Improving food and nutrition security through homestead gardening in rural, urban and peri-urban areas in Bangladesh

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Improving food and nutrition security through homestead gardening in rural, urban and peri-urban areas in Bangladesh

Aminuzzaman Talukder1, Saskia de Pee1, Abu Taher2, Andrew Hall2, Regina Moench-Pfanner1, Martin W. Bloem1
1Helen Keller International, Asia-Pacific Regional Office, P.O. Box 4338, Jakarta Pusat, Indonesia 2Helen Keller International/Bangladesh, P.O. Box 6066, Gulshan, Dhaka-1212, Bangladesh

I. Introduction:
Malnutrition is a serious public health problem in Bangladesh. It retards child growth, increases the risk and duration of illness, reduces work output, and slows social and mental development. Malnutrition among women of reproductive age increases the risk of mortality during labor and delivery and puts their newborn children at risk of long-term deficiencies. Improving nutritional status, including micronutrient status, can lead to increased productivity, increased child survival and growth, and reduced maternal morbidity and mortality.
Three types of interventions are commonly employed to improve micronutrient status, namely: capsule/tablet supplementation, fortification of commonly consumed foods, and diet diversification. Diet diversification is arguably the most sustainable and affordable strategy to improve nutrition for the majority of the population -- particularly the poor. For poor households, vegetables and fruits are often the only source of micronutrients in the family diet. Homestead production of fruits and vegetables provides the household with direct access to important nutrients that may not be readily available or within their economic reach. Therefore, home gardening would be a good means to improve household food security. Equally important, home gardening has been shown to be a source of additional income, because the household can sell a portion of the garden’s produce. Studies suggest that this additional income is generally utilized to purchase supplementary food items, further increasing the diversification of the family’s diet. Home gardening is especially important in overcoming seasonal availability of foods and promoting household self-sufficiency.
Home gardening activities are centered on women and it can also increase the income of women, which may result in the better use of household resources and improved caring practices and empowerment. This empowerment of women also addresses a priority area of poverty alleviation and provides important socio-economic returns through lower health and welfare costs, lower fertility, and lower maternal and infant mortality rates. Thus, the simultaneous impact of home gardening programs in terms of giving women a voice and promoting their full participation in domestic life can make an important contribution to the overall development of communities.
HKI’s recent national vitamin A survey in rural Bangladesh showed that children of households without a homegarden were at greater risk of vitamin A deficiency than children of households with a homegarden, especially when neither of them had not recently received a high-dose vitamin A capsule (see fig 1).

igure1: Role of home gardening in the reduction of child night blindness, the first clinical sign of vitamin A deficiency (n=23,984)1

1 HG NO/VAC ­­– No home garden and not received vitamin A Capsule, HG YES/VAC – Have home garden and not received vitamin A Capsule, HG NO/VAC + – No home garden and received vitamin A Capsule, HG YES/VAC + – Have home garden and received vitamin A Capsule

