Sherpa Hossainy's Blog

Stored potato: Worry for Joypurhat farmers, traders

Posted in Agriculture, Bangladesh by Sherpa Hossainy on October 30, 2011

Published in The Independent on 26 October

Read the article on Independent website

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Farmers and traders of Joypurhat, the largest potato growing area of the country, are struggling to sell their produce stored in cold storages, even at lower prices than usual due to  diminishing demand.

Even after five months of storing potatoes, an approximate stock of 70,000 tonnes in 13 cold storages in the district is still waiting to be sold because of dearth of buyers.

According to officials at the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE), this year around 36,500 hectares of land have been brought under potato cultivation, where Cardinal, Diamond, Granola and other varieties of potato were cultivated. Due to favourable climate and low cost of fertilisers, potato output reached 922,000 tonnes, which is 150,000 tonnes more than a season earlier.

But farmers and traders are in trouble with the potatoes that they stored in cold storages amid continuous downfall in prices and drop in demand in the market. Cold storage owners feared that it might not be possible to clear out the stock if the situation prevails, which will severely affect potato production next season.

Farmers sorting out potato in a cold storage in Joypurhat

Earlier in the season, amid a gradual downfall of potato prices, traders started storing potato in cold storages besides the farmers and the cold storage owners also took advantage. The rent for every sack (84 Kg) of potato last year was Tk 150-200, which spiked to Tk 250-300 this season.

Even though the rent was high, all 13 cold storages stored more than their capacity amid rising demands before the stipulated time. The 13 cold storages in the district can preserve 103,045 tonnes of potato, but upon farmers’ request they stored 110,000 tonnes, the cold storage owners said. Potatoes are usually stored in cold storages from May to December, whereas some 40 per cent are sold within September.

But as the prices and demands are low, cold storage owners became unable to supply potato from the cold storages.

“Currently all the cold storages in Joypurhat still have 70 to 80 per cent of the potatoes. It would be difficult to clear all the potato within a month,” said Monowar Hossain, manager of North Pole Cold Storage. The Northpole Cold Storage is storing 135,000 sacks instead of its 105,000 capacity.

“We stored 140,000 tonnes of potato this year. Around this time 50 per cent of potato should have been cleared out but this year no one is interested to buy,” Hossain said. The same condition prevails in Molla Cold Storage, Himadri Ltd, Southpole Cold Storage, Palli Himagar and others, he added.

The farmers said around this time there should be a good demand of potato but it’s different this time and every passing day the prices are going down. In August, Granola was Tk 650 per sack, now being sold at Tk 450-480 a sack.

For Cardinal potatoes prices came down from Tk 700 to Tk 500, for Diamond potatoes it was Tk 460 from Tk 650 and for Guti potato prices came down from Tk 1,100 to Tk950.
After giving Tk 250-300 rent, farmers and traders are incurring Tk 200-300 loss in every sack.

Potato trader Ahmed Ali said, “I stored potato worth of Tk 700,000 in cold storages and now I can’t even sell it even after counting a Tk 300 loss every sack.” Another trader, Abdul Momin, said he bought 260 sacks at Tk 770 and now he is forced to sell the item at Tk 430. “Although the loss is too high we are forced to sell it because there will be further downfall in prices,” Momin said.

Farmers sorting out potato in a cold storage in Joypurhat

Manik Ahmed said he always stores few thousand sacks of potato in cold storages and he couldn’t sell a sack among 5,000 this year, due to low demand. Mosharraf Hossain, a farmer, said, “I stored 500 sacks of potato in local cold storage and incurred a Tk 200 loss every sack. Abdul Barik, another farmer, said he incurred loss of Tk 150 every sack.

The farmers said government has to promote diversified use of potato and ensure exports of potato on urgent basis. Otherwise, farmers will lose interest in farming potato, they said.

“One of the problems is that there is a very little industrial use of potatoes. The use of potato should be diversified beyond only consumption as vegetable,” Hossain said.

First-ever laptop bazaar slowly packing a punch

Posted in Business, Computer, IT, Software, Technology by Sherpa Hossainy on October 22, 2011

Published in The Independent on 20 October 2011

Read the article on Independent website

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With the motto of “Laptop in every house”, Bangladesh’s first dedicated laptop market is steadily pulling crowds while sales are yet to pick up to the expected level.

The Eastern Plus BCS laptop bazaar started on  October 13 in the city’s Shantinagar area with a view to creating a one-stop market for laptops, including notebooks, tablets, smartphones and portable computer accessories and software.

