Large companies have now stepped up to cash in on so far unexploited business potentials in the country's southwestern region, thanks to the opening of Padma Bridge that has directly connected this part of the country with capital Dhaka.
Sheltech, Pran-RFL, Nitol-Niloy, TK Group, Envoy Group, and Opsonin Pharma are among the big names that are now looking for land in the region to set up new factories.
What actually are driving them to choose the region for investments are cheap labour, availability of raw materials for agro-based industries in particular, tax holiday for industries outside Dhaka and the newly-established direct highway routes across the Padma Bridge, say industry insiders.
In 2019, Sheltech Group established the country's largest ceramics industry in Bhola with an investment of Tk700 crore, enticed by Bhola's natural gas reserves, cheaper land and easy communication following the Padma Bridge opening.
The business entity is now planning to set up a non-denim factory on the island, Kutubuddin Ahmed, chairman of Sheltech Group, told The Business Standard.
"Also, we are looking for land for an apparel factory in Barishal," he noted, without disclosing the investment amount.
The southern region had long been attractive for cheaper and easier water transport but long ferry delays to cross the Padma had kept entrepreneurs away from going for investments there until the Padma Bridge construction.
"We think making investments in the south will now be most profitable because of the Padma Bridge," Kutubuddin Ahmed pointed out.
Pran-RFL, a top company in the manufacturing sector, has 23 factories in the country and it has also established five factories abroad. But the business conglomerate does not have any production hub in south-western districts.
"We have a plan to construct a food processing factory and a light engineering industry," said Kamruzzaman Kamal, director at Pran-RFL Group.
Agro-business most lucrative
TBS has come to know that around 50 more big companies, including Meghna Group, Ha-meem Group, East Coast Group, Mir Group, and Indo-Bangla Pharmaceuticals, are also planning to set up factories in southeastern districts.
Dhaka-based Nitol-Niloy, a big name in the automotive industry, imports completely knocked down (CKD) units of vehicles from India for assemblies in its factories in Gazipur and Kishoreganj.
"We are now planning to establish factories in Jashore and Barishal," Abdul Matlub Ahmad, chairman at Nitol-Niloy Group, told TBS.
"We are mulling over expanding our existing plant for assembling bus, truck and minibus in Jashore."
Besides, he also spoke of his plans to set up an export-oriented food processing plant, utilising the availability of agricultural products in the region.
They are now looking for land in Barishal and Shariatpur for the purpose, he noted, adding, "We will venture into it once we get gas connection."
The former FBCCI vice-president said after the construction of the Padma Bridge, almost all big industrial groups are interested in setting up factories in the southern region.
The Barishal-Faridpur-Gopalganj region will be the next manufacturing hub if gas is made available there, he also said.
Mir Nasir Hossain, another business leader, said his company Mir Group has already started a factory in Faridpur to take advantage of its direct road link with Dhaka.
Opsonin Pharma, a top drug maker in the country, began work on setting up the country's largest plant on 500 acres of land in Barishal in 2020 much before the opening of the Padma Bridge.
Abdur Rouf Khan, managing director at Opsonin Pharma Ltd, hopes that the factory will employ more than 1,000 people with an investment of over Tk500 crore.
"I am investing heavily here as the communication between Barishal and Dhaka connected by the Padma Bridge is now very easy. It is a very suitable place to build factories," he said.
TK Group is also planning to set up an agro-based industry in the south. Earlier, it established factories in the region to manufacture LPG cylinders and soybean oil since work on the Padma Bridge began.
Mohammed Amirul Haque, managing director of Seacom, a part of the TK group, told TBS the southern region is already a suitable place for business because of Benapole, Payra and Mongla ports.
"We are planning to set up an agro-based factory," he said.
Dhaka-based East Coast Group wants to gain a foothold in the export market by processing agricultural and fish products in the southern part of the Padma Bridge.
Azam J Chowdhury, chairperson of East Coast Group, said many products, including onions, potatoes, pulses, nuts, mustard and vegetables produced by farmers in the southwestern cannot be processed in the absence of adequate facilities.
Farmers do not get fair prices of their produce. Many vegetables rot as well for not having enough storage facilities, he also said, adding that exports of such products have potential to rake in a lot of foreign currencies.
"We will first construct silos in areas near Dhaka and store agricultural products cultivated in the southwestern region. And we will set up a processing plant once we get the gas connection, Azam out.
To get the benefits of the Padma Bridge, local entrepreneurs are coming forward for investments in the region. Mubarak Ali Sikder, chairman of Janjira upazila parishad in Shariatpur, is one of them. He is setting up a cold storage on 10 bighas of land in the upazila's Kazirhat area.
"Tomatoes grow abundantly in the area. I will store it for exports," Mubarak said.
Beza to set up 17 economic zones
The private sector apart, Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority (Beza) has already prepared a proposal for developing 17 economic zones in the southwestern region.
Beza executive chairman Shaikh Yusuf Harun said work on two economic zones in Mongla will begin soon. Besides, Gopalganj, Khulna, Madaripur, Satkhira and Kushtia economic zones will be implemented in phases.
The Kushtia Economic Zone will be built on 382 acres of land in Bheramara upazila of the district. Feasibility study is underway.
Besides, the development project proposal has been prepared to set up an economic zone on about 800 acres of land near Mawa in Dhaka's Nawabganj, he noted.
If these initiatives are implemented, the planned industrialisation of the country, especially in the southwestern region, will be more dynamic, he also said, adding, more than one crore people will be employed in this region.
In the meantime, Bangladesh Investment Development Authority has started work on drawing in large investments in power, tourism, agriculture and ICT in the region.
Khulna again centre of attraction after several decades
In the 1960s, Khulna was one of the major industrial cities in Bangladesh. With time, the city experienced the flight of almost all factories.
But now, the opening of the Padma Bridge has rekindled the hope of establishments of new factories here. Many entrepreneurs have already bought land in the area for the purpose.
Former BGMEA president Abdus Salam Murshedy said, "I am taking advantage of this opportunity without a doubt. I intend to open a new clothing factory in Khulna. I also urge my peers to invest in that region."
How Bangabandhu Bridge spurred industrial growth in the north
Pran-RFL Group started its tube-well business in 1981 by setting up a factory called RFL Foundry in Rangpur BSCIC. The group did not set up any more factories in the northern region for the next two decades owing to communication problems.
After the inauguration of the Bangabandhu Bridge, the industrial group set up a factory called Pran Agro Limited in Natore in 2001.
After that, it established eight more agro-processing factories in Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Rangpur, Sirajganj and Pabna.
They have also recently started a bicycle manufacturing plant in Rangpur's Gangachara.
Square Group, Envoy Group, and Nilsagar Group, also set up factories in North Bengal.
Square Group has an industrial park in Pabna. Envoy Group has set up a meat processing plant named Bengal Meat in the same district.