Twenty years ago, Bagerhat was famous for its coconut oil and was rightly called the capital of coconut oil in the country. Now though, production in various oil mills has plunged drastically due to packaged oil in the market and a crisis in the supply of dried coconut.
Coconut oil mill owners and businessmen in the district say production has dropped 90% in the last two decades. Many mills are closing down day by day and some are on the verge of closing, with thousands of coconut oil mill workers losing their livelihood.
In recent days, only a handful of mill owners have been running their factories.
In the 1980s, there were more than 60 mills in Bagerhat where about 26 tons of coconut oil was produced every day. Meeting local demand in the district, this oil would go to other districts all across the country, including Dhaka, Rajshahi, Bogura, Sylhet, Cumilla, Chattogram, and more.
At present, only ten mills in the district, including six in the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (Bscic) industrial area, are operating.
Krishna Saha, a coconut oil producer from Bagerhat, said he used to produce 500 kilograms of oil daily when the mill was established in 1998, which rose at one point to as high as 800-900 kilograms. All told, 24 to 25 tons of oil was produced in the district at that time.
Inspired, many businessmen engaged in the business, but when packaged oil sales started in the market in 2006, the demand for oil produced in the mills started to go down, he added.
"At present, I cannot produce more than 200 kilograms of oil daily. Moreover, in the beginning, the price of oil was Tk150 per kilogram. Later, I sold it at Tk600-700, but at present, the price is at most Tk400," he said.
He also believes that an inadequate supply of dried coconuts is partly responsible for declining production in the mills.
Another businessman Ashok Saha said although the production of coconut has increased, there is not enough coconut in the market because a large amount of green coconuts is supplied to different districts.
Coconut oil producer Shankar Saha had to close down his mill as coconuts were not available to meet his needs. Moreover, he was defaulting on his loans which he could not repay due to sluggish business during the pandemic.
Sheikh Yusuf Ali, a coconut trader from the Chakshri area of Rampal, said he used to buy 5,000-6,000 pieces of coconuts from different markets even a decade ago. At present, not even a 1,000 coconuts can be found. He said it is difficult to support a family in this business these days.
Rajib Mallick, from Baitpur of Sadar upazila, said he had about 30 coconut trees. In the past, he would sell dried coconuts in the market, but now buyers come for his green coconuts.
As such, he does not have to do anything like drying them to sell. Moreover, he gets a good price, he added.
Oil mill worker Helena Begum said she used to earn Tk3,000-4,000 per month processing coconuts in coconut oil mills eight years ago. Now she gets at most Tk1,000 as there isn't a sufficient supply of dried coconuts.
Mohammad Sharif Sardar, deputy manager of the district Bscic office, says "There were 15 coconut oil mills in the Bagerhat Bscic industrial area. Of these, nine have shut down. Production at the remaining six is also much less than before.
He added that the mills have shut down due to a crisis in the supply of dried coconuts needed to make oil. Apart from that, the demand for coconut oil in different districts of the country has also come down after many mills were set up in other districts