Mohammad Serajul Islam (Shaikh)

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Bangladesh
Fellow since 1992
Impress Telefilm Ltd.
This description of Mohammad Serajul Islam (Shaikh)'s work was prepared when Mohammad Serajul Islam (Shaikh) was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992 .

Introduction

Serajul Islam, the creator of agricultural programming on Bangladesh television, is launching a national campaign to encourage millions of poor, rural residents to develop gardens on small plots of land. Such homestead gardening is poised to make impressive nutritional difference.

The New Idea

While tens of thousands of people die every year from the malnutrition resulting from food scarcity, research indicates that most Bangladeshi village homes have at least five square meters of land that is not used by the family. This land, however small, could be cultivated, producing enough vegetables to meet the nutritional requirements of a four to five person family or to provide additional income for the family. However, in order to take advantage of these small lands, farmers must learn certain basic agricultural techniques. Creative cultivation of such unused homestead land could easily gain widespread acceptance if properly publicized and taught to rural people. While Seraj has produced TV shows on these topics, the television system in Bangladesh has limited viewership and financial support to retain program tapes once broadcast. Seraj proposes to develop popular videotapes on the subject and spread them through grassroots citizen organizations, local administrations, agricultural clubs, local video libraries, and other points accessible to farmers throughout the country. This video link will disseminate his ideas directly to poor families in some cases and through a wide variety of intermediaries in others.
Once he constructs this network to reach the country's millions of poor households with his homestead farming message, he can of course continue to use it to help develop other opportunities, such as reforestation and animal husbandry.

The Problem

There are 775 Bangladeshis per square kilometer, a population density matched only on the island of Java. It is an overwhelmingly rural country, but there is only a tiny sliver of land per person, a sliver barely 100 by 100 feet. The population is expected to double by the year 2020.

Far too many Bangladeshis do not have enough to eat even now. The population, one of the world's poorest, needs new sources of food, especially food that is affordable and that can add nutritional variety to Bangladeshis' diet.

These objectives could easily be achieved if the population knew how to apply known and quite simple farming techniques.

However, they do not--and the existing extension mechanisms are not bridging the gap. The population is overwhelmingly illiterate, and its insecurity makes it understandably reluctant to experiment with the tiny farms that provide the narrow margin of livelihood on which they depend. The government's salaried extension workers are neither highly skilled nor highly motivated. In any case, they focus their work worldwide, as government extension workers do, on the few larger farmers who are more likely to respond and who are the local influentials.

The Strategy

Seraj's challenge is to open new, effective channels through which the farming innovations could reach tens of millions of villagers, making Bangladeshi life healthier and more hopeful. He is working intensively with farmers in the Comilla district to test, refine, and model his homestead vegetable cultivations. Having a thoroughly thought-out, well-designed, and grassroots-proven message is the first prerequisite of success.

After this initial pilot demonstration, he plans to encourage other villages to conduct their own sample project on barren land adjacent to one local area homestead. The success of these initial gardens should create a domino effect of emulation and change.

His chief hope in vaulting to national impact, however, is through the introduction of a video medium. He will videotape each stage of the year-long pilot program at Comilla, thereby making it possible for the pioneer farmers with whom he is working to reach their peers across the country and teach what they are demonstrating by example and practical application.

Using the contacts and popularity he has amassed through his TV work, Seraj hopes to persuade farmers' clubs, citizen organizations, local government, and video stores to use his videotapes. He would be particularly delighted if he could persuade some of the video stores to become regional distributors not only for his tapes but for others in critical allied subjects, such as the creation of small fisheries in abandoned ponds, health issues, and the environment.

Seraj will also complement the direct demonstration and video components of his approach with booklets and posters written in easy Bengali, heavily illustrated, and sold at very low prices. He will experiment with distributing them first through the schools and their headmasters.

The Person

Seraj, born and raised in Dhaka, graduated from Dhaka University with a master's degree in geography. Having chosen media as a career, he soon became a TV personality, video filmmaker, and freelance journalist. He has been connected with Bangladesh television for fourteen years, and his program Mati-O-Manush, the longest running program in Bangladesh, ran for ten years. In 1981, he received the Best TV Public Utility award from the Rotary Club. As he got in touch with villagers through his TV series production, he was taken by surprise that a country blessed with such high fertility was poorly utilized due to a lack of education about modern agricultural approaches.

Seraj, now armed with both the agricultural knowledge and the great skills as a journalist and television communicator he has built up over the last decade, hopes he can unlock the way to far faster changes in the country's methods of farming.