The traditional fragrance industry in Moulvibazar, that mostly produce and export agar and attar to different countries especially in the Middle East, has suffered a loss of at least Tk400 crore last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as sales almost halved due to flight cancellations.
According to the Bangladesh Agar & Attar Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BAMEA), around 350 registered and unregistered factories in the district export agar-attar worth about Tk800 crore every year.
About four lakh people are directly or indirectly involved in this industry, they said.
However, more than 50-60% of the workers have already lost their job due to the pandemic. Last year, annual sales dropped to only Tk400 crore, as per BAMEA.
Bokul Ahmed, the owner of Tasnia & Tabassum Agar Attar Factory, one of the affected traders, told The Business Standard, "I used to export agar-attar worth Tk2 crore every year. But last year, I suffered a loss of around Tk1 crore due to the closure of international flights to the Middle East amid the pandemic. The way the situation is going this year, we are seeing no hope."
Abdul Aziz, the owner of Maa Agor Ator Enterprise, said, "I have not been able to sell even one kilogram of agar-attar this year. I have unsold products worth Tk60 lakh from last year. If the situation continues, I will suffer a similar loss."
"Before Covid-19, there were about 30 workers in my factory. But now only 10 workers remain," he added.
Abdul Aziz said, "At present, I have a bank loan of about Tk10 lakh. I am struggling to meet the cost of the factory including repayment of my bank loan due to the crisis. We have not received any help from the government."
Traders say they started agar-attar export at a limited scale at the beginning of this year as the virus infection rate was low at that time, which helped them to somehow recover a part of the economic loss. But later, exports stopped again as lockdown measures were imposed several times.
Meanwhile, industry insiders say that they are facing some obstacles in recovering the business loss.
According to traders, one of the main obstacles is the lengthy and complex process of obtaining the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) certificate.
Traders have to get a CITES certificate from the forest department which often takes a long time. However, they urged the authorities to cancel the rule of obtaining a certificate amid the pandemic or make the certification process easy for the sake of the industry.
Abdul Quddus, the owner of Sujanagar Perfume, said, "I have unsold products worth around Tk2 crore due to Covid-19. I am trying to export some products now after the withdrawal of the latest lockdown and preparing products worth about Tk60 lakh. But the complex process of obtaining a CITES certificate is hindering the export."
Agar is cultivated more or less in almost every village including Saldigha, Rafinagar, Hasimpur, Chintapur, Barathal of the Sujanagar union in Moulvibazar's Baralekha upazila. The hilly areas of Patharia also produce agar.
People use the aroma of agar for its soothing quality. It is also used to make various medicines, perfumes, soaps and shampoos. Agar and attar are generally used to distribute perfume at home on various religious and social occasions.
According to local history, traders from Moulvibazar's Baralekha started this business in Assam and Mumbai of India about 400 years ago. However, commercial agar production in the area began in the 1940s.
Currently, traders from this area are running wholesale businesses of agar-attar in Singapore and Dubai. There are also big markets for their products in some Middle East countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and, Yemen. Some European countries also import agar-attar from them.
BAMEA Secretary Kabir Ahmed Chowdhury told The Business Standard that traders in this sector need the government's support to survive the pandemic.
"I use to export 6-7kg of attar per year. But last year, I exported only 2 kg of attar. The price in the international market has also come down. Traders are suffering huge losses due to the crisis. We need government assistance to survive."
"Out of 350 factory owners in Baralekha, only 10-15 have received government-announced incentives. Around 90% of the traders here have bank loans and 50% of the factories still do not have a gas connection," he said.
Ansarul Haque, president of the BAMEA, said, "Half of the year has already passed. But the export has not exceeded 10-15% of the amount in the previous year. Flights have been cancelled frequently due to lockdowns this year. I am afraid the industry will face a loss of around Tk400 crore to Tk500 crore this year."
He added, "There is a $160 million agar-ator market worldwide. And the future is bright for this industry in Bangladesh if the government provides the gas connection to all factories and simplifies the banking complexities to get the 20% subsidy on perfume export."
Ansarul Haque also urged the government to provide SME incentives for all the affected traders.