Five years ago, Kazi Jashim Uddin, a businessman of Babuganj upazila under Barishal district received 20 seedlings of Vietnamese coconut variety. He was told by the local horticulture centre that each seedling would mature in three years and produce coconuts, three times more than the local varieties. Jashim also received the necessary training.
Among the seedlings, two died soon after those were planted. Although others reached maturity, only a few bore coconuts as much as predicted. Jashim said, "I think I did not take proper care of the trees. The harvests from the Vietnamese varieties should have been more."
He invested Tk3,000 on each of the trees for fertilisers, insecticides and irrigation.
Jashim received the seedlings as a training allowance from the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE). Under the Year-Round Fruits Production and Nutrition Improvement Project, DAE imported the seedlings for Tk525 per piece and distributed those to local trainees as an alternative of Tk500 per head training allowance.
According to the project director Md Mehdi Masood, the DAE distributed 2,50,000 seedlings of high-yielding Vietnamese coconut among farmers in the southern and some other districts during the 2015-2020 project tenure.
That means the government spent more than Tk13.12 crore solely on the distribution of the seedlings. And what is the outcome?
Findings at several field visits and conversations with farmers, agriculture officers and nurserymen suggest that only a few lucky farmers saw positive results.
In 2016, Rahat Sarder of Dehergati union, one of Jashim's neighbours, received the same amount of seedlings from the same horticulture centre. He took care of the seedlings following the training he received.
All the seedlings grew into trees. However, none of those saw flowerings. The outcome of his effort and investment amounted to zero.
A Vietnamese anomaly
The trend of planting Vietnamese coconut varieties was high in the Barishal region during 2016-17. That is why Rahat imported 32 seedlings of coconuts directly from Vietnam and prepared a separate orchard in August 2017.
All of the seedlings grew into trees and flowering began as expected. In October of this year, Rahat harvested a good amount of coconuts from the trees.
He spared 100 pieces of the first harvests for breeding and the rest were either consumed by family members or retailed at Tk300 per piece.
In a recent visit to Rahat's coconut orchard, this correspondent found bunches of green coconuts at two of the 32 trees in the orchard. Rahat said the growing coconuts will be preserved for breeding. He will sell each of the seedlings for Tk3,000.
"The price of seedlings is fixed because I have invested a lot in this field. Meanwhile, the demand is very high. Already I have received a huge number of demand letters from some local and foreign buyers," Rahat said.
Farming trainer Shameem Hawlader, the owner of Babuganj-based Ma Babar Doa Nursery, echoed Rahat. "Demand for the seedlings of Vietnamese coconut is still very high. As the tree is dwarf and looks ornamental, many fancy businesses and holdings owners are collecting the seedlings.
Moreover, these varieties yield much earlier than the local variety," said nurseryman Shameem.
He supplied 25 seedlings of Vietnamese coconut to a businessman of Bogura district a day before he met this correspondent on 1 December. Shameem collects the particular seedlings from the importers and resells those at Tk1,000.
Why and how to plant Vietnamese coconut varieties?
In 2015, the DAE introduced two varieties of Vietnamese coconut: Siam Blue and Siam Green, in Bangladesh as the short-time, high-yielding and salinity tolerant varieties seemed suitable for commercial cultivation across the coastal region.
While the local coconut varieties took seven years minimum to bear fruits, the Vietnamese varieties, if nurtured well, produced fruits within two and half years. The height of the tree is a maximum of one foot when it comes to production.
According to nurserymen, the cultivation of Vietnamese coconut requires special care from the beginning: preparing a mada (the hole dug for planting seedlings). A hole with a depth of about 1.5 meters wide and 1.5 meters deep should be prepared (refilled) with soil, dried organic manures and some other chemical nutrients including boron, zinc and nitrogen.
To protect the seedlings from pest attacks, 'furadan' should be applied. After one week, seedlings need to be planted and watered adequately. Every six months after planting the seedlings, an approved amount of fertilisers should be applied at the bottom of each stem.
The exotic varieties also need special pest control measures. Pesticides against bud rotting, white blight, rhinoceros, mite should be sprayed at regular intervals.
Why the low success rate?
Mujibur Rahman, Sub-Assistant Agriculture Officer under Babuganj Agriculture Office, oversaw the training of at least 20 farmers under his jurisdiction in the Dehergati union. The trainees each collected 20 seedlings of Vietnamese coconut under the DAE project.
None of them saw expected outcomes from the particular cultivation.
Despite the setbacks of the DAE's Vietnamese coconut project, some horticulture centres, as well as private nurseries, are breeding seeds of these varieties from the mother trees as the demand is growing. Bangladesh Bank also has come forward to support the cash-fruit cultivation.
"Each seedling or growing tree requires an investment of Tk300 minimum per year. But many of the farmers spent less than Tk150. If the seedlings got adequate nutrients, the result would come as expected," said Mujibur. The investment covers the costs of fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation, and labourers.
Between 2017 and 2019, various news outlets reported that the cultivation of Vietnamese coconut was gaining popularity across Barishal, Barguna, Patuakhali, Pirojpur, Bagerhat, Khulna, Dinajpur, Kushtia, Meherpur and some other districts.
This correspondent recently talked to some agriculture officers in this regard. Deputy director at DAE in Patuakhali, AKM Mohiuddin said around 30,000 seedlings of the particular coconut varieties were distributed among farmers under his area.
"Some orchards witnessed flowering and fruiting. But many are older than five years and yet to see flowering. The negative outcomes are only due to a lack of proper caring.
These Vietnamese varieties are like hybrid cows. The more you feed them, the more they produce milk," he said.
DAE's deputy directors in Barguna and Kushtia, Md Abdur Rashid and Sushanta Kumar Pramanik respectively, also echoed Mohiuddin.
Despite the setbacks of the DAE's Vietnamese coconut project, some horticulture centres, as well as private nurseries, are breeding seeds of these varieties from the mother trees as the demand is growing.
Bangladesh Bank also has come forward to support the cash-fruit cultivation.
In October, the central bank issued a circular for the scheduled banks to distribute agriculture loans among the farmers who are planning to develop orchards of Vietnamese coconuts.
In this time, agriculturists and nurserymen have advised farmers to get proper training and start cultivation of the exotic varieties with a plan of handsome investment and properly caring for the trees. Otherwise, all the efforts would be futile.
Year-Round Fruits Production and Nutrition Improvement Project director Md Mehdi Masood, reminded farmers that Vietnamese coconut farming is possible only in some districts located in the tropical south where winter cold is mild and the soil is sulphur-rich.
"We recommend commercial farming of Vietnamese coconut only in the Barishal region," he said.