The frozen food market in the country has been booming in the last decade. In 2019, the industry was estimated to be worth Tk800 crore and an international research organisation predicted the industry would reach Tk3,000 crore by 2024.
The pandemic, meanwhile, provided such a boost to its popularity that the industry may very well be close to those predictions already. Two of the biggest players in the market, Pran RFL and Golden Harvest, reported their sales shot up by 50 to 100 percent, during the last two years.
Tucked away in a corner of this galloping industry is the brand Roja, owned by Sea Resources Group, a sister concern of Rangs Group, that exclusively makes processed frozen seafood in a market where chicken nuggets, chicken samosa, chicken sausages and a host of other meat items dominate.
Roja, which started its journey in 2019 is a dream project of Romana Rouf Chowdhury, the Managing Director of Sea Resources Group.
Sea Resources Group is one of the leading wild-caught sea fish exporters in the country, operating since 1982, and supplies the frozen sea fish required to make Roja branded products.
The idea behind Roja was to come up with exciting value-added products based on sea fish which will encourage people to try seafood.
In a conversation with The Business Standard, Makame Mahmud, one of the Directors of Roja said, "We take pride in being the first Bangladeshi brand to offer ready-to-cook/eat nutritional seafood from ocean to plate.
There is nothing that resonates more with a Bengali's appetite than fish. Catering to this craving and the growing need for ready-to-cook convenience food with uncompromised quality, Roja was born."
That being said, working with something different and being first in the market comes with plenty of obstacles.
Sea fish, that are too wild-caught, needs a strong logistic support and preservation facility and that, in turn, needs a hefty capital. Also, technology plays a vital role here. These are the reasons why any entity has not accepted the challenge of taking seafood items a step ahead.
For now, the biggest challenge of Roja is motivating customers to experiment with seafood-based snacks. It requires a behavioural shift which is not so easy given that we are so used to having chicken-based snacks and a specific flavour.
"We have heard the customers say that 'it smells fishy,' which it is supposed to. Like chicken, fish does not absorb added flavours, so the smell and taste of fish remain very prominent," explained Mahmud.
Also, the price of wild-caught seafood items is comparatively higher than chicken, freshwater sea fish and other alternatives. As a result, the demand for sea fish or seafood-based products tapers off.
"It is very natural that something caught from the wilderness will be more costly than something that has been farmed. The price comparison is irrational but people do it anyway without considering the food value and availability," opined Mahmud.
However, Mahmud remains very hopeful about his brand believing that people are gradually becoming more health-conscious.
Till date, Roja has launched 20+ products available in the market, some are truly unique for a local company, including Shrimp Tempura, Butterfly Shrimp, Calamari Bites, Hilsha Kabab, Seafood Popcorn, etc.
"Our products are a fusion of desi and foreign cuisine. We want to blend sea-based food with our local cuisine, and I believe it reflects in our food items. Products like Shrimp Samosa, Shrimp Shingara, Shrimp Puri, Hilsa Kabab are examples of that," added Mahmud.
Mahmud was reluctant to reveal the sales figures for the various Roja items in the market but admitted that their frozen paratha, one of the few non-seafood items in their repertoire, was performing the best in the market.
Wild-caught sea fish, the key ingredient of all these products, is caught from the Bay of Bengal using the Sea Resources Group's own fleet.
After that, those fishes are transported to Narayanganj, where the processing factory is located, where around 100 people are employed.
At present, Roja products are only available in Dhaka, Chattogram, and some parts of Sylhet. The products are available in renowned super shops like Unimart, Meena Bazar, Aagora, Swapno, etc., and in some shops outside Dhaka as well.
Why consider seafood?
Seafood is considered a low-calorie food compared to other protein-rich foods such as meat and poultry.
Every three-ounce serving of cooked fish or shellfish, in general, provides about one-third of the average daily recommended amount of protein to an adult.
"Our goal is to provide a superior quality alternative [to poultry-based frozen snacks] to our customers. In order to do so, we are continuously trying out different recipes and products.
We want to bring sea fish and seafood to the mainstream," said Romana Rouf Chowdhury.