II. Home Gardening
A. Description of home gardening
Home gardening is one of the world’s most ancient food production practices and is commonly practiced throughout the world (Landauer and Brazil, 1990). Traditional gardens often vary in size, bio-diversity and products and are adapted to local resources and cultural preferences. Home gardens, sometime referred to as mixed, backyard, kitchen, farmyard, roof top garden, compound or homestead gardens can be grouped into two basic categories – “traditional gardens” –those cultivated independent of any intervention - and “promoted gardens” – those receiving support from an outside organization. (Marsh, 1996) In tropical areas, gardens can support a wide variety of perennial and semi-perennial crops and trees that adapt well to local micro-climates and can be maintained with a limited amount of purchased inputs.
B. Types and combination of gardening practiced in South Asian Countries.
In Asia, the home garden system is common in Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India (Landauer and Brazil, 1990). Often referred to by different names, these gardens benefit family nutrition, increase household income, provide a buffer to food insecurity during lean season (agriculture off-season), provide habitat protection and soil conservation (Marsh 1996, Landauer and Brazil 1990). In Nepal, kitchen gardens are common and produce a variety of food and medicinal plants. In Bangladesh, rooftop gardening or “scattered” vegetable plants are commonly grown during the cool season. In Vietnam, a more integrated home production system is common where small animals; gardens and rice production are combined.
In addition to homestead production, gathering of wild vegetables for home consumption is also commonly practiced in some countries in south Asia.
C. Inventory of the kinds of fruits and vegetables that can be produced in home gardens
It is estimated that more than 60 varieties of fruits and vegetables are produced in Bangladesh. The type and mix of species chosen is dependent on household food preferences, soil and climatic conditions, and availability of local materials and seeds. Depending on water availability, gardening may be practiced year-round or limited to seasons. A wide variety of yellow and orange-colored vegetables and fruits are common in Bangladesh and other south Asian countries, as well as green leafy vegetables and tubers.
D. Consumption practices
Despite the common practice of gardening in Bangladesh, average vegetable consumption is well below the estimated minimum intake set by FAO of 200 grams per capita per day. Estimated consumption of vegetables is 32 grams. (Ramphal and H.S. Gill, 1990). In Bangladesh, consumption of fruits is very low and highly seasonal, and oil consumption, a requirement for adequate absorption of the beta-carotene, is also well below the recommended intake levels.

III. Role of Home Gardening in Improving Micronutrient Status
The production of fruits and vegetables provides the household with direct access to important nutrients that may not be readily available or within their economic reach. In addition, home gardening increases the diversity of foods, which in turn leads to overall better utilization of nutrients. Vegetables and fruits often make other foods more palatable and can lead to overall increase food intake and in their aim to improve overall quality of the diet, home garden address multiple micronutrient deficiencies simultaneously. Equally important, home gardening has been shown to be a source of additional income for the household through the sale of a percentage of the garden produce. Studies suggest that this additional income is generally utilized to purchase additional food items, further increasing the diversification of the diet. Finally, home gardening is especially important in overcoming seasonal availability of foods and promotes household self-sufficiency.

IV. Key Elements for developing successful home gardening
Here, we will describe the experiences of Helen Keller International (HKI) with its homestead gardening program in Bangladesh. HKI is an international NGO dedicated to the elimination of vitamin A deficiency and nutritional blindness and improving the conditions of visually impaired around the world.
A. Gardening Inputs
Access to the necessary inputs for gardening from a local, sustainable source is an important element for successful gardening. Such inputs include seeds, seedlings and saplings, a regular water supply, environmentally friendly soil improvement techniques and pest control, live fencing, and credit or capital as necessary.

  1. Community Participation

Involvement and participation of the community in project design, implementation and evaluation was a lesson from HKI’s very first experience in gardening in 1988. Having two-way channels for information exchange is instrumental for achieving sustainable, improved gardening practices. Villages, households and working groups of women formed and organized themselves and selected the group leader.

  1. Technical assistance, demonstration and training

Technical support is especially important when new gardening techniques are being promoted such as growing new or increased number of varieties or year-round vegetable production. Training and other group activities around a central demonstration garden can serve to demonstrate different varieties, hybrids or other important garden techniques such as live fencing, composting, use of natural pesticides, year round production etc.
D. Nutrition education and social marketing within the gardening activity
Experience shows that counseling to change feeding/eating behaviors is generally an important component of food-based strategies. Similar to understanding the indigenous approach to gardening, an understanding of the cultural context and feeding practices and constraints will guide nutrition education to achieve sustainable behavioral changes. The garden or nursery can also be utilized as a focal point for nutrition education and social marketing to promote increased consumption of micronutrient rich foods. In addition, messages about a variety of other the issues that influence nutrient absorption and overall health such as prevention of childhood illness, timing of meals/foods, intake of tea and other factors that inhibit nutrient absorption can be presented to households and discussed among mothers and household members.

