Bo Kone, Myanmar — Life here in Bo Kone, a village of about 1,000 people, has never been easy. Located on an isolated island in the Irrawaddy Delta, it's about an hour's boat ride to the nearest town.
And then Cyclone Nargis tore through the village, killing about a quarter of its inhabitants and submerging in salt water its acres of rice fields.
"When the wind and rain finally stopped, I saw that my house and my farmland were destroyed," said Athey, a 40-year-old mother of four who goes by one name. "Luckily my family was all alive, but I had no idea how we would live."
When Mercy Corps arrived in Bo Kone, we saw that Athey and her neighbors were deeply vulnerable: their farms had provided their food and their income, and now that was all gone.
But there was even more to it.
"People were already malnourished," says Hadi Akther, a local agronomist running a Mercy Corps-funded food security and livelihoods recovery program in the Delta. "We wanted to find a way not just to restore the rice farms they depended on, but to enable people to diversify their diets and eat more nutritious meals."
Before the cyclone, people had to go all the way to the city of Laputta — about an hour away by boat — to get vegetables. The added hassle and expense meant few did it.
With that challenge in mind, Mercy Corps and its partner Merlin have helped Athey's and 300 other families in Bo Kone establish "kitchen gardens" — small growing plots that will help satisfy household food needs — by providing seeds, gardening tools and technical training.
"When I heard about this opportunity I knew I wanted to participate. I knew how to farm but it was good to have these new seeds and tools," Athey says. "I was confident I would succeed and I knew this would help my kids."
Akther, the agronomist, says the program emphasizes crops like green beans, pumpkin, watercress and rosehips, but allows participants to grow whatever they choose.
In Athey's case, she found a strong local demand for a certain type of greens, and that's where she's made her investment.
"I am making good money selling these greens and that allows me to buy other things we need for the house," she says.
And it doesn't stop there. As Myanmar moves into its "winter" — when the average temperature is 80 degrees instead of 90 — Mercy Corps is ramping up a winter vegetable program that equips these households to grow a whole new set of crops.
"I am really excited for this new program — I know exactly how I am going to expand my garden," Athey says with a smile, pointing to an unused corner of her yard.
More than 2,000 households throughout the Delta — comprising about 10,000 people — are currently participating in the program, which Mercy Corps hopes to expand in the coming months.