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A greener life is a rosier one, thanks to mushrooms

The UN Climate Action Summit (23 September) will consider the social and economic consequences of moving to a more sustainable economy. Without proper planning millions of livelihoods – particularly of poor and vulnerable workers – are threatened. An ILO project in Bangladesh has shown that the right policies can protect the environment, improve workers’ lives and promote a greener economy.

Feature | 04 September 2019
Fatema Akhter working in her mushroom farm, built with help from an ILO project.
DHAKA (ILO News) – When Fatema Akhter was 10 years old, her father abandoned his family and married another woman. Newly alone, her mother could no longer afford to keep Fatema in school. The family had to split. Her mother moved in with other relations on the outskirts of Dhaka, but there was no room for Fatema, who has cerebral palsy. An aunt took her in.

When Fatema reached 15 her mother taught her to use a sewing machine and make dresses. But, because of her health, sitting or standing for long periods of time was difficult for her (as is walking) so finishing a garment took time. Sewing earned her just BDT1,000–BDT1,500 (US$11-17) a month.

When Fatema heard about the training for growing mushrooms offered through the Access Bangladesh Foundation, she was intrigued. Little investment was required and the physical demands were manageable for her. 

The training was part of the Bangladesh Skills for Employment and Productivity Project (B-SEP), an initiative of the Government of Bangladesh, funded by Canada and implemented by the ILO. The project worked with local partners to help entrepreneurs create green jobs through skills and enterprise training, coupled with seed capital and help with marketing. Special emphasis was given to disadvantaged groups, including people with disabilities and the poor.

Green jobs have particular importance for Bangladesh because its low-lying land makes it one of the nations most vulnerable to climate and environmental change. Currently, the country ranks 173 out of 180 in the global Environmental Performance Index, developed by Yale and Columbia Universities, which rates the environmental performance of national policies.

Greater promotion of ‘green jobs’ is not a choice but a necessity for Bangladesh, and complements the Government’s strategic commitment to the green economy and climate change adaptation."

Tuomo Poutiainen, Country Director, ILO Bangladesh
B-SEP paid particular attention to creating links between different green jobs activities along the green supply chain. For example, disadvantaged members of society were helped to strengthen their waste collection activities so that they could also produce organic fertilizer as a by-product. This fertilizer was then sold to groups producing safe food and seeds. Such linkages helped to develop markets for products and services and support the sustainability of entrepreneurial activities.  

The project offered training in six occupations; mushroom production, eco-tourism, organic food and fertilizer production, waste collection and segregation, and inorganic waste trading. It also promoted the development of cooperatives and partnerships, including better links with retail shops to increase demand for mushrooms.

So far the project’s work to encourage entrepreneurs to create green jobs has helped about 580 people, more than half of them women.

During the three-month mushroom farming course Fatema learned about the economic and nutritional benefits of mushroom production and how to run a business.

After completing the training she was provided with spawn – the base for mushroom production – and BDT15,000 (USD177) to build a mushroom house. Access Bangladesh, one of the project’s local partners, operates a cooperative that grows and distributes the spawn, collects the mushroom harvest and sells it to markets in Dhaka.

Now 20, Fatema still earns money from sewing, and combined with what the mushroom farm brings in, this gives her an average monthly income of BDT7,000 (USD82) – more than four times her previous earnings.

Because of her health she remains dependent on family members, but having skills and her own income means that, for the first time she feels like an equal member of the household.

I am struggling since my childhood. But thanks to the B-SEP Project for encouraging me to grow mushrooms to become self-reliant."

“The ILO has been supporting the Bangladesh Government for more than a decade to strengthen the country’s skills system and to help promote ‘green’ skills and enterprise opportunities”, said Poutiainen, “Fatema’s story is a great example of how different players can come together to create a sustainable balance between the welfare of ordinary people, the nation’s prosperity and the future of our planet.”

More information on the Climate Action Summit can be found here.