After toiling in the gulf Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a decade, Abu Siddique returned to his home in Ukhiya three years ago to try his luck out in business.
In the same year, about a million Rohingya refugees crossed the border from neighbouring Myanmar to flee a pogrom and eventually got refuge in camps established in and around the upazila under Cox's Bazar district.
As the camps sprouted up, Siddique thought of cashing in. He opened a reselling shop of crockery items and readymade garments at Jamtola Bazar – a local market with scores of makeshift shops adjacent to a Rohingya camp.
His venture turned out profitable. Even in the time of Covid-19 pandemic which forced the sales of many businesses to nosedive, Siddique was scoring monthly sales worth Tk1 lakh.
"Among my customers, nearly 90% are Rohingya people," Siddique told The Business Standard. "Just 5% of my customers are local Bangalees and 5% are NGO workers."
Prices of the products he sells range between Tk5 and Tk3,000. All the products are bought from Ukhiya Court Bazar – a commercial hub playing an important role in the local economy.
Like Siddique, Mohammad Riaz – a local Bangalee from the Raja Palong neighbourhood – runs a reselling shop of mobile handsets and accessories at Jamtoli Bazar.
He echoed Siddique's words.
"Most of my customers are Rohingya refugees," said Riaz, adding that there was not even a market in Jamtoli before the arrival of the Rohingyas.
"Businesses in the area have increased manifold because of the refugees," the mobile phone vendor continued.
Interestingly, even though the lions' shares of products found in the Jamtoli Bazar are consumed by the Rohingyas, the owners of the shops and land lessees are all Bangalees.
Irrespective of their ethnic identities, the shopkeepers said they need to pay rentals to shop owners and daily toll to the lessees of the market.
A survey of traders in Ukhiya and Teknaf conducted by the World Food Programme (WFP) in early 2020 revealed that sales in the local markets had improved by at least 72% since 2017.
About 53% of the traders surveyed said their business had been boosted by increased demand and enhanced business opportunities.
The markets generate a large amount of transactions every day, and the products are sourced from all across the country, including the local areas.
The WFP – second largest funding agency in the Rohingya camps – has started working with 12 Bangladeshi retailers who sell about 23,000 tonnes of food worth $10 million per month.
Approximately, 10% of the food is sourced locally, involving local community farmers and small businesses, said WFP sources, adding the rest of the food items come from other parts of the country.
"We bring in rice and lentil from the northern region of the country but collect eggs and vegetables locally," said Shakil Kaiser, assistant director of Chaldal – a retailer of WFP.
Among the 77 national vendors for the WFP, half are from Cox's Bazar, holding a contract value worth $4.3 million, said the WFP sources.
Some traders of other markets set afar from the camps meanwhile said they are not getting that much sales.
Abu Siddiq Sawdagagar, president of Court Bazar Shop Owners' Association, said while sellers in Ukhiya Bazar were making big bucks, sellers in Court Bazar were missing out.
It is the house owners in and around Court Bazar who are making money by renting out houses to NGO staffers, he said.
Abu Murshed Chowdhury, president of Cox's Bazar Chamber of Commerce and Industries, told The Business Standard that housing and transport businesses around the camp areas have flourished in the past few years.
He, however, lamented the fact that the local economy still fails to establish its backward linkage locally.
"Even salt and dry fish, which are local products, are not being sourced here. Those are procured and brought by NGOs from Chattogram, Dhaka and other places," he said.
Explaining the reason why local suppliers failed to grab the opportunity, Murshed said many local businessmen are falling behind as they are not that adept in using digital technology.
The vendor enlistment is usually done digitally.
"Those who could cope up with the digital system are doing good businesses. Many from Ukhiya and Teknaf have made money in the process," he quipped.