Persistence and profits pay off

Investing in female entrepreneurs improves livelihoods in Bangladesh

Renu Bala is one of thousands of Bangladeshi farmers befitting from agricultural investment programmes supported by FAO with funding from the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP). ©FAO/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan


Knocking on closed doors is something Renu Bala is very good at.

First, it was the doors of her neighbours in Panjor Bhanga, her home village in northern Bangladesh. She had an idea for them: what if they formed a milk cooperative?

They didn’t have much to lose. “The women of this village are very poor and raise only local Deshi cattle,” Renu explains. “I thought that if I could start a dairy business, and encourage other women to join, if I could make them aware, then we could all profit.”

In Panjor Bhanga, profit through agriculture is increasingly hard to come by as frequent flooding submerges farmland and roads. Bangladesh is one of the countries most threatened by the effects of climate change.

With this in mind, Renu Bala went from house to house and pitched her plan. Most of the women, and their husbands, were skeptical at first.

“Generally, the village women are very shy. That’s why it is very difficult to bring them all together,” she  says. “At first they thought we were trafficking women.”

But in the end, she won them over. By 2011, 15 women had joined the Panjor Bhanga Women’s Milk Cooperative. Their next challenge: finding a way to buy high-yielding cattle, especially when none of the women had sufficient collateral for a bank loan.

Renu Bala and her husband counting daily receipts from milk sales by the Panjor Bhanga Women’s Milk Cooperative. ©FAO/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan

In 2014, Renu Bala took part in a training programme led by FAO where she learned about a special credit policy in Bangladesh that provides loans to small dairy businesses at low interest rates and with long repayment periods.

But first, she had to find a bank that would lend to her under that policy. Her door-knocking skills and perseverance kicked in again. After many attempts, Renu Bala worked with FAO and received a loan from a local bank. 

With the money, the 15-member cooperative was able to buy high-yielding Friesian cows. From the sale of their first heifers, they paid back the loan and secured a new loan from another bank. By this time the cooperative had doubled in membership.

Renu Bala was one of over 5 500 farmers, government staff and agricultural technicians who took part in capacity development programmes led by FAO. ©FAO/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan

With the Friesian cows, milk production increased from up to two litres per cow, per day to over ten litres. The cooperative began selling the high-quality milk to local sweet shops and milk processing companies, generating precious income for the women - and collective savings for future investments.

It also earned Renu Bala national recognition for her work. In 2016, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh bestowed a national agricultural award on her for establishing and leading the cooperative.

The success of the cooperative has eased the women’s lives and given them a new sense of optimism. “This dairy business is very good for me and other women, because we can do it alongside other household chores,” Renu Bala says. “That’s why I really like the dairy business. Now we can earn money from home.”

Support for women entrepreneurs like Renu Bala and the Panjor Bhanga Women’s Milk Cooperative is set to continue through the Missing Middle Initiative (MMI) in Bangladesh, also funded by the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP). The MMI will help 50 farmer organizations around the country improve their access to financing, technology, value chains and markets.

Renu Bala’s story is one of many.

FAO has more than four decades of experience supporting investment policies, programmes and capacity development in Bangladesh, including working with farmer organizations. The evidence is clear; countries, like Bangladesh, that have consistently invested in agriculture have reaped the most benefits in boosting incomes whilst reducing hunger and malnutrition.

Investing in agriculture can transform lives, reduce hunger and malnutrition, and eliminate poverty. Working with international partners, FAO has contributed to over 2,000 agricultural and rural investment strategies, policies and programmes in more than 170 countries. FAO Investment Centre carries out the majority of this work.

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5. Gender equality, 8. Decent work and economic growth