The Dreamer and Doer
Our student Farzeen Ferdous Alam, born on January 6, 1989 in Dhaka, departed the world at the very young age of 33 on July 14, 2022. Younger son of Professor Dr Ferdousi Begum and Late Khorshed Alam, and younger brother of Tanzeen Ferdous Alam, Farzeen was a brilliant youth leader on a remarkable quest to change Bangladesh's agriculture. He loved to introduce himself by saying "I am a proud farmer; an economist-turned-farmer". He loved his motherland and was determined to make life better for everyone.
Farzeen was the Founder Chairman of Oggro Ventures, a social enterprise – the first of its kind in the country – dedicated to the agriculture and social development of Bangladesh. He completed high school from SFX Green Herald International School, Dhaka, and graduated from Dhaka University's Economics department in 2014. He established Oggro Ventures in 2007, modelling the business as a social enterprise where the profits went into solving social and humanitarian problems. Within a decade of his professional journey, he succeeded in establishing himself as the country's youngest social entrepreneur. He chose an unconventional path early on in life, and it came with big personal sacrifices.
At his TEDx talk in 2019, Farzeen mentioned to a young audience that his vision was to transform rural Bangladesh through sustainable agriculture and education. He wanted young Bangladeshis to see the cool side of being a 21st century farmer.
In 2004, when he was 14, he was awarded by the Jacob Foundation in Switzerland for writing a composition about Bangladesh, and invited to visit Oxford University. He had always been active in UN youth volunteering activities, and visited more than 20 countries representing for this social work, including as the special envoy of Ban Ki Moon, Former UN General Secretary, in Doha.
In 2007, Farzeen worked in Hounslow, UK for three months as part of a volunteer exchange programme. At the time, Bangladesh was affected by cyclone Sidr. He then engaged the local community there to raise funds to help the affected people of Sharankhola. He also worked in remote areas of Bangladesh, where he established the Horizon School, and helped set up female toilets and drainage systems.
His first inspiration came from a documentary by the famous singer Bono, where he learnt that every three seconds, a child somewhere was dying of hunger. It got him to start reading books on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), and the more he read, the more he realised his true calling lay in the development sector. He decided he could start by supporting farmers in rural communities, who desperately needed access to markets and technology.
As an adolescent entrepreneur, he took risks and remained optimistic, even declining a job offer with the UN. He singlehandedly sorted out logistics and sat for hours with his farmer friends in the paddy fields, or sometimes on rooftops of trains from Badarganj to Rangpur. The uncertainty of building a business from scratch did not bother him. His favourite quote was, "I want to be the Richard Branson of social business."
His relentless efforts did not go unnoticed. The UN featured Oggro via the UN Web TV in October 2021. He was presented the National Award in March 2019 from ACI Ltd, recognising him as a "Fearless Bangladeshi" transforming the face of agriculture in Bangladesh. Oggro also won the renowned Youth Solidarity Fund of the UN Alliance of Civilizations, an initiative by Kofi Annan that chose only 12 organisations globally to receive the fund. Farzeen received awards from the MTV Staying Alive Foundation as well, and was invited to prestigious global programmes like the International Leadership Program organised by the British Commonwealth office, where future leaders met with British policymakers.
For the farmers, he founded Joikko Agro Ltd in partnership with local and international social entrepreneurs. A first-of-its-kind agro value-chain company, it was successful in adding 40,000 registered farmers to its network, and providing every kind of support – a one-stop service for solving farmers' issues. He also arranged the visit of US Ambassador Earl R Miller to rural farms of Rangpur in 2019.
One of his finest strengths was his ability to communicate at all levels. He could comfortably address a roomful of diplomats, academics and policymakers, and not miss a beat when speaking to them about his dreams. He could mix with ordinary people from all walks of life, speak in their local dialects, and relate to their problems just as easily.
He used the profits from Oggro to distribute subsidised unadulterated milk from his farm to garment workers, and he supported the education of 17 visually impaired girls by personally importing Braille machines and funding their studies. He also established Oggro Stationary and Oggro Crafts so the visually impaired could have a stable livelihood.
Despite the gruelling demands of Oggro, he found respite in his favourite subject, economics. By 2022, he had taught about 2,500 O level and A level candidates over a period of 15 years, and his young students looked up to him as their mentor and life coach. Farzeen also attended many programmes of SANEM as a guest speaker. In a podcast with Stephen Ladek, he had said, "I love economics religiously and spiritually," and mentioned, "Time management is nothing, but just managing energy which comes from the love for the work." He was preparing for a PhD at the London School of Economics and had started writing a book about agriculture, education and health.
Farzeen was a great listener, and could break a tense moment with a good joke. The bonds he made in his lifetime keep him alive in many hearts. He touched everyone around him through selfless acts, and stood by his friends in their darkest times. Farzeen used to say that he was able to fulfil his dreams only because his family stood by him. In his own words: "I could achieve my dreams, only because my family allowed me to be crazy."
He was popular in school and played sports zealously, with a bevy of followers drawn to his natural charm. He was a prodigy bowler and had played with national cricket legends until a back injury put an end to his dreams of becoming a cricketer.
Deep down, Farzeen relished the small things in life, like kicking a ball that rolled his way, reading stories to his doting nieces, or staying up late to finish his favourite book. His presence will live on in the hearts of every person who crossed paths with him, and all those who knew him are now left with a sense of sudden, inconceivable loss. As darkness looms over us all with the fall of this bright, shining star, we hope that his story inspires us to work towards a better future for all.
Dr Selim Raihan is professor at the Department of Economics of the University of Dhaka, and executive director at the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (Sanem).
Zihan Farah is manager of financial planning and analytics at Standard Chartered Bank Singapore.