From outside, 476, Baganbari Residential Complex in Cumilla city looks like just another household. Once you go inside, you will be welcomed with around 2,500 square feet courtyard that is converted into a cropland for rare vegetables and fruits.
Numerus earthen pots–different in sizes–with saplings and standing plants as well as plastic pots with seeds on wet tissue paper are decoratively placed on the concrete pathways, porches, and staircases of the surrounding building.
This particular holding is familiar to the local agricultural officials and journalists because of Ahmed Jamil whose love for any rare plant is legendary among the local people.
"Ahmed Jamil is an innovative agriculturist. He has successfully introduced a number of exotic varieties, particularly the black beauty tomato, in our country. His fruitful efforts will certainly help introduce new varieties into the list of available vegetables and fruits," said Tarik Mahmudul Islam, the seed certification officer in Cumilla.
Passion for rare seeds
Three years ago, Jamil caught media attention when he harvested the black beauty tomato for the first time ever in Bangladesh.
Recently, The Business Standard team met Jamil–a 71-year-old man–at his Baganbari residence. Before starting a formal conversation, he showed us his stock of sachets and Ziploc bags with varieties of seeds–all imported.
Among his collection, there were seeds of orange cherry, yellow sweet cherry, red cherry, pork chop, chocolate cherry, piccolo cherry, banana cherry, black zebra roma, black beauty, pear cherry, pink cherry, Japanese long cucumber, Carolina reaper pepper and more.
Jamil said, "While talking to someone living abroad, I always look for new varieties of seeds. Often they entertain my quest. With their own cost, they mail me seeds. However, I preserve only the seeds suitable for germination in Bangladesh." His statement showed hope that the names of exotic varieties mentioned earlier can be grown locally someday.
After his graduation from Victoria College, Cumilla, Jamil started his business as a contractor.
A year later, he joined an insurance company. But nothing had attracted him like agriculture.
He inherited a one-acre land at Naora village under Lalmai Upazila–his ancestral home. On lease-basis, he cultivated seasonal vegetables and paddy and did fish farming in the village pond.
Jamil's younger brother Jasim Imran, a professor at South Carolina University, is his big supporter. "Like many relatives, friends and acquaintances, Jasim calls me over the phone to inform me about vegetables and flowers. Often he takes the burden of mailing the seeds to me," Jamil said.
Sometimes, Jamil asks for new seeds unknown to his friends and relatives.
For example, cultivation of Japanese long cucumber cultivation is not very familiar in the US. But its seeds are available there.
Knowing this, Jamil imported the seeds and successfully cultivated them at Naora.
How did the cucumbers taste? Jamil answered, "I work with grassroots farmers. After harvesting the exotic varieties, I let the farmers taste them. They gave positive feedback about the Japanese long cucumber."
Cultivation of black beauty
In 2017, Jamil collected seeds of black beauty from South Carolina and planted them at his Baganbari courtyard.
Only four to five plants germinated. But untimely rain damaged all of them except one.
"I carefully raised the single plant. That was the beginning. Four months later, fruits arrived," he recalled.
The special occasion attracted many visitors to Jamil's home. He offered guests with slices of the rare tomato. At the same time, he preserved the seeds.
The single surviving plant finally produced more than 11kg of tomatoes. Jamil distributed the seeds among some interested farmers in 22 districts.
Next year, he produced more than 1,600kg of black beauty tomatoes, most of those were distributed among his acquaintances.
And the next year, the production rose to more than 2,200kg. Jamil sold the products in the retail market.
Within three days, all of the tomatoes were sold.
Jamil did not see success all the time, but he never gave up.
Last year in March, Jamil failed to harvest black beauty tomatoes he cultivated on five-acre land because he had survived a major heart attack and eventually had an open heart surgery in late February.
Due to the delay, he incurred a huge loss, accounting for around two crore taka. He also lost the expected tomato seeds.
Later in August, he requested his acquaintance Mohammad Zaman, an expatriate residing in Williston, US, for black beauty tomato seeds. Zaman did not find the seeds in the US market.
He searched for the seeds in China too, but failed. After a thorough search, finally he found the seeds in Greece.
But the Greece-based source could not send the seeds directly to Bangladesh.
Then Zaman collected the seeds and mailed them to Jamil. After one and a half months of communication with Zaman, he received the expected consignment.
Zaman provided all the support free of cost. However, Jamil had to spend Tk7,000 to get customs clearance of the imported item.
We questioned him why he did not collect black beauty tomato seeds from whom he had distributed earlier.
He replied, "Most of the farmers cultivated the tomato in a mixed culture, manipulating the purity of the seeds. That is why I had to collect the pure seeds from the US."
A self-taught farmer
Jamil's quest for new variety seeds is well known to his wife Nasrin, daughter Parisa and son Jayed.
Recently, Parisa wrote a status on her Facebook wall, expressing pride about her father.
His wife Nasrin Jamil said, "He is crazy about agriculture. Wherever he goes, he looks for new varieties. If he is offered with new and tasty fruits, he silently saves the seeds in his pocket and brings them home for germination."
Jamil's Baganbari courtyard is his laboratory. He also utilises the rooftop of neighbouring buildings owned by his siblings. A help named Anwar assists him in farming.
He accompanied us to the rooftop of a neighbouring three-storey building. There were a number of earthen tubs with standing black beauty plants.
Yellow flowers were blooming there. Jamil said that in late January, fruits are expected to appear.
There is no use of chemical fertiliser in Jamil's farm. He applies ash, egg shells, banana skin, dried fish and onion skin as organic fertiliser.
Jamil knows grafting. Recently, he initiated grafting of black beauty with locally grown "tith begun" (cockroach berry). He explained the reason, "The street plant (tith begun) is resilient to many diseases. If the grafting proves successful, cultivation of black beauty would be risk-less."
He preserves seeds in air-tight jars and keeps them in the deep freezer. Such preservation ensures better germination of the seeds.
"Neither have I studied agriculture books, nor do I browse websites for new technology. I always gather knowledge from practical experience. This is the convenient way for me," Jamil concluded.