The testing lab of the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) set up in 2019 has not been operational since the beginning and vegetable and fruit exports are suffering because of lengthy processes at private labs and the questionable results these labs often provide. In spite of that, another project has been approved recently to procure new lab equipment and train new personnel.
This phytosanitary lab strengthening project was implemented at a cost of Tk189 crore during 2012-2019. The tests of the health of plants and vegetables are essential especially with respect to the requirements of international trade.
Following repeated detections of pests and diseases in fresh fruits and vegetables exported to the European Union, the government set up the Central Packing House to sort, grade, test and package fresh items before transporting those straight to the airport through a cold chain.
The Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) spent crores in equipment and training, but could not put its quality testing laboratory in use even three years after project completion, leaving fresh fruit and vegetable exporters out of the intended benefits--faster, cheaper, reliable test results.
Still unpacked, expensive lab equipment is left to decay out in the open as none of the trained personnel are posted to operate those at the Central Packing House at Shyampur in the capital.
Exporters are forced to get their merchandise tested and certified at private labs – which costs them more money and time.
Now, another project has been approved to purchase more equipment and train more officials for the lab.
The lab at the packing house was a component of the Tk189 crore Strengthening Phytosanitary Capacity in Bangladesh Project implemented by the DAE between 2012 and 2019.
According to the DAE's Plant Quarantine Wing, 70 pieces of equipment of 45 types were purchased for Tk60 crore and delivered to the laboratory site at Shyampur three years ago.
Some 1,250 people were trained in the country and 90 got trained abroad for the project. Some officials even travelled to more than one country for training.
Lab equipment covered with plastic sheets or still in packing boxes were seen left unused in the open on a day last week.
According to sources, the purchased equipment were of the best brands from different countries including Poland, Japan, and Germany.
But currently, there is no personnel to run the lab. Several trained officers of the packing house are now posted elsewhere. As a result, the equipment is getting damaged from disuse.
Md Lutfar Rahman Sikder, deputy director of Central Packing House, told The Business Standard, "Sixteen officers are now working here. A few of them took training abroad under the project but they were not trained to operate the equipment."
Other officers who were trained under the project are not working at the packing house anymore due to promotion and transfer.
Ahsanullah, a consultant of the phytosanitary strengthening project, said, "We have purchased state-of-the-art machinery. I have also trained many officers. But due to transfers and promotions, they are not here now. That is why it was not possible to start the laboratory."
Md Asadullah, director general of the DAE, also acknowledged the failure.
"Apart from the officials, we also trained some farmers who are involved in contract farming and exporters to run the lab. The trained officials could not be posted here. Besides, technicians who were supposed to work at the lab have been promoted and transferred. Therefore, the lab could not be put into operation," he said.
"Skilled officials will be posted here under a new project. We are hopeful about opening the lab soon," he added.
Pradeep Ranjan Chakraborty, secretary of the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED), said buying the equipment with project money was a waste.
"Although there is interest in buying equipment in many projects, there is no interest in using them. This is what happened to the quarantine lab," he said.
Deputy Director Md Lutfar Rahman Sikder admitted that the work for the laboratory has not progressed since the project was completed in 2019.
He said an engineer and an entomologist have recently been deployed and they have started testing and selecting the equipment for preliminary testing.
"There is no way to tell whether any of the equipment is damaged without testing," he said.
Yet another project approved
On 24 August, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) approved a new project worth Tk153 crore to purchase more equipment for the Packing House lab, train more officers for the lab, and renovate the building.
The authorities said the goal of the project was to upgrade the plant quarantine laboratory to international standards to export quality fruits and vegetables. They said the project will ensure the confidence of importers and export of these products is expected to increase by 25%-30%.
Under the new project, there is a proposal for setting up an international standard laboratory to detect pests in fruits and vegetables. For this, the laboratory will be expanded to 3,315 sq-ft and its infrastructure will be renovated.
The lab will be used to test for virus, fungus, bacteria, and worms in fruits and vegetables. The authorities have planned to buy equipment for mycology, bacteriology, virology, nematology and microbial tests in the laboratory. The project has a plan to train 180 officials in the country and six officials abroad.
A team led by Tanmoy Das, joint secretary of the Extension Wing of the Ministry of Agriculture, visited the laboratory a month ago. They also recommended launching the laboratory soon and sending a report to Agriculture Minister Md Abdur Razzak.
A number of officials at the Plant Quarantine Wing said training should be given only to the officers who can work in the packing house for a long period.
According to the Export Promotion Bureau, vegetable and fruit exports fell to $119.31 million in 2020-21 from $164.49 million in 2019-20. Exporters mostly blame the Covid-19 pandemic for the decline.
The packing house is usually used for exporting vegetables and fruits. Exporters bring their products here for quality verification, cleaning, washing, drying and packaging. The goods are taken to the airport after that.
There are separate rooms on the ground and second floors of the building for processing export products. There are several cooling rooms for storing vegetables and fruits at 4-6 degrees Celsius. The laboratory is on the third floor of the building.
Meanwhile, exporters are suffering due to the lab not in operation. Vegetables and fruits for export need to be tested regularly to detect any chemical contamination, and bacterial or fungal infection, especially for European Union countries.
As the packing house lab is not yet operational, exporters have to get their products tested in private laboratories, a time consuming process which sometimes affects the quality of the products. The results provided by these private labs may often be questioned.
Exporters said they are falling far behind in the world market due to the crisis.
Manjurul Islam, an adviser to the Bangladesh Fruits, Vegetables and Allied Products Exporters Association, said, "Exporting products to Europe and America involve a lot of testing. If the Central Packing House lab was operational, we would not need to go to private labs. It would have saved us time."
On the government's new project, he said, "Let's see how fast they can start the lab."