Learnings from Project Laser Beam

Undernutrition is that silent killer, weakening thousands of our children before other diseases such as pneumonia finally kill them. Unfortunately we know this all too well in Bangladesh, with our dark history of famine, Monga and the general high child mortality in the rural areas even today.

That is why at Unilever we decided to help fight child undernutrition.

Project Laser Beam was a five-year, multimillion dollar public-private partnership aimed to create a scalable, sustainable model to significantly reduce child undernutrition. The project brought together the expertise of UN agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP), governments, NGOs and private sector companies such as Unilever.

With the project we took a laser beam approach to address child undernutrition. We focused all our efforts on one particular area of the country, plagued with high stunting and child mortality rates – Shatkhira. We dedicated all our resources to this one region to maximize the impact and tackle child undernutrition in a holistic fashion.

Unilever and its partners implemented activities at Shatkhira to tackle direct as well as underlying causes of under nutrition. Our programmes were focused on four areas:

  1. Food
  2. Water & sanitation;
  3. Health & hygiene;
  4. Food Security & income generation;

We helped provide basic nutrition, ensured safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, built proper healthcare, provided lifesaving educational handwashing campaigns and provided income generating livelihood programmes for ultra-poor women.

Project Laserbeam ended in 2014 reaching a total of 2.48 million people in Shatkhira. More importantly a comprehensive learning paper on the partnership has been published to be shared with all interested parties working in this space.

Unilever alone has invested more than USD 10 million in the project. More importantly we contributed our expertise in hand washing education, sanitation etc. Our contribution to the project was not philanthropy but rather doing business responsibly, in line with the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan which brings sustainability at the heart of everything we do.

Below you will meet some of the people whose lives have changed thanks to Project Laserbeam. Additionally we would like to thank all our partners - WFP , Wateraid, BRAC, Friendship and JITA.

Mira's joy

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In the tiny, rural village of Madarbari in the southern Bangladesh district of Satkhira, the nine-year-old student Mira likes sitting concentrated and doing her homework

on top of her fathers’ rickshaw van. However, she rarely gets the opportunity to occupy this specific spot given that most of her waken hours the rickshaw van is being pulled in the streets by Mira’s father Mostafizur Rahman. Recently, Mira and her family were forced to return to Madarbari after having lived in Khulna City. Being a van puller, Mostafizur Rahman earns a daily wage of 80 to 100 taka, and because the rickshaw van is the only income source of the family they could not afford the expenses in Khulna.

In Madarbari, the family continues struggling to feed the five family members: Mira, her parents and her two siblings. Especially the rainy season keeps their stomachs empty because heavy rain prevents Mostafizur Rahman from pulling the van. If the income allows it, they eat watered rice for breakfast, but most of the year the family skips this meal entirely.

High energy biscuits fortified with micronutrients have become the morning snack and a concentration booster for Mira whose family rarely has the ability to serve her breakfast.

This is not the case for Mira anymore, though. When her family returned to Madarbari, she enrolled in class 3 in the adjacent school Madarbari Government Primary School. The school is a part of the World Food Programme’s School Feeding Programme and under Project Laser Beam. Every morning the school offers the children biscuits fortified with vitamins and minerals. A plant for rainwater harvesting was built by WaterAid at the school since pure drinking water is not available.

“Now I can run fast and I take part in different sports in the annual sports programme,” says Mira whose health has improved since beginning in the school.

Her school headmaster says, “The dropout rate in the school has declined significantly since the time WFP and WaterAid have started their intervention [under Project Laserbeam]. Children are also doing better in their studies, participating more in classes. We now have safe drinking water in the school which is a great relief.”

WFP’s School Feeding programme has helped 95,000 school children the joy of learning as they were offered fortified biscuits every day. Next week we will meet Nazrul Islam who led the way in bringing safe drinking water to his community.

Nazrul's pond

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Some people stand out in the crowd. They step up to change, both themselves and often their society. The village of Sora in Shatkhira is lucky to have such a man, Nazrul Islam, whose dedicated effortnazruls-ponds brought safe drinking water to the people living in his community.

Under Project Laserbeam, Wateraid and local partner Shushilan, renovated and installed many new Pond Sand Filter (PSF) in villages near Sora. Nazrul, having heard of the project, approached Sushilan and brought the project to Sora.

He took the lead on this initiative and placed his concern of lack of safe drinking water to the Project Laserbeam partners, volunteering both his service and his pond to provide safe drinking water to his community. As a result, Nazrul’s pond was installed with a PSF with him elected as its caretaker.