To kick it off, Eastern Plus Shop Owners Association and Bangladesh Computer Samity (BCS) has jointly organised a nine-day laptop fair until October 21 in the market, which showcases 52 global brands at 74 shops. While there is a plethora of visitors in the market, vendors are yet to be satisfied with the pace of sales.

“Many people are coming in and checking out machines, but we didn’t sell that many,” said Abu Siddik, an executive of International Office Machines Ltd, authorised dealer of Toshiba — one of the sponsors.

Sumon Al Mamun, branch in charge of Computer Source, the country’s one of the biggest PC vendors, said his stall had 2,000 visitors until Tuesday, but most of them only had queries about laptop prices.

“But I’m upbeat about the prospect of the market as desktop sales are going down and demand for laptops are shooting up day by day,” Mamun said.

Visitors checking out computers at Laptop Bazaar in Dhaka

Mustafa Jabbar, president of BCS, said doing some hurried sales is not the main motive of the fair; rather it is important to get many visitors and raise awareness.

“Computer is not like rice or daal. People will come and have a look, compare prices and then buy one. It might take a week or even a month for one to decide,” he said.

Jabbar, also chief executive officer of Ananda Computers, said he is happy with the turnout and the main purpose of the fair is served. “Before the laptop market this place was like a ghost house and now it feels so vibrant,” he said.

The visitors and prospective buyers were also satisfied with the dedicated laptop market.

Md Mazharul Haque, a business person, who wanted a laptop for official use, said he came to the fair to “have a look” and compare prices. “All the big brands are available here and I hope I’ll get a good quote,” he said.

Haque said these fairs should not only be capital-based and there should be rural versions so that mass people can come in touch with affordable technology.

Torsten Malmdorf, a Danish national, who also came to the fair to buy a laptop, said, “I came to know about the market from facebook. I’m still searching and comparing prices, but most laptops here are for low-end users,” he said.

Of all the laptop brands and models, the customers seemed eager to check out the newly unveiled domestically made laptop, Doel. The state-owned telecom company Telephone Shilpa Sangstha (TSS) is producing four models of the laptop while the most basic one is priced at Tk 10,000 ($130). Bijoy Digital is the only shop in the fair authorised by the government for limited scale sales and display.

Tareq Ahmed, attendant at the Doel display corner, said, “There are so many customers who want to buy Doel, but there is not enough supply.” The most hunted model is Doel 1612, priced at Tk 27,000, he said.

“We are providing necessary information and taking bookings on the spot. But we have to deliver the laptops later,” Ahmed said.

SM Sobill Hossain, who works for Destiny 2000 Ltd, said he wanted to buy a Doel laptop for official use but the attendant said it will be available tomorrow. “This is a Bangladeshi product and it’s cheap. I want to be a proud user of my country’s product,” he said.

The BCS chief urged the government to formulate an effective policy and give distributorship to experienced computer vendors and said his company Bijoy Digital is interested in marketing Doel laptops.

“The government hasn’t yet got any marketing plan for Doel. If the government thinks Telegraph and Telecommunication Board will sell and market laptops, then those will stay in the warehouses.

“We sell computers, so we know best how to market those laptops,” Jabbar said.

Kazi Hasibur Rahman Shakil, general secretary of Eastern Plus Shop Owners Association, said this dedicated laptop market will save traffic hassles, time and money of the people living around the market area.

“In other computer markets people have to look around all over the market for laptops but here we have a dedicated floor. You can get everything in one place,” Shakil said.
Jabbar hoped that with the changing trends and rising awareness, Dhaka-centric computer markets will shift to district and rural areas. BCS will organise eight fairs all around the country from November to January to promote awareness, he said.

“The market trends are changing and it’s not at all desktop-based now. So laptops will be integrated with the rural scenario hopefully within two to three years,” he said.

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The lone asparagus farmer

Posted in Agriculture, Bangladesh by Sherpa Hossainy on October 18, 2011

Published in The Independent on 18 October 2011

Read the article on Independent website

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“The asparagus appeared. They were enormous, succulent, and appetising. The smell of the melted butter tickled my nostrils as the nostrils of Jehovah were tickled by the burned offerings of the virtuous Semites.” — That’s how WS Maugham described the “horribly expensive” vegetable in his witty short story “The Luncheon”.

Ansar Ali, a vegetable farmer for almost 40 years, had little idea about asparagus’s inauspicious role in the story where Maugham got ripped off by a woman at a lunch in Paris; however, to Ali, as it seems, the jinxed vegetable for Maugham has brought luck.

