Working in the most densely populated country in the world, Ahsan Rony is building the industry of urban gardening in Bangladesh to counter the rapidly diminishing green spaces that are resulting as a result of rural to urban migration.
The New Idea
Ahsan Rony is creating a thriving culture and industry of urban greenscape amongst the urban citizens of Bangladesh to combat several societal issues like social cohesion, decreasing standards of public health and food security.
There is no ecosystem, infrastructural or cultural, for urban Bangladeshis to tackle a complex and urgent problem: the deeply and widely permeating ill effects of a lack of urban ‘greenscape’ on Bangladeshi societies. Citizens neither understand the need for, nor have the knowledge to begin building Bangladesh’s urban green cover. Rony is answering this, through a combination of building a culture of aspiration and ownership, a new cottage industry and labor roles of urban ‘greenscapers’, and Bangladesh’s first open-sourced wealth of information on urban greenscapes. He is pushing and pulling the strings of supply and demand at individual and industrial levels to build a sustainable and inclusive system and culture that is devoted to the increase of urban green cover in Bangladesh.
Every kind of urban Bangladeshi citizen; young and old, affluent and poor, educated and uneducated, plays a role in the systemic and cultural tapestry that Rony is building. Through his training work in schools and communities, crowdsourced greenscape funds owned by collectives, narrative-altering campaigns with influencers, etc., Rony accesses every crux of the Bangladeshi urban population. The blue-collar service sector industry professionals that serve affluent homes add to their job descriptions the role of supplying green cover to the city and young individuals at high-risks of criminal behavior or unemployment institutionalize these practices by adopting them as professions. Rich and poor alike access the database for information on greenscape building that isn’t capital-intensive and young children take on the role of instilling an aspiration for urban greenscape in their communities and older generations.
Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world, with 28,600 people per square kilometer. Climate change and a general conviction that agriculture (and green landscapes) cannot lead to socio-economic progress, is exacerbating this pressure on urban space with rapidly increasing urban migration. The country is seeing an exponential increase in land-grabbing and green erosion in urban areas. As a result of the utter lack of greenscapes in the cities and suburbs, where most Bangladeshis reside, the country is reeling under the lack of food security, hostile microclimates and deteriorating mental and physical public health. Dhaka, the capital city only has 5% green cover, which is grossly inadequate for a thriving community to satisfy its physical and mental health needs, and to look towards a sustainable future.
Urban Bangladeshis that fully recognize these problems menacing their societies and living standards have thus far, failed to attribute it to the lack of urban green cover. As such, there is neither the informed motivation to increase green cover nor a functional, concerted and systemic effort to do so. Even if individuals were to choose to do so collectively, there is no infrastructure – monetary or logistical – to support them in their endeavor. The handful of nurseries and gardeners that do exist in the country are either highly inefficient or do not put convenience at the mantle of their service delivery; the industry and the profession is generally looked down upon. In a country where scholarship has enabled millions to break the shackles of poverty, any job that is not perceived as ‘professional’ in a nature, that is less laborious and in an office environment, is seen as something that is not aspirational. Due to this there exists a supply problem of passionate, qualified and capable individuals who are working in the industry.
In the pursuit of development success and economic growth, local and national governance have often put aside any planning towards maintaining or growing green spaces as a side task. There has been little to no central planning to drive this industry to success.
Many interested urban citizens find themselves lacking the time to put in the effort and many find that they cannot afford to unless it brings them remuneration. A curated wealth of information on urban greenscaping neither exists in the developing world’s context nor is accessible to the socio-economically diverse population found in Bangladesh.
Rony’s approach to building an individually driven and systemically sustained paradigm in Bangladeshi urban greenscaping rests in two cyclical pieces.
Initiating the supply and demand loop:
Firstly, amongst the youngest generation and through them their adult guardians (parents and teachers), Rony is building generation-wide capacity and aspiration to create and own urban green spaces. These young children are introduced and exposed to the world of urban greenscaping and its social impact in their communities and lives. The aspiration towards greenscaping that they cultivate kindles in them the ownership over green patches in their communities and makes them influential advocates for greenscaping with the adults in their lives. Through his Oxygen Bank Program which has been scaled in all 64 districts through the Government, Rony is working with school students to own, manage and take care of school gardens, by creating school leadership teams and creating plans for the garden. It is through this school program that Rony is introducing youth from very young ages to green spaces, giving them the opportunity to take care of and help grow the gardens themselves, while also developing valuable soft skills such as empathy, leadership and teamwork. Rony is also working with school leadership and teachers on disseminating methods, resources and know-how to organize students and look over the school gardens. For Rony, creating this ownership among school leadership is important because it ensures sustainability of the initiative. The impact Rony has been able to show through this initiative is that many of the young students across the country who are taking part in this program are now demanding and shifting the mindset of their own parents and creating gardens in horizontal spaces.
The Oxygen Bank program is operated under a donate and plant a tree model, where a tree is planted for each donation made. These physical donation banks are kept in all schools where this program runs, and students are encouraged to donate whatever they can to the growing of these gardens. Rony saw a phenomenon, when a new bank had opened up by either the students and/or school leadership, students went beyond just money and donated other things of value to them, such as stationary, chocolates etc. This is proof of the interest that students are taking towards this initiative. By also working with the school leadership and creating ownership among teachers, the Oxygen Bank initiative is being seen as an extension to a larger strategy that schools are taking towards encouraging gardening – including debate competitions where the winners are gifted vegetables from the school garden, for example.
