Overcoming various hurdles amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Bangladesh managed to meet the 2020's tea production target, though the production decreased by 9.68 million kg compared to 2019 figures.
According to the Bangladesh Tea Board, during the 2020 season, 86.39 million kg of tea was produced in 167 large and small tea gardens of the country against the target of 75.94 million kg. By contrast, a record 96.07 million kg of tea was produced in 2019.
A record tea production was expected at the start of 2020, but the production was hampered due to the pandemic and bad weather.
The tea board sources told The Business Standard that the demand for tea fell by about 10-15% last year, due to a drop in crowds at hotels, restaurants, or tea shops. Tea production was also hampered by unfavourable weather in the first five months of the year, with a 10% decrease.
Major General Zahirul Islam, chairman of the Bangladesh Tea Board, told TBS that the tea gardens were running quite smoothly, even during the pandemic. The tea production target was achieved by running the tea auction centres in compliance with Covid-19 safety guidelines, timely distribution of fertilisers at subsidised prices, strictly codified protocols in the garden, increase in tea workers' wages, rations, and health services.
He added that this continuity of production, and achievement of production target, even during the Covid-19 situation, is testament to the resilience of the nation's tea industry in the face of any shocks.
Meanwhile, according to a 2019 report published by the London-based International Tea Committee, Bangladesh is now the 9th largest tea producer in the world, producing 2% of the world's total tea.
Bangladesh was in 10th place for several consecutive years. At the end of the last century, Bangladesh was ranked 11th in tea production and 12th in 1989. China and India are now in first and second places in tea production respectively, as per the International Tea Committee.
New record in North Bengal
In 2020, 10.3 million kg of tea was produced from 10 large and 6,000 small tea gardens in Panchagarh, Thakurgaon, Lalmonirhat, Dinajpur and Nilphamari plains of North Bengal. Almost 5.13 crore kg of green tea leaves were extracted from these tea gardens in 2020, up by 7.11 lakh kg from the previous year.
Dr Mohammad Shamim Al Mamun, a senior scientific officer at the Bangladesh Tea Board Regional Office in Panchagarh and director of the Northern Bangladesh Project, told TBS that Panchagarh and its adjoining districts are very promising areas for tea cultivation on plain land.
"Tea cultivation and production are increasing by the day in the northern region. Farmers are receiving various kinds of support to incentivise expansion of tea cultivation. They are also getting improved varieties of saplings at a low cost," he added.
He also said a pest management laboratory has been set up in the regional office where tea growers receive scientific support to solve issues related to disease and insect control. This year, small farmers have been encouraged to cultivate tea after having received a fair price for the raw leaves produced in their gardens.
A record amount of tea was produced this year as a result of hands-on training of tea growers in the northern region of the country through the Camellia Open Sky School coupled with a modern technology support, he added.
Traders in this sector said due to a change in Bangladeshis' eating habits, people of all classes and professions drink tea. The market for this industry is currently over Tk20,000 crore.
M Shah Alam, secretary general at the Tea Association of Bangladesh, told TBS that the consumption of tea has increased in the country, whereas in the '80s, 80% of the tea produced in the country was exported, 95-96% of the production is currently required for the domestic market.
However, tea is imported as well. Some traders bring high-quality tea and market it with local tea, while some can afford to import due to the low prices.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and the Bangladesh Tea Board, tea production was over 3.13 crore kg in 1980. In 2019, the production was over 9.6 crore kg. In other words, tea production has tripled in four decades.
Sheikh Kajal Mahmud, senior manager of Gazipur Tea Garden in Kulaura, said production in his gardens declined by 12% from 2019 to 2020. Tea production was 11.96 lakh kg and 10.47 lakh kg in 2019 and 2020 respectively, against the target of 12 lakh kg.
However, even with unfavourable weather last year, things started to take a turn for the better by the middle of the year, and some gardeners have exceeded 2019 production levels. One such garden is Nahar Tea Garden.
Piyush Kanti, manager of Nahar Tea Garden, said, "There are 32 gardens in Balishira Valley, of which three gardens, including ours, produced 5,000 kg higher than 2019 numbers.
The rains in October benefited tea production, he added.
Better price in 2020
Ahsan Habib, marketing officer at the Bangladesh Tea Board, said 34 auctions were held in Chattogram during the 2020-21 auction year (April 2020 to January 2021), where almost 7.3 crore kg was sold at Tk188.08 per kg; 15 auctions were held in Sreemangal, in which 7.95 lakh kg of tea was sold at Tk171.78 per kg.
During the 2019-20 auction year, 44 auctions were held in Chattogram and Sreemangal and 9.43 crore kg of tea was sold at Tk176.08 per kg.
According to Jahar Tarafdar, member secretary, Tea Planters and Traders Association of Bangladesh, participation had dropped at the start of the pandemic; however, more tea is currently being sold at auction. With a surge in demand, tea is being sold extensively in the domestic market.
Munir Ahmed, deputy director (planning) at the Bangladesh Tea Board, said, "The import-dependent tea sector has been export-oriented for the past three years. To keep the production going amid the pandemic, the government provided all the gardens with various pesticides and other ingredients. So, we were able to exceed the target even during the coronavirus. We expect better production this year."
Commercial tea cultivation first started in 1854 at Malnichhara Tea Garden in Sylhet. There were 150 tea gardens during the independence movement. This figure has now increased to 167 – 92 in Moulvibazar, 24 in Habiganj, 19 in Sylhet, 22 in Chattogram, seven in Panchagarh, two in Rangamati and one in Thakurgaon.
Domestic demand for tea in Bangladesh is 90 million kg per year. Tea import started in 2010 to meet this demand. A maximum of 1.14 crore kg of tea was imported in 2015.