E. Monitoring and evaluation
Monitoring serves as a tool for ensuring that activities are carried out as planned and to improve performance as required. It facilitates the identification of problems and the development of solutions based on sharing between the beneficiaries and the program managers. Indicators are dependent on the program objectives and should include some that can be monitored locally. Continued integration of lessons learned from implementation and evaluation efforts is one of the key aspects to the successful scale up of this program. Evaluation and planning was conducted at the key intervals during the program period to improve the program. Within this program system of implementation, evaluation and planning, HKI operates a similar review process with each of the NGO partners over the three-year program period through supervision and monitoring. For more details, see Talukder et al.
V. Constraints encountered
A number of program constraints were discovered during the pilot study through a continuous monitoring and evaluation system. First, households needed a regular supply of quality seed and other inputs, without which they were unable to sustain a change in gardening practices. In addition, HKI and counterparts identified other constraints to gardening – such as poor soil fertility, inadequate fencing and poor irrigation. Cultural beliefs about child feeding, food intake during pregnancy and intra-household food distribution that might hinder optimal benefits of the program were also identified during the pilot program. The crucial role women play in the program activities was also identified during the pilot program. Finally, in addition to the agriculture and nutrition-related issues that would be addressed in the development of a larger-scale home gardening program, the pilot team also identified the need for adequate management and human resources to implement a large-scale community program to increase the consumption of vitamin A rich foods.
At various stages during the implementation of the study and during the planning phase that followed the evaluation, the beneficiaries and the local non government organizations working in the pilot study area helped to identify and test practical solutions to these constraints. During the same time period, Helen Keller International/Bangladesh reviewed the ongoing gardening programs in Bangladesh to learn from others’ experiences. The result of this comprehensive evaluation and planning exercise was the basis of the development of the Bangladesh homestead gardening and nutrition education program.

VI. Case Study: Lessons from Bangladesh
In 1982/83, HKI/B in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, undertook a national nutrition blindness survey that confirmed that VAD was a serious problem among Bangladeshi pre-school children. In addition, the study found that children from households with home gardens were at less risk of xerophthalmia than were the children from households without a garden. Other information available at the time supported these findings. A nutrition survey by INFS found that 92% of vitamin A intake in Bangladesh is from vegetable sources and that 88% of all households had inadequate vitamin A intake. Information on vegetable production also corroborated these findings: Bangladesh produces only 25% of the requirement, 70% of which is produced in the 3-4 months cool season.
Stimulated by this information, HKI began a pilot gardening project in northwest Bangladesh in 1988 to test the effectiveness of the promotion of low-cost vegetable gardens combined with nutrition education. The project strategy was to improve the nutritional levels of the marginally landless and at-risk populations, particularly women and young children. Findings from the baseline suggested that seed availability was a major constraint and that increased varieties of vegetables in the garden was associated with increased intake (Bloem MW et al, Eur J Clin Nutr 1996). A mid-term evaluation in 1992 confirmed that the combined home gardening, nutrition education and gender aspects of the project had a very positive impact on vegetable consumption among women and young children. In addition, several initial findings from the gardening assessment about common indigenous gardening practices and key constraints to successful year-round gardening in Bangladesh were confirmed.
In 1993, Helen Keller International began a national expansion of this pilot program working in collaboration with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government organizations (GOs) across Bangladesh. The objectives of the project are to increase the number of households which sustainably produce DGLVs and fruits round the year, increase the number of households producing more varieties (at least 6) of vegetables, and increase the frequency of consumption of vitamin A rich food by the most vulnerable groups. HKI identifies local GO and NGO partners who have ongoing development programs, who have community linkages and work with women’s groups, and who have strong management capabilities. HKI provides training and technical assistance to the agriculturists and extension agents of the partner NGOs. Local partner NGOs work with their community groups to establish village level nurseries and homestead gardens. The village nurseries serve as a community support service network and are the focal point for demonstration and training for the group leaders and household gardeners on low-cost, low-risk garden practices. In addition, they are the source and distribution center for seeds, seedlings and saplings, demonstration of new plant varieties, and center for community mobilization and organization. In the expansion, each NGO is encouraged to form, per subdistrict, 45-60 village nurseries of approximately 20 decimals (800 sq. meter) each. Five to ten working groups of approximately 20 women each are formed per nursery to participate in the gardening program and a group leader or selected individual is identified to develop and manage the nursery. The group leader also facilitates nutrition and health education through peer education among the women’s groups. In the same way it works in the urban and peri-urban area where the nurseries were established at the slum level. Depending on the size/population of the slum, a certain number of groups are formed.
Technical assistance is provided by the NGO and HKI agriculturists and extension agents and nursery holders based on the needs of the households and nursery holders and it is designed to reinforce and improve existing positive gardening and consumption practices. All activities of the project are monitored in an interactive way by the nursery owners, households, the NGO partners and HKI. A quarterly monitoring survey of a random sample of the village nurseries and participating households is used to gather information on nursery development, production and distribution of vegetables and seeds, household level production and consumption. It is useful as a management tool for the NGOs and monitors overall progress of the program.
In collaboration with 51 partner NGOs and the GO, the NGO Gardening and Nutrition Education Surveillance Project (NGNESP) currently operates in 210 subdistricts throughout Bangladesh and reaches more than 800,000 households. In each sub-districts HKI works for three years and after that HKI phasing out and NGOs are continuing by themselves.

