Cultivation of high-value crops including a wide range of exotic vegetables and fruits has been growing in the country for the past several years and the Covid-19 pandemic – surprisingly enough – has proved to be a real shot in the arm for it.
According to officials at the Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE), during these hard times of the pandemic when people are grappling with reduced income with many becoming jobless, the agriculture sector is witnessing a spurt in investment.
Lots of new entrepreneurs have already been created in agriculture, the officials said, adding those who are financially capable are showing an inclination towards the farming of non-local vegetables and fruits.
Md Asadullah, director general of the DAE, told The Business Standard many migrant Bangladeshis have returned home after losing their jobs abroad amid the pandemic and many of them are investing in agriculture. They are also becoming successful by cultivating various exotic crops besides local ones.
Md Quamrul Khan of Ashuganj upazila in Brahmanbaria turned to agriculture about a couple of years ago.
He has been cultivating various local as well as exotic vegetables and fruits on 4 acres of land. Vegetables he grows on his farm include capsicum, broccoli and red cabbage.
The agro entrepreneur said he earned Tk9 lakh last year by just selling capsicum. Even though the yield was low due to hot weather, he did not lose money.
Officials at the Department of Agriculture said at one time, imported capsicum sold for Tk800-1,000 a kilogram. Because capsicum is now widely grown in different parts of the country, it is now always available in the market and its price also has come down to Tk200-400 per kg.
Besides capsicum, a good number of exotic vegetables such as lettuce, Chinese leaves, beet root, broccoli, red cabbage, squash, French beans, sweet corn, baby corn, Thai ginger, Thai basil, lemongrass, celery leaves, Chinese cabbage and other exotic fruits are now grown in Bangladesh, maintained the officials, adding the country no longer has to rely on imports.
They, however, pointed out that these vegetables are still imported from abroad, which is hurting farmers.
The entry barrier to growing these crops is high. According to the farmers, extra care, hard work and higher investment are required in the cultivation of such non-local vegetables and fruits.
Those with deep pockets can cultivate foreign crops, stakeholders said. But beyond this, thousands of entrepreneurs are producing local varieties including gourd, chili, cucumber, carrot, tomato, papaya and even shrimp, through a modernisation of the cultivation method, they added
HM Rakibul Alam, a banker by profession, once dreamt of becoming an agro entrepreneur.
He is working to make his dream come true. He is now engaged in farming in about 100 bighas of land. He has projects in Kushtia and Jhenaidah districts and is cultivating different types of vegetables and fruits including mango, dragon fruit and capsicum.
The entrepreneur said he wanted to sell all his products directly to the consumers. He has created a social media based e-commerce business, "Muri Murki", and takes online orders.
Md Rabiul Islam of Baraigram in Natore is a teacher. And he also cultivates dragon fruits.
After starting dragon fruit farming one and a half years back, he now produces dragon fruit saplings and fruits.
Most of the area of his 3-acre plot is being used for growing dragon fruits while saplings are being produced in the rest of it.
Rabiul Islam told TBS there is a lot of demand for dragon fruit. "The fruit is sold at Tk400-500 a kg at retail, but we are selling it for Tk150-300. In the off-season, however, we can sell the fruit for as high as Tk500-600 per kg."
Mashiur Rahman from Rajshahi looked for jobs for a while after completing graduation from Mymensingh Agricultural University. He failed the civil service written test.
In the meantime, the novel coronavirus made inroads into the country. Confined to home due to physical illness and the pandemic, young Mashiur planned to invest in agriculture but there was no money.
He asked his father for a piece of land for farming but was rejected, because his father wanted him to enter service.
But Mashiur is not one to give up. He managed to take out a loan from the Karmasangsthan Bank and leased a piece of land to start farming.
The size of his project is four bighas now. He cultivates high-value crops like beetroot, pepino melon and pomegranate. Besides, he is also doing business in mangoes by purchasing orchards.
The entrepreneur said now all his focus is on agriculture. He wants to keep himself involved with modern agriculture.
Many new agro entrepreneurs are being created in Dhaka, Manikganj, Rangpur, Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Bogura, Natore, Chattogram, Mymensingh, Chuadanga, Jashore and Jhenaidah.
Although there are no exact statistics on the number of entrepreneurs created in agriculture in the last 2-5 years, DAE DG Md Asadullah said there are more than 1,000 large-scale farms in the country at present and many of them are known nationwide.
He said they will take initiatives to make a comprehensive list of agro entrepreneurs in the country and the total investment made in the sector.
Nonetheless, the agriculture sector is not only seeing new and bold entrepreneurs. Institutions have also been established for creating agro entrepreneurs in the country. Apart from training, these institutions provide seed, fertiliser and pesticide support and necessary advice and all kinds of agricultural technology to the entrepreneurs.
Md Samiul Islam has founded such an institution in Bogura. After being in a job for some time, this agriculture graduate has turned to agriculture. He is training commercial entrepreneurs at his training centre built on a 10-bigha plot.
Samiul Islam said he has played a role in creating more than 350 entrepreneurs since 2019, whose initial investments ranges from Tk5 crore to Tk10 crore.
He wants to increase the number of entrepreneurs trained at his institute to 1,000 by this year.
Entrepreneurs said it was not too difficult to sell familiar local vegetables and fruits but marketing non-local vegetables and fruits is a bit tricky.
They, however, added that once people become familiar with an exotic fruit or vegetable and like their tastes, marketing of that fruit or vegetable takes off.
They said now they do not face any problem in marketing capsicum, beetroot, broccoli, dragon fruit and pomegranate. However, Chinese leaves, lettuce leaves, and red cabbage have not yet taken over the general consumers in a big way, they mentioned, adding sales of these products are still limited to major hotels and restaurants across the country.