Twelve years ago, Ali, 60, of Bujrukshokra village of Bogra district, was immersed in huge debt following a long legal tussle with a local Union Parishad chairman. Profits from paddy cultivation was barely enough for survival.

“I thought of cultivating something other than paddy or potato that will give me more money, but I was clueless,” Ali told The Independent, recalling his struggles.

Farmers in asparagus field

At that time Thengamara Mohila Sabuj Sangha (TMSS), an NGO, was trying to promote cultivation of atypical vegetables in Bogra.

“We provided information and training to farmers. Only Ansar Ali was keen and bold enough to start asparagus farming while others resorted to conventional produce,” said Sardar Mahtabuddin, senior assistant director (agriculture) of TMSS.

TMSS helped Ali by providing him the crowns (used for asparagus cultivation), which cost Tk 14,000 per kg. Ali got 100 grams of it and started growing asparagus on 5 decimals (1 decimal = .01 acre) of land. He never looked back as he made Tk 10,000 profit in the first year.

“Now I grow asparagus on 20 decimals of land and make Tk 50-70,000 profit by selling about 600 kilograms of produce every year,” Ali said.

“It’s more profitable than paddy, potato or any other local produce. I sell every kilo at Tk 200 or sometimes at Tk 250 or 300,” he said.

Encouraged by the success, Ali started growing high-value crops (foreign vegetables) such as sweet corn, baby corn, capsicum (red and yellow), squash, cherry tomato, broccoli and iceberg lettuce on 20 bigha of land (1 bigha = 0.33 acre).

“I earn Tk 5-7 lakh by selling these produces every year, while I spend around Tk 3 lakh,” the veteran vegetable farmer said.

Apart from asparagus’s lucrative potential for farmers, Asparagus also holds a great nutritional value. According to Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, asparagus is one of the most nutritionally well-balanced vegetables in existence and one of nature’s most perfect foods, as it leads nearly all produce items in the wide array of nutrients it supplies.

Asparagus is a nutrient-dense food which is high in Folic acid and is a good source of potassium, fibre, vitamin B6, vitamins A and C, and thiamine. It has no fat, contains no cholesterol and is low in Sodium. A 5.3 ounce serving provides 60 per cent of the recommended daily allowance for folacin, which is necessary for blood cell formation, growth, and prevention of liver disease.

Ansar Ali and his asparagus field

Obscure as it may be to Bangladeshis, it is a well known culinary delight in the West and also in Southeast Asia. In Bangladesh, there is a high demand for asparagus in the Chinese restaurants and posh hotels in Dhaka.

“The expatriates living in Dhaka are the main customers of these vegetables,” Mahtabuddin said.

Although Ali has established a good network over the years he had to struggle to find proper channels to sell his produce in the first few years.

“I came to Dhaka myself and supplied them to Nandan superstore and Hotel Sheraton (now Hotel Ruposhi Bangla),” he said.

“Now there’s not enough time for me to go to Dhaka often. I send my produce to suppliers based in Dhaka, who deliver them to superstores like Agora, and 5-star hotels like Westin, Pan Pacific Sonargaon and Radisson,” Ali said.

Some of the produces also go to the vegetable market in Gulshan 1 and 2, he added.

Murad Hasan, a supplier who gets asparagus from Ansar Ali and supplies them to Hotel Ruposhi Bangla, said that Ali is doing a great job but the quantity he is producing is too low and the sizes (diameter of the asparagus) are much smaller than commercially acceptable ones.

However, Hasan said the foreign vegetable import pressure drops during winter as Bangladeshi farmers, especially from Gazipur, Savar, Bogra and Jessore, meet almost 70 per cent of the demand of foreign vegetables. “The prices of those foreign vegetables in the supermarkets also drop during winter as we get them locally,” he added.

Ansar Ali and his asparagus produce

Ali’s unconventional farming has drawn attention from many including some curious farmers from the Northern region of Bangladesh who wanted to start off this new venture.

“I have started teaching other farmers, from Mokamtola and Shonatola in Bogra and Ambari in Dinajpur, how to grow foreign vegetables,” Ali said.

Dibakar Saha, one such students of Ali, praised his efforts and said that now he is cultivating cherry tomato, sweet corn and capsicum and making good profits.

“I started learning how to grow asparagus from Ali chacha and hope to start farming asparagus this season. I will take his advice on how to market my produce also,” Saha said.

Mahtabuddin identified marketing as the biggest stumbling block to cultivation of high-value crops.

“Producing and selling is completely different. It is really hard to establish the marketing linkage for these crops. That’s why many farmers are reluctant to start the foreign vegetable cultivation,” he said.