Figure 2. Home Gardening Model in Bangladesh

NGNESP Sub-District Model

Village nurseries are support services for the household garden
The majority of the village nurseries are income-generating activities for the owner. Seeds, seedling and sapling are produced in the nursery and sold to the household gardener. It is very important for the village nursery to produce seed, seedling and sapling for the households and to make a larger number of varieties available. Table 1 shows the status of village nurseries after their first year of activities. Experience with nurseries that had been operational for a longer time has shown that productivity increases and is therefore higher in the second and the third year after enrolment in the program (data not shown).
Table 1: Status of village nurseries in BD in 1999 (n=1200)

Nurseries that

Proportion (%)

Grow >10 varieties of vegetables


Produced >6 varieties of seeds in previous 3 months


Keep >6 varieties for seed production


Distributed seeds, seedlings and saplings in previous 3 months


Changes in gardening practices

From the regular monitoring data from 1997-1998 it has become evident that the program has increased the production and consumption of fruits and vegetables in the working areas. The observed changes in household gardening practices after one year of program participation are presented in Figure 3. This is the data from one of the groups of NGOs that started during 1997-1998. Household gardens are classified as ‘traditional’, ‘improved’ and ‘developed’1 based on a number of criteria. Approximately 75% of households were practicing homestead gardening but nearly 60% had a traditional garden at the start of the program. After one year of participation in NGNESP, the percentage of households who practiced year-round gardening (‘developed gardening’) had increased significantly from 3 percent to 33 percent (² test, p<.001). In addition, the percentage of households without a home garden decreased from 25 percent at baseline to less than 2 percent after one year (² test, p< .01).
igure 3. Shifting of gardening practices after one year of program participation in Bangladesh (n=622)

Changes in production and consumption

Figure 4 presents the frequency of vegetable consumption in the last 7 days for children, the number of vegetable varieties being produced, and the volume of production of vegetables in last 2 months by gardening practice. The data show that production and number of varieties being produced is highest among households who practice developed gardening. Children in households with developed gardens consume vitamin A-rich foods, such as green leafy vegetables and yellow fruits, more frequently than did children in households without a garden or with a traditional garden. The number of varieties and vegetable production was three times higher in developed garden than traditional garden and child consumption was 1.6 times higher.
Figure 4. Differences in vegetable production and consumption by garden type in BD during 1998-1999 (n=10,107)

