Bangladesh is a very small agrarian country with 160.8 million people (BBS, 2016). The country is an agro-based economy with about 40.6 percent employment of labour force which accounts for 14.1 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product (CIA, The World Factbook, 2016).
Jute, being the golden fibre for the country, historically has always played an important role in the country's economy. It is a major cash crop for over three million small farm households, the largest industry, producing about one-third of manufacturing output, and the largest agricultural export commodity in Bangladesh. The livelihood of about 25 million people (almost one-fifth of the total population) is dependent on jute-related activities in agriculture, domestic marketing, manufacturing and trade.
Traditionally jute fibre has been used to manufacture the packaging materials like hessian, sacking, ropes, twines and home textiles as carpet, carpet backing cloth etc. These products are under challenges from synthetic substitutes. The traditional jute products such as rope and some ordinary fabrics have declining earning and faces challenges of other competitive high earning agricultural products. Besides, jute fibre and jute sticks are largely used for different domestic purposes such as cooking fuel and fencing homestead area (Ghimire and Thakur, 2013; Sheli and Roy, 2014).
Jute industries need new technologies and diversification of products with high value and or competitive intermediaries or final products. By this time, some innovative new products have been developed with high value-addition such as home textiles, jute composites, jute geo-textiles, paper pulp, technical textiles, chemical products, handicrafts and fashion accessories etc.
On the other hand, demand has increased for natural fibre like jute due to their low cost, low density, biodegradability, renewability and abundance in production over demands. The global awareness of climate change and improvement of people's living standards and need for environmental protection, the demand of natural biodegradable and eco-friendly fibres is rising worldwide day by day.
In recent years, Bangladesh government has been trying to promote the jute industry and to restore its lost stature in the world market. Price of jute has increased three folds in last ten years and the maximum increase took place over the last five years. Bangladesh's resolution titled 'Natural Plant Fibres and Sustainable Development' with a primary objective to promote jute has been adopted by consensus in the plenary of the second committee of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
The resolution focused on jute and other natural fibres, which are lesser known to the international community, and reiterates that the promotion of these natural fibres would highly contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The resolution will help address the environmental degradation and climate change issues (disadvantages of artificial fibres and the benefits of using natural fibres) by creating awareness globally. Through this, it is expected that it will pave a way for stronger, effective and efficient global value chain for jute and other natural fibre products. It is also envisioned that if the demand for jute and jute products increases in the global market, Bangladesh's jute growers and traders will get competitive prices.
Bangladesh used to enjoy a monopoly position in the production and marketing of jute in the 1950s and 1960s. It is under challenge from other producers such as India, China, Uzbekistan, and Nepal. Bangladesh is still the largest exporter of jute and jute goods with 40 percent global export and second largest producer of jute fibre with around 30 percent of the total world production (Ali et al.,2015). Unfortunately, Bangladesh is the mainly exporting raw jute without any other value addition to this least expensive and most versatile textile fibres. At present, Bangladesh earns around $600 by exporting per ton raw jute.
The amount of export has increased significantly over the last decade. Total potential demand of jute product in the international market is 0.75 million tons and Bangladesh supply half of this demand. If we can diversify products, i.e. global car giants like BMW, Marcedes-Benz, Toyota, Renault, Mitsubishi, Volvo, Audi and Ford require around 100,000 tons of jute a year of which we supply 12,000 tons only, can increase the value of the exports by 10 times and diversified jute products can bring $3,000-$10,000 per ton depending on the quality and type (Asian Age, 2018).
Environmental concerns have also brought a change in the consumers' choice of products. Consumers now increasingly prefer more green products. Many developed countries are going to replace the use of plastic goods with environment-friendly products.
We speak a lot about diversifying the jute products and we spend a lot of time in mesmerising the good old days of this golden fibre, but we hardly put emphasis on upgrading the technologies and methods at farmer level to improve the quality.
Despite being the key jute producer in the global economy, Bangladesh has not succeeded in capturing the market to its highest potential. One of the main reasons behind this downward trend in jute production is the low quality of the jute fibres, resulting from the very traditional fibre extraction system and retting method.
Fibre extraction and retting are the most critical parameters that largely contributes to the quality of fibre. Traditionally, jute fibres are separated from the stems of jute plants by retting process. Jute retting is a biological process in which fibres are extracted by decomposing the plants through the joint action of water and aquatic microorganisms, like bacteria. Retting process with some other factors influences the main characteristics, which indicate the quality of fibre like strength, colour, lustre and texture (IJSG, 2009).
The event of retting and fibre extraction is complex and multidisciplinary in nature. However, there are excessive microbial load and the water loses its original colour, odour, etc. and becomes darker. Retting process produces biodegradable by–products with no toxins (Haque et al., 2002).
