Most Significant Change and the ‘precious gift’ of worms

Vermicompost. Hat Gobindo Pur, Faridpur, Bangladesh

Vermicompost. Hat Gobindo Pur, Faridpur, Bangladesh

Following-on from his last post, George Williams talks us through a more personal story from our work with women workers in Southern Bangladesh.

In many respects Traidcraft Exchange’s programme work lends itself to quantitative measures of change. For example, improvement in income level is fundamental to much of our work with smallholder farmers and vulnerable workers. It’s certainly not the be all and end all, but it’s critical for most. Similarly, improvements in productivity, in access to higher-value markets, in linkages with social security schemes, all lend themselves to numbers-based reporting. But as someone infinitely wiser than me once said,

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. 

With this ethos in mind, for our recent independent evaluation of the JEWEL work with vulnerable women workers in Southern Bangladesh, we decided to request a more qualitative approach to understanding impact. We commissioned our evaluators to utilise the ‘Most Significant Change’ (MSC) approach to evaluating impact. They still verified the quantitative data we’ve been using to monitor progress across the project’s four years – one of the key achievements of which I blogged about previously, a 30% increase in pay! – but as specified by the MSC approach, the evaluation was primarily orientated around understanding more deeply the stories of change that project participants themselves recount as ‘most significant’. 

The report makes for fascinating reading. I thought I would share some extracts from one of the stories of change that jumped out at me.

Rosina Begum (name changed for the purposes of confidentiality)

Rosina Begum and her husband don’t have enough land to grow crops of their own. Prior to joining JEWEL, the family had fallen into arrears on loans borrowed from local micro-finance initiatives – a common occurrence in rural Bangladesh.  

Through membership of one of the women’s groups established through JEWEL, Rosina received training on various income generating activities that are feasible for landless households. At the same time, Rosina’s group initiated a savings and loans scheme utilising Traidcraft Exchange Bangladesh’s pioneering model that is orientated towards supporting investment in productive micro-enterprise. Rosina borrowed funds from the group and invested in a goat. With the help of the newly-gained technical knowledge, she fattened the goat for four months, sold it at a profit, and bought two more goats. After several cycles of purchasing, fattening and selling, Rosina now has a small herd of eight cows! A significant set of assets for a landless household.

But crucially, not only are the cows a source of income and nutrition for the family, they provide the raw material needed for Rosina’s main business enterprise:

I used to throw away these cow dungs before, but now I use those as the raw material of my main earning source.

When she first joined the group, Rosina received training on the production and marketing of ‘vermicompost’ - compost produced with the help of worms. As Rosina explained, at first, she wasn’t too impressed by this prospect!

I was given a small stock of 250 earthworms by this project. I was a bit disappointed at first and was wondering what good on earth these earthworms would do to my fate. I didn’t know back then that these earthworms would be the most precious gift that I’ve ever received in my life!

It has been more than two years since Rosina started producing vermicompost in her backyard. She produces 1000 Kg of compost every month. Despite initial scepticism within the community about this form of organic fertiliser (the community was accustomed to believe that chemical inputs are the only effective means of increasing production), sales have been increasing and she now makes around 10,000 BDT (about £95) a month by selling vermicompost to her fellow group members and other community members. Customers are very satisfied with the improved health of their soils and diets have improved locally as community members now grow and consume more vegetables. In Rosina’s words,

Most of our group members have been using vermicompost in their vegetable production. Other community people are also increasingly buying my composts nowadays. I often go to their fields to see how my compost worked; it brings joy to my eyes when I see their fields full of bustling greens.  My customers now brag about their healthy vegetables, high yield and how high price they are getting now from sales of those! They also say that their fertilizer cost significantly reduced than before.

Rosina’s story provides a short illustration of two simple but important aspects of Traidcraft Exchange’s work. Firstly, that what counts encompasses both what can be counted, and what can’t. And secondly, what may be a ‘most significant change’ for one person will often have wider impacts for many other people around her or him.

George Williams is Traidcraft Exchange’s Impact and Learning Manager

Get in touch at programmes@traidcraft.org

Tom Sharman