Income from garden and utilization

Routine monitoring data showed that households earned on average Taka 100 bi-monthly (median value, approximately equivalent to US$ 2) by selling the fruits and vegetables. The principal use of this income is for food (Table 2). The households also use the income from fruit and vegetable sales to invest in seeds, seedlings, saplings, poultry or other income generating activities and nearly 10% households saved the income generated from the garden. The majority of gardens (73%) were managed by women and women are the main decision-makers regarding gardening practices and use of the income earned by selling garden produce.
Table 2: Main use of income earned by selling garden produce in BD during 1998-1999 (n= 10,107)

Household Commodities

Percent of households


Productive purposes














Social activities




VII. Discussion
Home gardening has been shown to be an important way to improve the intake of vitamin A-rich foods, particularly for poor households and in countries where plant foods are the main source of vitamin A. The pilot program was initiated to identify ways to improve the existing homestead gardening practices. Following the development of a community-based model, the program was scaled up by forming partnerships with local non government organizations. By implementing the program through NGOs, households continued to receive technical support for homestead gardening and the program could continue to expand without input and resources from HKI. From 1993 to the present the program has been expanded and to date has worked with more than 50 NGO and GO partners and reaches more than 800,000 households. Regular monitoring has demonstrated that the program successfully increases the production and consumption of vitamin A rich foods in the target households in both rural and urban areas. Recent findings from the national vitamin A survey have reconfirmed that children residing in households without a homestead garden are at greater risk of being night blind than are children residing in households without a homestead garden (Kiess et al). Working in collaboration with partner NGOs and the GO, the cost of this gardening approach was significantly decreased from the cost of the pilot project from US$39 per garden to less than US$ 8 per garden.

VIII. Conclusions and recommendation
When home gardening projects are developed which build on the traditional practices, local conditions and cultural context, they can be a sustainable means to improve micronutrient intakes of high-risk groups and improve household food security. In addition, home gardening programs can be implemented successfully and cost-effectively on a national-scale using a collaborative model that fits local conditions.

Women are the main care-takers of the garden, which empowers them, ensures better utilization of the income from the garden for food, and increases family welfare. All these benefits are important contributions towards poverty alleviation.

IX. Future of the Program

The program continues to expand in Bangladesh into new areas and to additional households in the current working areas. The gardening model has been adopted by the GOB’s Integrated Nutrition Program and has been part of a program of the Department of Agriculture Extension. In 1997, HKI started the phase-out of technical and financial support to NGOs who have received three years of support from HKI. Monitoring information from these areas one year after the withdraw shows that the households are maintaining their improved gardening practices and continue to consume fruits and vegetables more regularly. In addition to further expansion and refinement of the gardening program within Bangladesh, the approach described here is being used by HKI to develop homestead gardening programs in Cambodia, Nepal and Niger. Based on the important success and lesson learned as well as recent evidence that animal foods are a very good source or micronutrients and that their bioavailability is better than that of micronutrients of vegetables, HKI is planning to integrate other homestead food production schemes such as animal husbandry and fish, with its home gardening program. In addition, it is also planned to establish stronger linkages with commercial seed producers so that nursery owners will have better access to a good market for selling part of the seeds produced.
X. Acknowledgments
We wish to acknowledge our NGOs partners, who are truly partners in improving the social and economic development of poor households in rural and urban areas in Bangladesh. We express appreciation to the GOB, particularly the Department of Agriculture Extension, which has facilitated and supported the program in the field implementation and in policy discussions. We also acknowledge support from other organizations working on food production in Bangladesh such as the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Asian Vegetable Development and Research Center. We gratefully recognize the generous financial support from USAID and NOVIB. We also thank AusAID who provided funding for the initial assessment study in 1988, without which the current program might not have evolved. Reviews of this program by external consultants have helped in the preparation of this article and have stimulated important modifications to the program over the past 12 years.

