Shah Amanat International Airport in Chattogram has become a mega hub for vegetable export to the Middle East, thanks to the booming production in the district that helped earn over $8million in the last fiscal year alone.
Forkan Rubel, owner of SR Enterprise and general secretary of the Chittagong Vegetable Exporters Association said that during the last fiscal year nearly three thousand tonnes of vegetables were exported to the Middle East through Shah Amanat International Airport.
Traders told The Business Standard that in the Middle-East the main consumers of Bangladeshi vegetables are expatriates from Bangladesh and India's West Bengal state.
Traders said at present Bangladesh exports 59 different types of vegetables to the Middle East, including spiny gourd, pointed gourd, bottle gourd, green beans, brinjal, ridge gourd and arum stem through the airport in the port city along with different fruits.
The majority of the pointed gourd is produced in Narsingdi, and arum stem and arum lobe in Cumilla, while the remaining 56 vegetable items are produced in Chattogram district.
The annual demand for vegetables in the Middle-East is 9 million tonnes, which has a market value of $22,500 million. Bangladesh can easily take over this huge market if exporters are provided with modern packaging technology, regular cargo flights and government support, a confident Forkan added.
Exporters need logistic support more than the incentives provided by the government. Even though vegetable consumers in the Middle-East are mainly Bangladeshis, it is the Indian and Pakistani exporters who dominate this huge market because of the appropriate government support they get, he said.
Both the Indian and the Pakistani governments provide technological support so that the food items stay fresh after reaching their export destinations. The Indian government also arranges regular cargo flights to provide seamless export to the Middle-East.
Forkan also pointed out that vegetable packaging stations in Bangladesh are scattered, which is not the case in many countries. If the government arranges a centralised packaging system, the export process will become easier, and the quality of the food items after export can be maintained.
Governments in many countries take responsibility for such relevant tasks.
Furthermore, there is also a lack of government effort to develop arable land in Chattogram district for cultivation. Only one-fourth of the land available in the district is being used for vegetable production.
The Plant Quarantine Wing under the Department of Agricultural Extension says that vegetable export to the Middle-East was 2.45 thousand tonnes in the 2017-18 fiscal year, and 2.96 thousand tonnes in the 2018-19 fiscal year.
By the first quarter of the current fiscal year, 871 tonnes of vegetables had been exported, projecting a 16 percent year-on-year growth towards the year-end.
Plenty of land remains unused
The Department of Agricultural Extension says that vegetables are cultivated on 33,000 hectares of land in Chattogram district.
There is an additional one lakh hectares of unused land in the district which only needs proper irrigation to become cultivable, said Aminul Haque Chowdhury, additional director of the Department of Agricultural Extension.
If this land can be utilised to produce vegetables that meet international standards, Bangladesh would get the dominant share of the vegetable market in the Middle-East, Aminul said, reiterating business leader Forkan's high ambitions.
However, this needs a concerted effort from the Ministry of Finance and a new dedicated cell from the Ministry of Agriculture, he added.
No cargo flight
Furthermore, there is no dedicated flight available from Shah Amanat International Airport to export vegetables to the Middle-East.
So exporters are forced to rent cargo space on passenger-planes, ending up with increased transportation cost and giving a head start to rivals in India and Pakistan.
Traders claim that many a times even the rented cargo space is not available for them, when more space is needed for any sudden increase in passengers' commodities.
Such situations result in losses for exporters because the vegetables have to be taken back and in the meantime get rotten.
Kazi Khairul Kabir, cargo superintendent of Shah Amanat International Airport claims that at present, dedicated cargo flights for vegetable export only cannot be arranged despite the high demand.
This will only be possible if export demand can be created for some other industrial items alongside vegetables, he noted.
Sources at the airport say that currently Air Arabia Airlines rents out two of its passenger flights round-the-week for vegetable export.
Bangladesh Biman provides cargo space for rent from every Saturday to Thursday, while Fly Dubai reserves four days a week to allow vegetable export on their passenger flights.
Central packaging house essential
Vegetable exporters in Chattogram package their products by renting warehouses scattered throughout Riazuddin Bazar, the largest vegetable market in Chattogram.
As a result, officials from the Plant Quarantine Wing's station at the airport find it difficult to carry out the mandatory inspection of all packaging work.
Businessmen say that if there was a central packaging house, they could have done their individual packaging work together in the presence of government inspectors.
Packaging also needs a scientific approach because different vegetables require different packaging technology and material. This is being overlooked by the government.
Furthermore, vegetables like pointed gourds need proper washing or they lose colour over time. But, traders complain that there is no centre for washing pointed gourds in Chattogram, and this is having a negative impact on the export of this food item.
Shaibal Kanti Das, deputy director of the Plant Quarantine Wing's airport station agreed with the businessmen regarding the dispersed packaging centres. He added that their officials are struggling to keep track of all the packaging work.
A central packaging house will not only be more convenient for inspection, but will also boost export many fold, he told The Business Standard.