In 1954, Tajuddin Ahmed started selling umbrellas in Chawk Mogoltuli of Old Dhaka, arguably the first umbrella market in Bangladesh.
Although he started by importing umbrellas from India, he ultimately turned his venture into a manufacturing unit within a few years.
Ahmed sourced umbrella parts - shaft, rib, runner and stretcher from India and top-notch, black canopy (cotton and polyester cloth), wooden stick and crook handle from the local market. The parts were assembled at his shop and sold to merchandisers across the country.
A few years later, he created his own brand - Tajuddin Chhata. In the meantime, some other enterprises, including Sharif and Alam, stepped into the business. Unlike today, Bangla Chhata (classic umbrella with black canopy) that opens up manually, was the only product on offer.
Over time, Tajuddin's son Shamsuddin Ahmed and his grandson Sayem Ahmed ran the enterprise. But the glory of the umbrella brand faded due to the 'China effect'.
Sayem still sells Tajuddin Chhata, but on a limited scale. The large portion of his annual sales, around 25,000 pieces, are dominated either by Chinese ready-made umbrellas or some local brands assembling Chinese umbrella parts.
He said the umbrella parts market is also China-dominated. "Still I run our brand with China-made parts to serve regular buyers," Sayem said.
Once, umbrella manufacturing was registered as a cottage industry. However, the industry has now all but disappeared due to the dominance of Chinese umbrellas.
According to Bangladesh Foreign Trade Statistics, Bangladesh imported more than 4.61 million pieces of umbrellas and 3,100 tonnes of umbrella products in the 2019-20 fiscal year. The prime sourcing country was China.
Wholesalers at Chawk Mogoltuli can better explain the conversion of the local cottage-based umbrella industry into an import-dependent sector.
On a recent humid afternoon, the Chawk Mogoltuli Road was abuzz with the tireless movement of merchandisers and porters. Although the manufacturers of umbrellas no longer dominated the place, wholesalers, as well as retailers, still consider the place as the country's prime wholesale hub of umbrellas.
The crowded shops there were all displaying colourful umbrellas in the front to attract buyers. Inside the shops, cartons with labels of different brand names were shelved while the floors remained covered mostly by bundles of umbrella parts.
The shop attendants had little time to entertain a stranger or a retail shopper because it is, after all, the peak season for umbrella trade. According to traders, sales of umbrellas see their peak in the monsoon which generally ranges between February and August.
Hakim Trade Centre proprietor MD MA Siddique, who served as general secretary of Dhaka Umbrella Merchandisers' Association from 2004 to 2016, said, "At present, 80% of the umbrella market is dominated by Chinese products."
Siddique's father Mohammad Hakim started the wholesale business of umbrellas in 1974 at Chawk Mogoltuli. Siddique joined his father's business in 1987.
Siddique said rural people were the prime customers of Bangla Chhata. While the urban people used umbrellas only in the monsoon, rural people kept umbrellas to protect themselves from the rain and sun as well.
Bangla Chhata, in rural Bangladesh, was a symbol of 'prestige' back then. Ownership of an umbrella drew the distinction between the wealthy or educated people, and the very ordinary ones.
Back when the roads in rural Bangladesh were not developed, umbrellas were villagers' crucial travel gear while walking through county roads. After the rural areas came under a concrete road network, access to time-saving motor vehicles gradually diminished the necessity for umbrellas.
"Around the same time, Chinese umbrellas arrived in the local market. The variety was diverse. The main attraction was the layered folding system, which meant it could be carried in a bag. The handy feature helped its spread all over the market," Siddique said.
At present, the wholesale price of the Chinese umbrellas ranges between Tk200-Tk500 per piece, depending on quality and access to folding. A Bangla Chhata can be bought at Tk125-Tk145.
The Bangla Chhata of Atlas Umbrella Factory was once a prominent brand that many users can remember. However, managers of Atlas' central sales centre at Chawk Mogoltuli admitted that the brand is no longer prominent.
"We manufacture a limited number of Bangla Chhata, which are substandard. Quality products we sell with Atlas tag are all made of Chinese parts," said a manager, requesting anonymity.
According to the market insiders, Shangkar Chhata is the most popular brand at present. What does Shangkar sell?
Although a common perception persists among the buyers that Shangkar is an Indian brand, it is actually a product of SS Trading launched by one native Shangkar Bikash Saha in 1989.
SS Trading too does not manufacture the colourful, folding umbrellas it sells. Currently, at least 25 varieties of Shangkar umbrellas - including two-three-four-five folds, garden umbrellas, and manually spreadable large-size umbrellas (up to 26 inches) are in their product portfolio.
Almost all the Shangkar products are made in China following work orders from SS Trading. Some other enterprises including Moon and Rahman are also following suit.
Umbrella traders love to say that the quality of Bangla Chhata was much better than the ones available at present. But the local industry has ceased to compete with the imported items.
Hakim Trading Centre owner Siddique said the umbrella market size in Bangladesh is around Tk500 crore. "Of the amount, local enterprises can only earn around Tk10 crore as labour charge annually [this is the amount that those who work in the Bangladeshi umbrella market receive]," said the former general secretary of Dhaka Umbrella Merchants' Association.
Why didn't the local industry grow?
He replied industrial production of quality folding umbrellas requires big investment. Amid the availability of importable cheap umbrellas, traditional enterprises are still reluctant to invest a big amount into the sector.
He also pointed to the absence of backward linkage in the industry. Every part of a folding umbrella has to be imported from China.
"Despite this, there is a huge scope for assembling units to flourish if the government provides incentives and waives duties on imported umbrella parts for the registered entrepreneurs," Siddique said.
He believes that if the assembly-based cottage industry grows, it will retain nearly half of Tk500 crore transacted in foreign exchange.