Salma Akhter, a member of an agriculture cooperative in northern Bangladesh, has been extremely busy the past four months – since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she has been volunteering to run a ‘virtual call center’ in her sub-district, helping connect rural farmers with suppliers and buyers. Farmer members call her on her mobile phone to place orders for seeds and fertilizer and to sell their produce including rice, vegetables, milk and fish.
Single-person rickshaw vans transport the aggregated goods, and payments are made through mobile transfers, substantially reducing the risk of transmitting the coronavirus.
The COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh impacted food supply chains, especially in the informal and unorganized sector in rural areas. The lockdown impacted food accessibility, agriculture input supplies, jobs and farmer income. With disrupted local food supply chains and limited storage capacity, farmers became desperate to sell their produce, especially perishables.
Establishing Virtual Call Centers
This is where Producer Organizations (POs) stepped in. The POs were created as part of the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program’s Missing Middle Initiative, supervised by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The POs started 57 ‘Virtual Call Centers’ (VCCs) in eight high-poverty districts to directly benefit farmer members.The VCCs, each operated by a volunteer like Salma, use this database to facilitate purchase of agricultural inputs and services, and sale of produce.
The POs work closely with local authorities to ensure uninterrupted transport of produce during the shutdown. Transparent governance and simple accounting methods have been put in place. In addition to using mobile transfers like bKash, Rocket and Nagad to avoid paper currency transactions, the POs use Facebook and Messenger to share information and transaction records daily and Zoom to organize regular virtual meetings.
Open Foris Collect Mobile is used to gather transaction data, which is regularly posted on the MMI Bangladesh A2F+ project’s website.
Through the virtual call centers, farmers have sold products worth more than Taka 34.4 million to buyers including private companies.
Improving livelihoods of farmers
As of first week of August,VCC farmers have sold products worth more than Taka 34.4 million to buyers including private companies - PRAN, Rangpur Diary and Bombay Sweets; and purchased essential agriculture inputs worth Taka 5.9 million from suppliers. Participating farmers received on average higher prices when selling produce via VCC and post-harvest loss - especially of perishables - was significantly reduced.
Embracing different technologies – mobile phones, web-based messaging service, digital money, and online meeting platforms - combined with transparent governance, simple record-keeping and effective coordination, this approach has ensured that rural food supply chains in Bangladesh have operated effectively even in the midst of a global pandemic.
What we can learn
Here are some key learnings we can gain from this initiative:
- Availability of Technology: Connectivity and affordability of mobile phones and internet services are crucial. The government’s past initiatives to develop the ICT service sector and move the country toward ‘Digital Bangladesh’ has also helped facilitate the rapid implementation.
- Ownership: The virtual call center approach was designed and implemented by farmer members of the POs, which fostered ownership of the initiative.
- Rapid Response: The POs acted rapidly to establish the virtual eco-system by maintaining transparency, accountability and good governance. This helped build confidence among farmers, suppliers and buyers including private companies and facilitated implementation within a short period.
- Rural Logistics: In addition to digital technology, reliable rural logistics, like the rickshaw van for transporting agriculture produce, was instrumental.
- Coordination: Timely coordination between POs, suppliers, off takers, local authorities including law enforcement agencies enabled green channels to be established for safe and uninterrupted transport of produce.
- Disintermediation: This approach significantly reduced intermediaries in the rural food supply chain and directly connected farmers to consumers.
Livestock and Dairy Development Project that has adopted the VCC approach to support farmers through its emergency action plan.A good example of this is the World Bank-funded
With effective use of technology, these virtual call centers have proven that it is possible to both save lives and maintain livelihoods during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the process, turn a crisis into an opportunity.