The biggest room in Nargis Begum's three-room house is a cattle shed. It is the newest and strongest structure in the home, and houses 15 cows. Why should it not? Four cows provide 20 litres of milk every day. Moreover, Nargis sold four cows last Eid-ul-Azha at more than Tk4 lakh.
Her care for her cattle rewards her extensively – it roughly amounts to Tk45,000 a month.
Nargis took out a Tk7 lakh loan four years ago from a local volunteer organisation named Sojag. With the money she made the cattle shed and expanded her stock of cattle.
When we entered her small thatched house in the middle of a vast expanse of paddy and corn fields, we found her busy caring for her children.
What does earning more than enough money mean in a rural household?
"It means a watershed," said Abdul Matin, the founding director and CEO of Sojag. He added, "It means that this family has an increased daily food intake. They are spending more on a lot of things – which is pushing the economic wheel of this village at a faster pace. Nargis Begum is getting sufficient leisure time. She is accompanying her children on their way to school. And this is what I have dreamt of. This is what I saw happening in Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka 40 years ago."
Abdul Matin was referring to his travel to Sri Lanka, as a United Nations volunteer, just after graduating from university in 1979. The development activities of Sarvodaya inspired him to replicate the initiative of transforming the rural communities into dynamic economic powerhouses. His dreams landed him in an organisation that acts like a catalyst for social change.
On a bright February morning, I was talking with Abdul Matin at his bull station at Shailan, a village deep inside Kalampur, Dhamrai. The 15-bull-strong station serves as a source for a wide variety of mixed racial stocks that deliver high quality genetic seeds for local cattle breeds. These are delivered through artificial insemination. Nargis Begum is one of the villagers in Shailan who has used the services of this bull station for her cattle.
There is hardly any household in the area that has not shifted into high-yielding cattle breeds that deliver extra milk and meat. The area in question is the whole of Dhamrai and nine other adjacent upazilas. Far beyond the boundaries of Shailan, the organisation now has expanded into 350 villages.
Abdul Matin said, "Dhamrai area produces 72,000 litres of milk every day, from high-yielding breeds of cattle delivered by Sojag. Moreover, 11 lakh eggs are produced every day in this area."
The bull station is one of many transformative activities this volunteer organisation has been doing for the past 33 years. Another area of its activity is cultivating crops.
In one corner of the village, Sojag has a seed-processing centre, where high-yielding paddy seeds are processed, preserved and delivered to the hands of the farmers.
Golam Mustafa, the assistant coordinator of the seed centre, said, "Basically we deliver seeds of the BR-29 variety, which is most suitable in this area. With the capacity to produce and preserve 1,000 tonnes of seeds, the centre can deliver 80 percent of the demand for the whole of Dhamrai."
In one corner of the seed centre, there is a unique machine that produces urea prill. Made of urea dust, prill decreases the requirement for urea in paddy fields by almost 50 percent.
The driving force behind all the activities is micro-credits – that this organisation has made the most innovative use of.
"If you infuse money flow in the rural economy, it pays back manifold. This is simple dynamics. It is time we focus more on micro-economy rather than crunching the big numbers of macro-economy," said Abdul Matin.
Labib Uddin, 66, of Shailan village said he took out a loan of Tk60,000 to expand the village shop he runs. Mohiuddin, 85, has taken out a bigger loan – Tk1.5 lakh – to expand his shop. At an age when everyone else retires, Mohiuddin is busy trading in his shop.
M Fouzul Kabir Khan, a retired power secretary, became captivated by the way the area has been transformed from within. Talking to The Business Standard, he said, "Anyone who sets foot in this village cannot overlook the social changes a dynamic rural economy can bring about. And, the driving force behind these changes is a number of visionary men, who have opted to stay in their villages despite having high quality and experience that could have easily whisked them away to multinational NGOs."
One of them is Abdul Matin, the CEO of Sojag. Once a country director of the International Voluntary Services – an American NGO – this Dhaka University sociology graduate had always dreamt of staying in his village to invest his skills and efforts. After returning from Sri Lanka, he was hard-pressed by his family to get a job in Dhaka and scale the ladder of managerial hierarchy.
"I did get a job at the International Voluntary Services and scaled up to the top rank," said Abdul Matin. "However, during this career, I started to spend the weekends mobilising my own organisation back in this village."
In 2012, Matin left his job in Dhaka and engaged himself full-time in his own organisation – which had begun in 1986 with initiatives relating to pre-primary education. When Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) was set up in 1991-92, Sojag borrowed funds from there and started micro-credit schemes to push forward its initiatives full-throttle.
Mahbub Hossain, a consultant of Sojag, has also had a long career in international volunteer organisations which included the Red Cross and Caritas. He was the founding chairman of Sojag, where he used to invest his weekends.
With more than 3,000 associations or groups – comprising 25,000 active members – Sojag has now become a ubiquitous name in the villages of Dhamrai.