Like a diligent student, every day, as the sun rises, Jalal sets off for Sadarghat Terminal to secure a fresh supply of betel leaves for his wholesale shop – MS Paan Traders. Knowing that the price of betel leaves fluctuates with demand, wholesalers like Jalal rush to Sadarghat hoping to place the perfect bid on their desired fresh produce.
Among the fresh goods, betel leaves from the Rajshahi, Barisal, Chattogram, and Jhenaidah districts reach Sadarghat at the crack of dawn. Located at the edge of the dock, Shyam Bazar is one of the country's largest betel leaf markets.
The bazar is a hub where farmers arrive early in the morning and auction their produce to wholesalers. At sunrise, every day, sellers can be heard chanting their stock prices – which fluctuate depending on the hype of the market. Prices tend to be higher when the market is full of buyers; by the end of the afternoon, stock prices start decreasing as most buyers have finished purchasing their required products by then.
It is common to see vendors selling betel leaves near tong er dokan (tea stalls). Sometimes, restaurants and community centres offer a particularly tempting batch of betel leaves decorated with different colourful ingredients for one to select, after a meal. Personally, I have grown up seeing my grandmother and aunts, maintaining a stack of betel leaves in a box with: chopped areca nuts, slaked lime, jorda, and cardamom – among other items.
The Shyam Bazar market operates week-long. Saturday, Monday, and Thursday are the peak market days. Starting at 7am and going till 2pm, the market is full of buyers and sellers.
Surprisingly, around 64,00,000 betel leaves are traded at Shyam Bazar every day, with daily sales exceeding Tk1,60,00,000.
"During the betel leaf season, on a good day, our sales reach Tk20,00,000 and in winter, we sell around Tk5,00,000 per day," said Subal Roy, proprietor of LSA Paan Traders.
"There is no fixed rate for betel leaf, the rate is set according to the leaf's origin. Some betel leaves are ruined in the transportation process. Thus, the wholesalers cannot set a fixed price for this product," said Md Hafizur Rahman, secretary of Shyambazar Krishi Pannya Arat Banik Samiti.
According to the association, there are 320 wholesalers in Shyam Bazar, 180 of whom are active. Among these, 40 sell betel leaves. Only 24 of the 40 wholesalers are associated with the committee. The remaining 16 operate independently.
There was a drop in the number of wholesalers in 2017 when many were evicted from their business premises as the terminal was remodelled according to the government's instructions. The secretary said, "Almost a third of the wholesale shops were forced out then and the evicted ones are now scattered through the streets of Bangla Bazar."
According to the wholesalers of Shyam Bazar, a bira (80 pieces) of Rajshahi's betel leaf costs Tk250-300. One bira of Jhenaidah's betel leaf costs Tk100. And one bira of bura paan (ripe betel leaf) from Rajshahi and Jhenaidah costs Tk40.
SM Rasel Hussain, the proprietor of Janani Paan Arot, sells around Tk2-3 lakh of paan per day. He says, "Barisal's betel leaf has a higher distribution during the non-production season and we also sell Moheskhali's betel leaf during April or May."
Paan is incomplete without supari (areca nut) – it is the cookie to one's milk, the cheese to one's macaroni. Barisal produces the best areca nuts in the country which cost Tk250-360 per kilogram. Areca nuts from Sylhet vary from Tk2.5-5 per piece depending on their size.
"We sell the areca nuts of various regions upon availability, we are selling Barisal's areca nuts now. Rangpur's areca nuts will come soon and we will sell a piece within a price range of Tk3-5," said Md Golam, an employee of Noru Sharkar Arot.
Rasel, a postgraduate student of Dhaka University, works at his family business alongside his studies. He shared his experience and struggles of selling betel leaves with The Business Standard. "Almost 70 percent of my daily sales are on credit. Most of the retailers cannot afford to pay upfront for the product. The retailers are people surviving on a daily-basis income."
Janani Paan Arot works on a commission basis with the farmers – reducing its risks of storing betel leaves. "We retain 10 percent of the selling price and give the rest of the money to the farmer. This helps us to assure convenient sales and face fewer losses," said Rasel Hussain.
He said the expenses keep increasing every day but the price of betel leaves is not increasing accordingly. "The rent hikes every year, there is no regulation to this. I have to pay Tk1,800 daily for my 100 sqft shop. When we first rented this shop, our daily rent was Tk700 and within 3 years, it spiked 2.5 times."
The Shyambazar Krishi Pannya Arat Banik Samiti does not help the wholesalers in this regard. "We can do nothing about the contract between a shop owner and wholesaler," said Hafizur, secretary of the association.
The association is only responsible for maintaining daily labourers and settling their wages on behalf of businesses.
Among the betel leaf wholesalers of Shyam Bazar, there are some who have a number of exporters among their clients. One such wholesaler, Indrojit Das, proprietor of KS Paan Traders said, "We have daily sales of Tk6-8 lakh per day. We also sell to exporters like BD Food and Rajdhani Enterprise who trade betel leaf in the Middle East."
However, the export market of betel leaf witnessed a downward trend when the European Union banned Bangladeshi betel leaf imports in 2014. The ban has been extended over the years and is ongoing.
Regardless of the ban, the Export Promotion Bureau's statistics on export goods states that in the fiscal year 2014-15, betel leaf worth $22,475,863.23 was exported from Bangladesh. In the following fiscal year, the amount became $40,828,001.19.
Fiscal year 2016-17 witnessed a massive downfall, decreasing exports of betel leaf to $14,619,418.14. In the following fiscal year, the amount slightly increased to $15,035,020.90. In fiscal year 2018-19, betel leaf worth $37,585,691.32 was exported from Bangladesh.
"There are great opportunities in this sector that can easily bring in about $100 million. Given the demand we have today, if we are able to meet it, we can easily earn $60 million just from betel leaf exports," said Md Monjurul Islam, advisor of Bangladesh Fruits, Vegetables and Allied Products Exporters Association (BFVAPEA).
The exports dropped when traces of Salmonella bacteria were found on Bangladesh's betel leaves. "The European Union halted the import of betel leaf to its countries because they discovered Salmonella in betel leaves," said Monjurul.
Since then, the Ministry of Agriculture and BFVAPEA have jointly worked with researchers to find ways to combat Salmonella. "We trained farmers, exporters, and almost everyone who works in the betel leaf sector, educating them about the Salmonella bacteria – making sure that they have enough capabilities and knowledge about the bacteria and how to spare betel plants from it," he added.
Upon successful implementation of quality standards at the primary level, both the Ministry of Agriculture and BFVAPEA have been able to assure the cultivation of Salmonella-free betel leaves.
"Last month, during a video conference, we assured the European Union that we can start exporting Salmonella-free betel leaves. Currently, we are awaiting their feedback. For now, paan is being exported to the Middle East," said Monjurul Islam.