Simultaneously, Rony is working on nation-wide campaigns that are shifting the public’s narrative from unaware and uninterested in green cover, to engaged and interested. Rony works with the media to disseminate knowledge and create excitement around urban gardening in order to further generate demand for the services of the Plant Doctors and ultimately the demand for sustainable urban gardening. For example, Rony has been featured in Bangladesh’s largest TV show, Ittadi, over four times in which his impact has been to convince large numbers of the public to either access his open source resources or other plant care services in the country. Rony is also undertaking a number of other awareness raising campaigns in public spaces that aims to generate more demand and interest in urban gardening. Rony calls this strategy ‘Environ-tainment, which has now kicked off in Bangladesh and has at times been a popular hashtag followed on social media platforms.
Sustaining and institutionalizing supply and demand loop:
To feed this burgeoning demand for having and participating in building green cover, Rony is creating several new roles and professions, that have collectively become a new and prospering cottage industry of urban greenscaping. Firstly, Rony is addressing the lack of urban gardening services that exists in Bangladesh today. He partners with educational institutions, such as Agriculture Universities, hiring youth who graduate with a Diploma of Gardening into his own organization as ‘Plant Doctors’. Recognizing that gardening is not something that is seen as aspirational, Rony has engineered this role to being that of a ‘doctor’ as it negates many negative connotations. For those he doesn’t hire, Rony upskills and gives on-the-job training to enable a new supply of micro entrepreneurs in this space. Many of those who have been hired by Rony are also generating livelihood opportunities for others by becoming micro entrepreneurs themselves after developing skills and gaining experience.
These Plant Doctors who are hired by his organization, Green Savers, play a key role in meeting the demand for gardening services on rooftops or vertical spaces like balconies and other public and/or private spaces. These services range from medium term maintenance, emergency support for plants (plant ambulance support), workshops for residence groups, and helping to start urban gardens among many other things. One underlying rule with the service provided by Green Savers Plant Doctors is that there always needs to be someone who is a representative from the household, whether it be the house maid, driver or a family member, to shadow the Plant Doctor and develop the capacity to take over the maintenance of the garden over time. The idea is that the capacity of many more people can be built to create, maintain and nurture gardens through this model. Rony has a number of very unique and affordable services available, which includes his 1 taka a day Eid Program, where his Plant Doctors take urban gardens away and maintain them while families are away during Eid vacation. This prevents families seeing plants dying and losing interest in maintaining or growing any garden in the future.
In order to cater to the large cadres of audiences who cannot afford the services of Plant Doctors, Rony is recording and open sourcing videos of low cost or zero cost methods to start your own urban gardens. Through platforms such as YouTube and other social media channels, he is developing the knowledge base as well as the accessibility to fun, engaging, and high quality media that enables almost anyone to get involved in the movement. This allows all people to gain access to this information and have the opportunity to start their own urban gardens. Rony’s media isn’t limited to just starting urban gardens but also captures maintenance, recovery and other key facets of urban gardening.
Finally, Rony has built a dedicated research wing that experiments with methods of urban greenscaping, curates and builds upon secondary-source data, and crowdsources data. This led to the creation of Bangladesh’s first open-sourced, fully accessible and comprehensive database on urban greenscaping, for individuals, institutions, and professionals to access and contribute to.
Rony has so far been able to employ over 100 Plant Doctors, many of whom are now running their own microenterprises that have created over 5000 direct urban gardens in the city of Dhaka and work with thousands of school students across the country. He has been able to build the supply and ecosystem for urban gardening while also slowly generating demand across demographics in the major cities of Bangladesh.
Moving forward, Rony is looking to replicate this model or framework that he has created through partnerships with institutions in other key cities such as Sylhet and Chittagong while also continuing to generate new methods and exciting approaches to urban gardening that can be open sourced and be put into the hands of all citizens.
Rony grew up in rural Bangladesh, to a family that was dependent on agriculture and the land around him for survival. Exposed to nature from a young age, Rony grew up always being connected to the natural ecosystems around him. Rony credits his mellow temperament directly to his experiences being in the outdoors and his exposure to the natural environment, especially plants.
Rony became the first person in his family to break the rich rural agricultural lineage that defined the generations before him, to pursue Anthropology at Dhaka University. Moving to a major city was a big change for Rony and from very early on, he noticed the population density of the capital city was eroding natural green spaces. This frustrated Rony, since from a young age he had grown up with a dependency on green spaces around him and the benefits it brought with it. Understanding and knowing how easy it was to create one’s own garden even in small spaces, Rony was surprised when he found that one of his peers didn’t know how or what to do in order to grow strawberries. Demonstrating to this peer how easy it was to do and maintain, Rony was able to light up the first iteration of what would ultimately be a life vision of enabling green spaces to take up major cities. After this first demonstration, Rony started to get demand for support to grow plants, fruits, flowers and vegetables from other peers at Dhaka University.
Rony started a seed business on the campus of Dhaka University, where he saw a huge demand for seeds due to a big investment in research from the University side. He was successfully able to grow this business and convert a lot of people into planting and growing their own produce. Seeing the need for this to happen at scale, Rony started to study and understand what was causing Bangladesh’s major metropolitan cities to lose their green cover and, secondly, what was preventing people from using vertical spaces to create more localized gardens. Rony started Green Savers to build for the first time an integrated movement towards making Bangladesh a garden city, driven and owned by its citizens.