This winter, if you want to bite into a ripe, juicy strawberry, you will easily find this exotic fruit being sold in any of the superstores in the city. There is also a high chance that you come across strawberries sold by vendors on footpaths and hawkers on buses.
However, a decade ago, strawberry was not a popular fruit among urban folks, let alone the rural people. But now it has become popular all over in Bangladesh, especially in the urban areas.
And there is a man who tirelessly worked to popularise this fruit across the country. The initiative of Md Monzur Hossain, a botany professor at the University of Rajshahi, has now become a success story.
"Before me, many people brought strawberry plants from abroad and tried to cultivate it here, but They all failed. The plants did not survive in our weather. Several months after plantations, they died in this adverse weather," Monzur told The Business Standard in an interview recently.
But this success did not come in a day. A 12-year extensive research by a team led by Monzur made history in 2007 by developing three varieties of strawberry plants adaptive to our weather.
Bangladesh is now growing strawberries on around 10,000 acres of land every year. Fruit lovers have got a new type of fruit in their fruit bowls while farmers are making good profits by cultivating it.
"I think no scientist feels about strawberry as much as I do. I spend so much time on this fruit," said the 59-year-old professor.
How he brought it to Bangladesh
In 1991, Monzur went to Japan's Yamagata University to do his PhD in molecular biology. There was a horticulture lab on the university premises next to his lab, and research on strawberries had been carried out there.
"Strawberries are very precious to Japanese households. When the plants begin bearing fruits, the field wears an alluring look. I fell in love with strawberry," said Monzur.
Not only its aesthetic characteristic, Monzur also considered its nutritional value for malnourished children in Bangladesh. He dreamed of taking strawberry plants to Bangladesh for cultivation by any means. In the meantime, he had learned a bit about how to cultivate it.
In 1996, when he was coming back to Bangladesh after his study, he asked for some saplings from a professor in the lab. At first, the professor denied his request, but upon his insistence, he gave him only three saplings.
With high hopes, on a wintry November morning in 1996, he planted the saplings in the yard of his house at Beldar Para area in the centre of Rajshahi city. However, the plants withered in April when summer began.
"I made a phone call to one of my Japanese friends to send some more saplings. In July that year, I received another three saplings," said Monzur.
How he conducted research
The professor then began doing research on strawberries. There were two major setbacks in cultivating strawberries in Bangladesh. One is that both summer and monsoon have long stretches here in the country and it is tough for strawberry plants to survive in such weather.
"Another problem is that the daytime is shorter in winter in Bangladesh. We call it a short-day condition. We get light for less than 12 hours, and it is a huge barrier to the fruit's cultivation," explained Monzur.
The strawberry variety that is cultivated in Japan needs a long-day condition. In summer, the plants bear flowers in the daylight which stays for 14-15 hours.
"The weather condition is diametrically opposite here. The main focus of our research was on bringing the long-day condition to a short-day one through variation improvement by mutating genes. It took us as many as 12 years to notch up success," Monzur continued.
How he popularised the fruit
Between 2007 and 2008, Monzur began large-scale strawberry cultivation in a field adjacent to Padma Residential Area in Rajshahi. Until then, it was an obscure fruit to local people.
"One day, an agriculture extension officer visited my field. Then came a television crew who recorded my field and telecast it. After that, many people came to me and showed interest in cultivating the fruit," he recalled.
The following year, more and more people started cultivating strawberries commercially. Right now many people are doing so across the country, especially in the northern region, making strawberry cultivation a success.
"I was very confident that whether adults ate it or not, children will definitely love it. Japanese children are madly in love with strawberries," said Monzur.
He believes that as most of the children in our country suffer from malnutrition, they will find strawberry delicious if the highly nutritious fruit is available on their school premises.
"Look, in winter, our fruit market is totally dependent on imported fruits. Between November and March, there is no other indigenous fruit, except for jujube. So, there is a huge scope to plug the gap," said the professor.
Not only customers, farmers are also making a tidy profit cultivating this high-value cash crop. The demand for strawberries is increasing across the country, especially in urban areas, including Dhaka.
The Department of Agricultural Extension does not compile strawberry cultivation data because it is an obscure crop. Professor Monzur said a total of 3,000 acres of land had come under strawberry cultivation this year, and farmers would make good profits too.
Also, 4,000 saplings can be planted on one bigha of land, and it is possible to produce at least two tonnes of strawberry on a piece of land of such measurement.
At the beginning of the season, the price of one kilogramme of strawberry is around Tk1,000-1,200. But at the end of the season, the price plunges significantly as one kilogramme of the fruit is sold for Tk50-100.
Monzur said at least 10 people had called him last year and said they had made a profit of Tk4.5-5 lakh by cultivating strawberry on one bigha of land.
"The profit is miraculous," said Monzur, adding that strawberry has huge export potentials.
He said strawberry is a common item on the Christmas day.
"If our farmers can harvest the fruit before December 10-15, there is a huge prospect of export, especially in cold countries. In winter, the supply of strawberry falls because fields are covered with snow in those countries.
"In winter, they have to depend on greenhouse and extra heating to produce strawberry. As a result, the price of a single strawberry rises to even $25. We can capture this market if we can export to Japan. Export possibilities are high," explained Monzur.
He said they had already developed a technology in association with the University of Florida in the US. Using this technology, farmers will be able to yield strawberries by mid-December.
But he refused to disclose further details about the technology.
He said strawberry production would be optimal between 22 and 27 degrees Celsius. Strawberry can be cultivated anywhere in the country with soil management.
For optimal production, the pH level of soil will have to be 6.5. This soil condition is available in northern districts, including Joypurhat, Bogura and Rajshahi.
Though it has bright prospects as a cash crop, Monzur is unhappy with government efforts to help strawberry farmers.
"The colour of our strawberries is very bright. Their flavour and nutritional value are very high too. But it is a neglected crop in Bangladesh because the government agency concerned never took it seriously. I do not know why," said a frustrated Monzur.
He said the areas where farmers are now facing the main problems are logistic support, post-harvest processing and marketing.
Born in Singra upazila of Natore, Monzur completed his matriculation in 1973. He started his studies in the department of botany at the University of Rajshahi in 1975. Later, he joined the university as a lecturer in 1983.
He still uses his own funds to maintain three medium-sized research fields. Every day, he receives phone calls from farmers across the country asking for advice.
"If I give up strawberry today, its cultivation will vanish from the country in a few years," he said, adding that this is the reason why he dedicates so much of his time to this bewitching fruit.