Today, people come from as far as 2 km away to collect safe drinking water from Nazrul’s pond. At 64 years of age, Nazrul is still actively involved in the maintenance of the Pond, collecting money from the community to use for regular repairs.

He also works to build awareness around water usage, discouraging people from using coconut shells as a cover for their water pots. “I know safe water is a very valuable for our village”, Nazrul says, “I’ll keep serving the society by provide safe water to my villagers.” Nazrul’s desire to help has earned him tremendous respect from his neighbours.

The villagers of Sora finally have a source of safe drinking water, but there is still much more to do. WaterAid, with the help of Unilever’s Project Laser Beam, has brought safe drinking water to more than72000 people in Shatkhira.

Join us next week as we travel to Shyamnagar to see how 2 women are changing the fate of children in the area.

Jahanara's angel

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Rehana Akhter and Sangita Baral are two dedicated members of Friendship field based health care team. They serves at the remote areas of Shyamnagar as the frontline health care providers, to bring about changes in the health status of many poor women & children.

One day while Rehana was conducting her routine household visit , she found Jahanara Begum’s one and half year old daughter Tuhina seriously ill and malnourished. Rehana helped Jahanara understand the reason for such illness from nutritional deficiency. She also taught Jahanara proper ways to prepare nutritious food to feed Tuhina every day. Finally, Rehana reffered Tuhina to the Friendship Sattelite clinic for better diagnosis.

3 days later, Jahanara went to the clinic and there she met Sangita Baral, a paramedic of Friendship. Sangita quickly identified Tuhina as a case of severe Pneumonia & after giving her the primary medications, immediately refered her to Shyamnagar Upazilla Health Complex. Jahanara admitted Tuhina to the hospital where Tuhina was treated for seven days under a specialized pediatrician. Thereafter Tuhina made complete recovery, leaving the hospital with a happy smile .

Inspired by Jahanara’s example, many other mothers of the community have become conscious about their children. They now consult Rehana at the earliest signs of illness and also attend courtyard meetings to learn about positive health care behavior in everyday living. Jahanara herself works as a Friendship ambassador in her community.

Through Project Laser beam’s work with Friendship more than 80,000 mothers are now aware of general healthcare and vaccination they need to provide their children. Many children have been saved through early detection of diseases, thanks to the dedicated work of the Friendship Community Medics like Rehana who appear as “Angels” to the mothers of the community.

Farida's fortune

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Farida’s world fell apart when her husband fell ill from an untreated liver infection. Overnight she became the primary provider for her family of 4 but no matter what she tried, her income never seemed to be enough. Soon her two daughters’ education began to suffer as the family made a steep decline into poverty.

It was at this point that she was selected for the Specially Targeted Ultra Poor (STUP) programme of Project Laserbeam under BRAC. Farida received four days of intensive enterprise develofaridas-fortune_235x135pment training followed by hands-on training, on cow and poultry rearing as an income-generating activity.

She was then provided one cow and 10 chickens as a part of her asset transfer. She also received a subsistence allowance to supplement her costs of food and assistance from the Project’s health care services component to buy medicines for her husband. The local village development committee (GDBC) also provided her with financial assistance for medical treatment, and helped her daughters enroll in school and attend regularly.

During the two-year programme cycle, Farida continued to participate in life skills trainings on rights and entitlements through weekly home visits and confidence-building training. This strengthened her decision-making abilities and helped her build social networks she could utilize.

Today Farida owns two cows, three goats, 17 ducks and hens, 10 katha of land on a mortgage and a van. She applied the judicious savings and reinvestment cycle taught to her to build her little fortune. Her income is now sufficient and more importantly, regular. Farida says her circumstance has not only changed economically but also socially. 

“People in our community give me more importance now,” she says, “nowadays I’m actually asked to attend weddings; people even expect me to bring a gift! People value my opinions and even come to me for advice on certain things.”Farida’s desire and acumen has brought her family out of poverty.

3000 women like Farida received a life changing opportunity to climb out of poverty through Project Laserbeam’s program with BRAC. Helping these women means helping their whole family out of poverty.

Project Laserbeam came to an end in 2014, leaving in its wake more than 2 million improved lives through the interventions we have read about. Although Unilever closes this chapter, it will continue its fight against child undernutrition. There is ample food in the world – we just need to figure out how to work together effectively to get it to those who need it the most.

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