XI. References

    1. Bloem MW, de Pee S, Darnton-Hill I. New issues in developing effective approaches for the prevention and control of vitamin A deficiency. Food Nutr Bull 1998; 19: 137-148.

    2. Bloem MW, Huq N, Gorstein J, Burger S, Kahn T, Islam N, Baker S, Davidson F. Production of fruits and vegetables at the homestead is an important source of vitamin A among women in rural Bangladesh. Eur J Clin Nutr 1996; 50: S62-S67.

    3. Bloem MW, Huq N, Gorstein J, et al. Does the production of dark-green leafy vegetables and fruits play a role in the etiology of maternal nightblindness, diarrhea and malnutrition in Bangladesh? XVII IVACG Meeting report. Washington DC: The Nutrition Foundation, p 82, 1996.

    4. De Pee S, Bloem MW, Kiess L. Evaluating food-based programmes for their reduction of vitamin A deficiency and its consequences. Food Nutr Bull 2000; 21: 232-238.

    5. Helen Keller International. March-April 1994-October-December, 1996. NGO Gardening and Nutrition Education Surveillance Project (NGNESP): Monitoring of Activities in the Village Nurseries and Household Gardens, Report 1-9, HKI, Dhaka.

    6. Helen Keller International. March-April 1994-October-December, 1996. Agriculture Support Services Project (ASSP): Monitoring of Activities in the Block Nurseries and Household Gardens, Report 1-4, HKI, Dhaka.

    7. HKI/AVDRC, Home Gardening in Bangladesh: An Evaluation Report, HKI Bangladesh, June 1993.

    8. Kiess L, Bloem MW, de Pee S, et al. Bangladesh: Xeropthalmia Free. The result of an effective Vitamin A Capsule Program and Homestead Gardening [abstract]. In American Public Health Association 126th Annual Meeting Report, November 15-18, 1998, Washington DC, page 361.

    9. Landauer K. and Brazil M (eds.). Tropical Home Gardens. Selected papers form an international workshop at the Institute of Ecology, Padjadjaran University, Indonesia, December 1985, United Nations University Press, Japan.

    10. Marsh, R. Household Gardening and Food Security: A Critical Review of the Literature. Nutrition Programmes Service, Food and Nutrition Division, FAO, Rome, November, 1996.

    11. Marsh, R, Talukder, A. Baker, S, Bloem M. Improving Food Security through Home Gardening: A Case Study from Bangladesh. Helen Keller International, unpublished.

    12. Nutrition Survey of Bangladesh, Institute of Nutrition and Food Science, Dhaka University, 1982.

    13. Ramphal and Gill. Demand and Supply of Vegetable and Pulses in South Asia. In: Vegetable Research and Development in South Asia: Proceedings of a Workshop in Pakistan, September, 1990. AVDRC Publication No. 90-331, Taiwan.

    14. Soleri D, Cleveland D. Household Gardens as a Development Strategy. Human Organization, 46 (3): 259-270.

    15. Talukder A, Kiess L, Huq N, de Pee S, Darnton-Hill I, Bloem MW. Increasing the production and consumption of vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables: Lessons learned in taking the Bangladesh homestead gardening programme to a national scale. Food Nutr Bull 2000; 21: 165-172.

    16. UNICEF, Atlas of South Asian Children and Women. UNICEF Regional Office of South Asia, Katmandu, Nepal, 1996.

    17. WHO/UNICEF. Global Prevalence of vitamin A deficiency. Micronutrient Deficiency Information System (MDIS), Working Paper Nos. 1-2, WHO, Geneva.

1 Traditional gardens are scattered, seasonal and only have gourd type of vegetables, which are common in rural Bangladesh households. Improved gardens are those that have more than gourd type of vegetables but are not productive throughout the year. Developed gardens produce vegetables throughout the year, produce more varieties of vegetables and are on fixed plot of land.

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