Vast farmlands in Kholabaria village in Natore – some as big as six football fields – are now lush with green medicinal plants, especially aloe vera. Almost every farmer in the village has now turned to this new trend of cultivation instead of traditional crops.
The village beside the Dhaka-Rajshahi Highway has become the largest supplier of medicinal plants for the Taiwan Food Processing Industries Ltd in Mymensingh, which exports these products to a number of countries in Asia and Europe and the US.
According to the Natore Department of Agricultural Extension, Kholabaria produces 14,140 tonnes of aloe vera annually. After harvesting the succulent plants, the farmers send those to Taiwan Food that has an aloe vera processing facility.
Mostafa Kamal has cultivated aloe vera on around 8.5 acres of land. He supplies 10-12 tonnes of aloe vera to Taiwan Food a day. He said the company purchases the aloe vera leaves from Natore farmers round the year at Tk7-13 per kilogram depending on the quality.
Aloe vera cultivation needs less water and maintenance and around 30,000kg of the short-stemmed fleshy slabs can be grown on one bigha (0.62 acre) of land.
Farmers said monsoon is the main season for harvesting. After sowing the plant, the leaves can be collected every month and harvest from a single plant can continue for years.
Taiwan Food buys around 20 tonnes of aloe vera per day, mostly from Kholabaria. The leaves are skinned in the factory's automated machine and the clear, mostly solid slab of aloe gel is collected.
The gel is then processed, canned and exported to Taiwan, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and Europe.
Taiwan Food Processing Industries is an organisation of the Shepherd Group – a Taiwan-funded firm in Bangladesh, established in 2014 in Mymensingh's Bhaluka with an aim to introduce Bangladeshi agricultural products to other countries.
Abdul Mannan, deputy managing director of Shepherd Group, said only street hawkers and vendors in Bangladesh use aloe vera gel for herbal drinks. Without this, the country hardly has any demand for the succulent.
"But the farmers are getting a fair price as we are buying it from them," he added.
Aloe gel is found in many consumer products including beverages, skin lotion, cosmetics, ointments, or in the form of gel for minor burns and sunburns.
Taiwan Food's Manager Sajjad Hossen told The Business Standard that they do 90% of the processing by automated process.
Mushroom, corn, jackfruit to join the export basket
Alongside aloe vera, Taiwan Food buys an average of 35,000 to 40,000 pieces of pineapple per day from Kholabaria farmers during summer and processes them in its factory to can and then export.
Shepherd Group Deputy Managing Director Abdul Mannan said the excess pineapples to the market used to rot before they began exporting.
Mannan said the plant plans to process and export jackfruits too since the excess supply of jackfruits during summer also rots. He said the export will benefit the jackfruit orchard owners. Besides, we are mulling exports of mushrooms and corn.
He said the company was formed based on the idea of exporting processed Bangladeshi agricultural products.
They export to Taiwan, Japan, China, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates, but currently they are now sending items only to Taiwan and China because of the pandemic-led restrictions.
Taiwan Food employs 300 workers in several shifts.
Mannan said 60-65% of garment sector raw materials are imported and then the products are exported after manufacturing. But 100% of agricultural products can be exported without importing anything beforehand as the sector does not require any raw material.
He, however, said there are several issues in exporting agricultural products. "To export, you will have to gain the trust first. If products are found contaminated, you will lose acceptance," he added.