This time we visit a relatively new NGO named ARSHI, which means mirror. ARSHI is located in Shahapur, in the Damuria sub-district of Khulna. A group of both women and men are sitting on mats waiting for us. There is a row of plastic chairs for the visitors, but my host suggests they remove the chairs and give us a mat to sit on, so we are all level.
Apart from the 'officials' (the ARSHI Director & his side-kick), the meeting is attended by a variety of women and men, consisting of farmers -- including fish farmers who cultivate tiger and white prawns in the local ponds -- and micro entrepreneurs who function as 'middle man' marketers of the local product. Generally the men plant the crop (vegetables and paddy rice for own consumption) and the women process the crops.
This community makes its income from purchasing muri rice from the market and turning it into puffed rice. They buy 100 kg of muri rice @ 3600 Taka (100 Taka is approx. A$1,50) which they process overnight and end up with approx 90 kg of puffed rice which they sell at market for 4000 Taka. They loose about 200 Taka in production costs (buying fire wood, etc.) and end up with a profit of about 200 Taka, which does not take into account the highly intensive labour by the women who spent 12-14 hours of slaving over a hot pot stirring the rice until it pops -- nor the many, many miles it takes the men to paddle their bicycles back and forth to the market. The marketers generally do not have market information and often do not get a fair/high price for their product. At present this is not a sustainable way to live and the community members talk about the need and their wish to diversify into poultry and livestock -- for 'cow fattening' purposes -- so they can sell meat at market. But they are unable to diversify without micro credit.
Micro credit has been touted as the best thing since sliced bread -- earning the man who established the Grameen Bank world fame and a Nobel Price -- but micro entrepreneurs on the ground tell a disturbing tale. The real micro credit story appears to be a vicious cycle of poverty and the farmers of this community express great trepedation about taking on a micro credit loan. They explain that loan conditions are harsh and inflexibile, with interest payments running between 25%-33% (and can sometimes go as high as 80% as they continue to pay interest on the initial loan amount) with repayment starting immediately upon receipt of the loan and collectors visiting the village weekly to collect. This puts enormous psychological pressure on the farmers, hampering their daily work as they live in fear of losing the little that they have. One woman tells how she would dearly like to see her daughter graduate from school (which is free for girls up to grade 11, but graduation costs money), but she is unwilling to take on a micro credit loan as she is fearful of losing everything. For micro credit to work, loans need to be flexible and interest payments need to be adjusted.
At this point in time the community is not organised as a coop and it is every (wo)man for him/herself. They are hard workers and it would make sense for them to pool their resources. Literacy rate is about 25% and a few people have a mobile phone. There are no computers and no connectivity. Even if there was enough credit to diversify, this community would benefit if it had access to knowledge on how to improve their production and fish farming processes. For now, the only option for members of this community is to continue doing what they do best: puffing rice and being agri-preneurs.