Bangladesh recorded an all-time high in tea production, registering a yield of 96.5 million kg, in the last calendar year 2021, which contributed to a sharp fall in imports.
However, the success fails to satisfy top tea marketing companies as they say the quality of the majority of the locally-grown tea leaves is not up to the mark.
"Consumers are used to having tea of the finest leaves. To produce the premium quality tea, we need quality-grade leaves, which we do not find in local auctions," said Mohammad Idris, executive director of HRC Group, one of the tea marketers.
So, popular companies still need to import tea leaves from different countries, including Kenya, for ensuring the quality of their premium brands, he told The Business Standard.
Simultaneously with production increase, the authorities concerned should prioritise quality, added Idris.
Echoing Idris, several other senior officials of top tea marketing companies told TBS that the majority of the existing 167 tea gardens in the country "failed" to produce quality tea leaves. They (garden owners) were in a competition to increase their yields and bag higher profits.
"Although the Bangladesh Tea Board is aggressive in increasing the country's overall tea production, it is careless about the quality," another tea marketing company senior official, seeking anonymity, said.
He suggested the board be strict to maintain the quality of the leaves.
A professional tea taster, however, seeking anonymity told TBS that there was no problem with the quality of tea grown in local gardens, big companies import 'inferior quality' tea to add colour to their brands. "The quality of local tea is absolutely okay. Import should be discouraged," he said.
When contacted, Madhul Kabir Chowdhury, deputy director (trade) at the board, told The Business Standard that keeping pace with the surge in production, the import of tea leaves fell substantially. He was hopeful that the import would further decrease in future.
"Apart from the quantity, we are now emphasising the quality of the leaves."
Record in production
Tea production recorded an all-time high in 2021, according to the Bangladesh Tea Board. In that year, the 167 tea gardens produced 96.5 million kg of tea, up by 11.7% from 86.39 million kg in the previous year (2020).
It was 96.07 million kg in 2019, 82.13 million kg in 2018, 78.95 million kg in 2017.
The production was registered at 53.40 million kg in 2006. It has been on a consistent rise since then. However, in 2020, the trend lost its momentum due to the Covid-19 outbreak in the country.
Since the past decade, tea cultivation has spread to plain surfaces, particularly in northern Bangladesh, apart from traditional hilly areas, which greatly contributed to the surge in production.
According to the Tea Board data, small-scale farmers of the plain-land area produced 14.5 million kg of tea in 2021, which was 13 million in the previous year.
Usually, tea leaves grown on plain surfaces are being sold at Tk100-200 per kg, while the price is Tk200 for hilly area tea. Besides, frontline gardens sell their tea at TK260-270 per kg.
Currently, the annual consumption of tea is around 90-95 million kg. It has been increasing by 3-4% every year.
Imports on the sharp decline
Tea imports dropped 93% over the past four years. The import was 8.73 million kg in 2017 and decreased to only 0.62 million, or 6.25 lakh, kg in 2021. The reason behind the drop is just simple – a sharp surge in local production. The imports were 7.44 million kg in 2018, 1.52 million kg in 2019, 0.67 million kg in 2020.
Top brands are continuing imports to meet the demand for premium tea products.
On 6 January this year, Abul Khair Group, one of the top tea marketers in the country, received the authorities' nod to import 1,60,000 kg of tea leaves, according to the Tea Board. It will import "Black Tea" from Kenya. Ispahani Tea was also allowed to import 2,88,000 kg on the same day.
Besides, the board is expected to allow several other companies to import tea this year.
Ups and downs in export
Although the local production of tea leaves increased and imports declined, the exports of tea leaves saw ups and downs in the past years.
In 2021, the country exported 0.68 million kg of tea leaves, a sharp drop from 2.17 million kg in 2020. The exports were 0.6 million kg in 2019, 0.65 million kg in 2018 and 2.56 million kg in 2017.
Industry insiders said the gradual rise in domestic consumption and ups and downs in productions were the reason behind the zigzag export trend. Besides, the quality of the local leaves was also a fact.