Ansar Ali said he was the only farmer in North Bengal and most probably the only one in the country who is producing asparagus.

The TMSS officer said that although Ansar Ali is the only one producing asparagus right now, the NGO is planning to spread this trend and introduce new high-value crops in Bangladesh. Interested farmers can always get TMSS’s help, he added.

“We believe in diversified production of vegetables. The yield is low for these vegetables but profit is higher,” Mahtabuddin said.

Ansar Ali, poses with the best micro entrepreneur award in agriculture award in Bogra

Ansar Ali is also eager to help anyone who wants help. “I may be illiterate but I’m living happily and I am not poor. I’ll be happy to help anyone and show them the way to success,” he said.

Ali believes that the government, by providing cold storage facility, crowns at cheaper price, and training, can take this high-value crop farming to a more feasible stage.

“If the government sends farmers abroad for training, we can make hundreds of Ansar Ali in every corner of Bangladesh,” the lone asparagus farmer hoped.

Business conduit for two neighbours — India and Bangladesh

Posted in Bangladesh, Business, Dhaka, Technology by Sherpa Hossainy on October 15, 2011

Published in The Independent on 15 October 2011

Read the article on Independent website

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If you have to judge a book by its cover, the Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) Technology Fair 2011 might feel like a glum affair with nonchalant stall-attendants having scanty visitors.

However, the organisers believe that the nine-day fair at Handball stadium in Dhaka, showcasing SME technology from 40 enterprises from India, is doing a good bridging job between the two next door  neighbours – Bangladesh and India.

The fair, first of its kind in Bangladesh, is organised by the National Small Industries Corporation Ltd (NSIC) India, SME Foundation, Industrial and Infrastructure Development Finance Company (IIDFC) and Bangladesh Federation of Women Entrepreneurs (BFWE), in association with the industries ministry and Bangladesh Bank.

“It is a B2B (business to business) exposition and we didn’t expect too much rush in the fair,” Rajesh Jain, chief manager of NSIC, told the Independent, explaining the low turnout. According to IIDFC, the average turnout everyday was around 400 and on Friday it was only 250.

“We wanted to motivate young entrepreneurs to know about new technology, choose the machinery and start their own businesses. It is a great opportunity for SME entrepreneurs of both countries,” Jain said.

The fair, especially featuring technologies from the light engineering sector, is displaying  machine tools, electronic equipment, hardware items, bicycles and bicycle parts and sewing machines. “We wanted to explore the opportunities of those specific sectors in Bangladesh,” Jain added.

Some entrepreneurs, however, were not getting the right response they probably hoped for.

“I thought I’d get some business here, but unfortunately I got nothing. I think there was a lack of promotion, that’s why no one is coming,” said P Lodha, director of Pragya Equipments Pvt Ltd, who came from the Indian state of Madhyapradesh.

The entrepreneur, who deals with radiator parts and oil extraction (from oil seed) machines, also pointed out the weak engineering industry in Bangladesh as another reason for the low turnout, saying that there is only two oil extraction company in Bangladesh.

“If this is the condition of the fair, I don’t wish to come back here next time,” he added.

However, NSIC chief Jain waved aside the complaints, saying that the entrepreneurs are here to explore the possibilities, not to do full-fledged business.

“We can’t expect a 100 per cent business-oriented fair at first. Not all entrepreneurs will get business from the fair. Some will establish good connection and do business in future,” he said.

Jain believes that the entrepreneurs have to establish some substantial business ties at first and business will thrive henceforth. “In terms of establishing business links, I think we are doing quite well,” he claimed.

Visitors at a stall in SME Technology Fair 2011, Dhaka

Unlike Lodha, some entrepreneurs were having a good time setting up connections in Bangladesh, such as Shasank Rane, manager of overseas marketing of Apidor Abrasive Products Pvt Ltd. “We already had some businesspeople coming from Nawabpur in Dhaka and they expressed their interest to start business,” Rane said.

Rane said his company, from the Indian state of Maharashtra, is looking for authorised dealers in Bangladesh and has already found five or six potential candidates.

“We want to expand our business, and Bangladesh has no such company that produce abrasive products. So we thought we should come to the fair and establish some connection,” he said.

The entrepreneur said that until Thursday, 70 people had visited his company’s stall and he is already looking to take part in the next edition of the fair.

While the Indian entrepreneurs were busy establishing business connections, their Bangladeshi counterparts were also on the lookout for eligible partners.

Yasmin Sultana Dipa, a former service woman, said that she is going to start a SME venture and she is building a team of local and foreign entrepreneurs.

