following a two-day training session and receiving mola fry, OSP vines and vegetable seeds from the project, Shushila went on to produce 29kg of sweet potato roots, 22kg of OSP leaves, 80kg of vegetables and 2.5kg of mola from January to July 2015.
“In the past I had to purchase all my food. I could not always eat mola, but now I can have it whenever I desire… I consume a lot of my vegetables, more than required,” adds the mother-of-two.
Similarly, AIN has also provided vegetables seeds, mola fry and OSP vines to farmers in the neighboring Bagerhat district, along with training on mola polyculture and vegetable cultivation for household consumption.
A key focus of AIN’s work is providing education on nutrition, and teaching women in particular how to prepare and cook the mola whole to maximize the nutritional value. A key element of the workshops focuses on the importance of consuming a nutritious diet during pregnancy and lactation and introducing complimentary foods to infants after six months of age.
“We learned how to farm fish in the pond, grow vegetables… the benefits of mola, how to cook the fish and more,” explains Shuily Shingho, who participated in the AIN training alongside 25 other women in Mailmara village, Bagerhat.
“After catching the mola with our gill net, we consume most of it and sell the rest… Whatever I've learned, I share the knowledge with those who don't know, including how to prepare and feed it to the children,” she adds.
Since 2014, the projects have collectively provided training on small fish, vegetable and orange sweet potato farming to 68,584 participants.