From an Economist to a Farmer: what it takes to improve the lives of smallholder farmers in Bangladesh

Through an exclusive interview with Farzeen Ferdous Alam, CEO of Oggro Dairy, YY Goshti discovered the captivating story of how the Oggro empire was built. Oggro Dairy is the first social enterprise in Bangladesh that is dedicated to the development of the agricultural sector; aiming to improve the lives of our farmers. Oggro Dairy offers fresh and hygienic milk that promises proper nutrition for you and your loved ones. It was recognized as a top innovation at Agribusiness Challenge 2017 conducted by YY Goshti and Truvalu.Enterprises.

Nowadays Consumers not only want to know about the product but also about the people behind the product. Would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself, your back story?

I am Farzeen Ferdous Alam and my story is about becoming a farmer from an Economist.  I dived into the development sector 15 years ago by opening an NGO when I was just a High School student. It was a regular day when I gathered my friends, snacked on a sandwich and got down on the streets of Dhanmondi to clean it. Ever since then I had undertaken various projects like sponsoring the education of vigilant girls to spread HIV AIDS awareness. The technological advancement that we are witnessing gives us a false sense of overall development. Therefore, we don’t realize, how deprived the backbone of our nation; the farmers, are. For intrinsic change, we need to develop from the grass-root level and that would mean bettering the lives of our marginalized farmers. We have the most fertile soil and beautiful countryside, so why are farmers quitting from their pursuit and crowding Dhaka city? They must be very deprived. I thought that it was time to fight for what they deserve.

As an economist, I was driven by the idea of efficiency and sustainability. I took it as a challenge upon myself to change the scene for farmers. I was open to the idea of change and I didn’t think twice before entering into the agriculture sector. I run a collection of social enterprises under the umbrella of Oggro Ventures. One of these ventures is Oggro Dairy. It’s a social enterprise because despite being a profit-making company we have a strong social objective that we firmly hold on to. Aside from ensuring access to safe drinking milk to our consumers, especially children, we aim to foster our agricultural sector in the best way possible with our available resources.

What inspired you towards this venture?

When my first niece was born, I was overwhelmed with joy, but the thought of her growing up drinking contaminated milk frightened me horribly. Milk is so much more than just a drink! Milk is given to children with hopes that they would grow into strong adults who will carry out their dreams! Sportsmen drink milk like it’s a potion to victory! Driven by the concern of food safety, I wanted to make sure children like my niece and other consumers have access to pure and safe drinking milk. Being aware of the alarming scenario of milk adulteration, I couldn’t sit back knowing that it was possible to make change. With the strong objective of ensuring pure and safe milk, Oggro focuses on quality. All our efforts are an attempt to delicately preserve your dreams. We ensure our standard through a number of ways. For example, as soon as we diagnose a cow with Mastitis, we immediately medicate her with anti-biotics and make sure not to use milk from the animal until it is declared safe by our veterinarian.

The second objective of Oggro is data collection on cow inventory and farm management as we try to build the best managed dairy farm in Bangladesh. With a network of more than 300 dairy farmers, we create a training manual by collecting data. Our dairy farm’s data analytics is open source. We love to share it and help other farmers to manage their cows efficiently and prosper collectively. We invite farmers to attend a 2-3 day program in the training institute inside our farm, this helps them develop a better understanding and sense of management. We don’t want our already marginalized farmers to draw lessons from their loss.

So many young entrepreneurs bury their dreams being discouraged by friends and family for the inherent risk factors. Were you supported morally by the people surrounding you? What were the obstacles that you faced?
I’m lucky because my friends and family have always been supportive, so I never felt short of moral support. But there were real-life challenges. I was a visionary 21 years old who dreamed to open his own business when banks rejected me a loan. I was discouraged and laughed off but that didn’t show me the end-line. I was not ready to give up. I knew it wasn’t easy, nobody said it would be. We hear motivational speeches on the importance of youth entrepreneurship, and we are patted if we can come up with innovative ideas, but no one warned us about the realistic challenges of actualizing a business. Struggling with finance and resource is so basic yet nobody talks about it. I gathered just enough cash to start Oggro as I taught Economics to high school students on weekends and borrowed money from friends who believed in me. Initially, the banks wouldn’t give me anything, because neither did I have collateral nor did I have a family with huge financial assets. I had to find my way to where I am today. The same banks who once showed no interest now show us immense enthusiasm and offer us loans along with apologies. We are one of the few dairy farms in our country that raised foreign investments for dairy farming. It’s quite a high-risk investment for a foreign investor, but they believed in our prospect.

What makes Oggro stand out?

Here at Oggro, quality is our top priority. We believe happy cows produce healthy milk. Deeply disturbed by how ruthlessly cows are kept in many farms in our country, we make sure our cows love giving us milk as much as we love caring fo them. Therefore, our cows comfort matters to us. Our not so cost-efficient cow sheds are well ventilated, and the caretakers live right next to them because we do like treating our cows like they’re our friends!

People are appreciating your initiative. So many people have reached out to us on such a short time. Are you happy with the response?

Every gesture of appreciation matters, there is no quantifying appreciation. It’s amazing to see so many people support our initiative. It’s for them that we wake up every morning wanting to do better. I’ve put on so much of my effort in materializing what you see today, any small word of appreciation feels rewarding. Their satisfaction is what inspires us to work hard and improve every single day.

What is your future plan? What can we expect from Oggro in 5 years?

Right now, we are providing raw milk, but we plan to do so much more! In a couple of years, we will be ready to offer you a wide range of dairy products. We plan on introducing pasteurized milk and other products like cheese, flavored yogurt, flavored milk, etc. on our shelf and diversify your options.

Do you have a message for aspiring entrepreneurs who are drowning in doubt?

Whichever field you aspire to proceed towards, my first and foremost advice is to start small, but start today! Stop thinking and stop planning. Gather up the courage to initiate. I have friends who tell me how they dream of starting their own business when they’re sitting at their office desk on a Tuesday afternoon. Well, you can still keep your job and work at night. It isn’t easy but it is possible. You cannot expect everything to fall into place without getting things rolling. The fear of risk is what kills so many dreams and that’s understandable. But, in business, you cannot achieve big without taking a leap of faith. Learn to explore opportunities, because with risk comes possibilities. Remember that being an entrepreneur is a way of life, it’s not a job, there is no notion of “designated working hours”. It’s not 9 to 5, it’s 24/7. Just like starting a family, it’s a full-time commitment. You must be ready at every moment because opportunities may come knocking at any moment. Just like a vow in marriage, you have to commit till death tears you apart.