Around 4 million farmers in Bangladesh are involved in jute cultivation (IJSG, 2009) and majority of them use the traditional method and time-consuming approach of retting in ponds/canals. In this traditional method, farmers can hardly extract fibre to its full length, which is very essential for producing high-value diversified jute products. It is also taking toil on time, expense and labour.
On the other hand, it pollutes environment as it decomposes bio-mass. Moreover, it is harmful for fish cultivation and poses threat to health of the farmers with potential outbreak of water-borne diseases.
Well, the rivers and the water have become another major concern for this country over the last few decades! In the recent time, the agriculture sector of the country is facing many challenges especially due to consequences of climate change and manmade causes. The situation is even worse in the North- Western part of Bangladesh. The Teesta river, being a major source of ground water, recharge there and was used for irrigation and agricultural purposes for a long time.
Reduction of dry season flow of Teesta has had significant consequences on its ecosystem services. It is through this process, the mighty Teesta has been tamed as it lost its might and its flow has reduced to only a few cusecs in dry periods (Haque et al., 2014).
For the last several years, these areas are facing serious water related difficulties like river bed siltation, low water flow, fresh and water bodies becoming dry etc. (The Daily Star, 2011).
Of the 147 billion cubic meters required in the country during the dry season, only 90 billion cubic meters is available. This 40% deficit leads to drought in some regions (Mbugua and Snijders, 2011). In this area, scarcity of water is becoming high even though it is the main source of irrigation water, livelihood, maintaining biodiversity, and ecosystem balance.
As a great shift has taken place in coverage of major available sources of water for agricultural production and in crop choices due to water shortage, farmers have started concentrating more on cultivating maize, tobacco, wheat, different types of vegetables etc. compared to rice and jute, mainly to reduce economic loss in farming.
A major change has occurred in tobacco cultivation because of scarcity in water coverage and change in usage pattern. The farmers are compelled to cultivate this crop because profit is high compared to rice and water requirement is also less compared to rice cultivation. Before 2000, 15 percent had cultivated tobacco, but now almost half of the farmers i.e. 49 percent are cultivating tobacco without considering its ecological impact or health hazards (Raihan M.L. et al. 2017).
Eventually, the ultimate fact is cultivation and production of jute in northern Bangladesh is gradually going down. Jute production has fallen alarmingly in the Nilphamari region. Previously, jute was cultivated in 1,24,922 hectares of arable land in Nilphamari district. But in recent times, only 11,000 hectares are used for this purpose (The Independent, 2019).
It will certainly affect the local economy, if this decline continues. Moreover, the farmers who are still cultivating jute depend on traditional method of fibre extraction, and conduct the retting in small ditches, canals, and ponds etc. where water stands for only a short period. Moreover, because of the trend of dryness of river and ponds/canals during short harvesting period due to the climate change, it is getting more difficult for the farmers to ret jute (Husain, 2011) nowadays.
Jute growers in Rajshahi are facing grim prospects as water shortage has got them in a fluster over retting green jute. They fear huge losses if the water crisis persists as fine quality fibre cannot be extracted without properly rotting the jute plant. The farmers said that many of them could not decompose jute due to the scarcity of water caused by low rainfalls this season and drying up of water bodies (New Age, 2018).
According to the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) in Rajshahi, jute has been cultivated on 12,825 hectares of land this year while it was cultivated on 13,700 hectares last year.
In traditional mechanism, the jute fibres are extracted later on retting. The bundles of the whole plants are carried by human to the retting site (tank, pond, canal, ditch, or river) and stripped horizontally in the water. Stripping of fibre from the retted stems is carried out manually standing in polluted water for long hours. It requires high involvement of man power, the cost of which has increased significantly resulting in increase of production cost and less profit for the farmers. Scarcity of water has made the worse!
Moreover, jute farmers also reported that poor health status was a barrier to conduct jute farming. They often suffered from diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, skin diseases, malnutrition, night blindness, and mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever and malaria (Sheheli and Roy, 2014).
Hence, mechanisation in extraction of fibre is necessary in order to improve quality of fibre, reduce the cost of production, minimize the use the water and health hazards associated, eliminate drudgery and accomplish the operation faster.
In Bangladesh, fibre quality improvement division of Bangladesh Jute Research Institute (BJRI) introduced a power driven auto ribboner and demonstrated the machine in separating jute fibre in 2016 (BJRI, 2017). Further, addressing the vulnerable climatic and economic condition, Practical Action, an international development charity introduced Ashkol, a semi-automatic jute fibre extraction machine and improved retting process in makeshift scaffoldings in four northern districts- Rangpur, Kurigram, Lalmonirhat and Gaibandha.
With the financial support from the European Union, Practical Action is demonstrating this method amongst around 2500 farmers aiming at ensuring a better fibre extraction mechanically along with improved jute retting process by turning it into less labour-intensive and eco-friendly practice through water saving technology. For the smooth functioning of this process around 2850 agri-based labour have been trained to operate the machine and retting appropriately and around 300 New Jute Processing Local Entrepreneurs (NJPLE) have been developed to run the business of Ashkol at local level.
In the mechanised process, the fibre is extracted from the jute stem first and then retted in a makeshift scaffolding (macha) situated in a waterbody. Extracted fibres require less space, time and water for retting compared to retting the whole jute stick for 18-20 days.
Askol, the semi-automatic jute fibre extraction machine, extracts bark from the jute stems immediately after the harvest. The machine has been designed and developed considering the need for a low-cost, light weight and portable machine to be used in the cultivation field. It is powered by a 10 to 16 HP engine (Practical Action, 2018).
The green bark peeled off from the whole plant can be rot conveniently in much less volume of water to yield high grade fibre compared to the conventional method as Ashkol extracts ribbons in full length. Moreover, this improved technology saves the time. It also reduces the biomass handling up to 55-60%. Most importantly, it increases the yield by handling the fibres better during extraction and saves the manpower required. Eventually, the farmers get higher price for their produce.
It is estimated that, Ashkol, can extract raw fibre from all the jute stems produced in one acre of land within six hours and the cost is two-third than the manual extraction method. It costs around 3700 BDT per acre (Practical Action, 2020). As the fibres are extracted mechanically the amount of wastage is very minimal. Moreover, sticks get broken in the process resulting in the easy management of jute sticks. Operating Ashkol is very easy and can be operated by both, male and female, which can lead to developing more female agro-based entrepreneurs. Further, this versatile machine can be used year-round by attaching it with other threshing machines (paddy, wheat, maize, etc.), irrigation equipment/machine, and adding trolley for carrying agro-products locally.
Improved Jute Retting Method
Just after feeling off at the field, the barks are taken to a nearby pond or waterbody and retted on a macha by steeping the ribbons only. In this method, the retting completes within 10-12 days. It happens due to the condensed contact surface area of ribbons form microbial twice than the conventional method.
According to a comparative study on performance of retting methods on quality jute fibre production and water pollution, jointly conducted by Bangladesh Agricultural University and Practical Action, improved Macha retting method is less time consuming i.e. it takes 12-14 days in comparison to 21-25 days under conventional retting. It is an easy approach of retting and the fibre quality and total fibre production is more in improved retting method than the traditional method. The conventional retting of whole plant requires 20 to 25 litres of water for per kg plant, while the improved method requires four to five litres only.
The study also shows that, irrespective of the places or location, the increase in hardness of post retting water samples was higher in traditional retting method than improved macha retting method. The hardness of water is caused by the bicarbonate and chloride salts of calcium and magnesium. Quality of fibre is better when retting water is soft than when hard water is used. All the tests done here reflects that the degree of pollution is higher in traditional retting than improved macha retting methods in most of the cases.
Future Prospects and Sustainability
Currently, out of this project area, hardly any farmer uses modern technology to extract jute fibre and cent percent of them practice traditional method of retting (Sheheli and Roy, 2014). However, in the face of climate change and increasing water crisis, this time saving and cost-friendly improved method should be adopted widely for producing quality jute fibre which is very essential to grab the export market to the fullest reducing the dependency on the environmental uncertainty.
Among the tested business models, the ownership model and the multipurpose use model of Ashkol are giving better financial options. Though the initial investment cost is high in multipurpose use model, but this model is most profitable which can ensure efficient use of the technology and the investment. Thus, the developed Ashkol could be widely demonstrated as an economically and technologically efficient machine. On the other hand, the highest labour requirement (1276 man-h/ha) for jute fibre extraction and retting was found for traditional method.
Extraction with Ashkol and retting with improved method required 90% less labour compared with the traditional method. It was also found that the maximum production cost has involved in fibre extraction (16.9 to 20%) and weeding (16.33 to 20%) (Ghimire and Thakur, 2013; Sheheli and Roy, 2014). Thus, a cost-effective technology has to develop in jute production and processing aspect for lowering the production cost and increasing the profit margin (Sheheli and Roy, 2014).
It is expected that a technological upgradation is required at the farmer level to make this sector more sustainable and to keep pace with the global trends. To modernise and mechanise the Government can add Ashkol to the list of their priority subsidy item, provide training and demonstration facilities for the operator, mechanic and/or service provider of the machine, and ask the banks to provide loan with soft interest rate for the farers to adopt this technology.
If we can scale up this ingenious practice countrywide, certainly it will be revolutionary for rejuvenating the glory of our golden fibre, jute, which was once the biggest contributor to the national exchequer in terms of foreign earnings.
Paromita Datta is a sociologist and currently working as monitoring and evaluation expert in an international charity. Email: email@example.com
Plaban Ganguly is an anthropologist and development communication expert and currently coordinating the marketing and communications unit in an international charity. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org