“I’m looking for some partners from India for my new SME enterprise. I’m here to get some ideas, know more about businesses, loans, and paper works,” she said. However, Dipa said the product base should be diversified and the fair should have more ladies’ products, which she is basically interested in.

Some entrepreneurs are seeing the fair as a laudable effort to deepen the bilateral relations and trade between the two countries and curb China’s dominance in light engineering sector.

Jagbir Singh Sokhi, president of Sewing Machine Development Club and proprietor of Sokhi Components, said, “There is a tremendous opportunity of doing business in Bangladesh and it is the policy of Indian government to promote business in Bangladesh.”

Sokhi, manufacturer of sewing machine parts from the Indian state of Punjab, said, “India and Bangladesh should bank on the existing good relationship and cut back China’s supremacy in the manufacturing sector.”

Although the entrepreneur believes that Bangladesh has to rationalise its import policy to use its full potential. “Huge duties have to be paid if you want to do business here. People go for some backdoor tricks like over-invoicing and under-invoicing to avoid that,” he said.

Sokhi believes a reasonable amount of duty will lure more businesspersons to invest in Bangladesh and government will get higher revenue automatically.

The entrepreneur from Punjab expressed his interest to come back again and said that he is aiming to set up a joint venture business in Bangladesh. “We are not here to sell products only. We want to generate employment in Bangladesh too,” he said.

Officials of IIDFC, one of the organisers, said the fair has successfully attracted new and existing entrepreneurs from both the countries and there will be another edition of this fair very soon.

Veg export upswing may not last long

Posted in Bangladesh, Business, Export and Import by Sherpa Hossainy on October 9, 2011

Published in The Independent on 8 October 2011

Read the article on Independent website

Digital print version

A visibly healthy upswing in exports could well become short-lived, if the government does not step in to provide apt logistics support, warned vegetable and fruit exporters.

The exporters expressed fears that the lack of central warehousing facility, non-availability of air cargo services from state-run Biman Bangladesh Airlines, and unprecedented rise in prices in domestic market, will make a dent in rising vegetable and fruit exports, soon.

As the European Union (EU) continues to impose strict quality regulations on vegetable exports, absence of a central warehouse, which is necessary to maintain international packaging standards and quality of vegetables, could result in lower demands from the international market, they said.

“We solely depend on air cargo services for exporting perishable items. It’s impossible to maintain the freshness of fruits and vegetables, if there is no central warehouse close to the airport,” said Mohammad Monsur, general secretary of Bangladesh Fruits, Vegetables and Allied Products Exporters Association (BFVAPEA).

Although the exporters have their own warehouses, those are not enough to store vegetables for longer periods, he said, adding that there should be a central warehouse for all agricultural products in the country.

Vegetables and fruits

“We’ve been urging the government for almost seven years, yet no actions were taken,” he added.

The BFVAPEA secretary also demanded cash subsidies from the government, to offset spiralling vegetable prices in local market.

“Vegetable prices have been going up for the last three months. The government should provide cash subsidies to us, like it does to garment makers, to balance the price disadvantage.

“Buyers won’t wait for us. They are already shifting to India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, as they are getting better prices there,” Monsur said.

Md Mostafizur Rahman, another vegetable exporter, said that the recurrent problem of cargo space does not exist any more, but foreign carriers are charging ways to hike freight charges.

Rahman, proprietor of Sadman International, said, “If Biman starts cargo services, we’ll get to export vegetables cheaply and the exports will increase manifold.”

There is no alternative to starting cargo facilities to important international destinations by Biman, the national flag carrier, if vegetable exports have to sustain growth, said Monsur, also proprietor of Monsur General Trading Company.

Vegetable exports from Bangladesh marked a 20.92 per cent rise in the first two months of the current fiscal year, compared to the same period last year, Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) data showed.

Export earnings for July-August, 2011, stood at USD 15.43 million, against a target of USD 14.27 million, while export earnings were at USD 12.76 million, during the same period last year, EPB data showed.

Exports of vegetables, in fiscal year 2010-11, was USD 71.73 million. Export revenues rose remarkably from fruits, at USD 10.14 million in the first two months of the current fiscal year, marking a 112.58 per cent rise than the same period last year.

Soaring demand of betel leaf in Saudi Arabia and the UK, and rising consumer demand for mangoes, blackberries, bananas in the EU helped the course, exporters said. Exports of beans, red amaranths and gourds, also increased, they added.

However, Monsur sees the rise as “unsustainable”, saying that the adverse impact of existing bottlenecks, on vegetable and fruit exports, will be felt “probably within six months”.

New mark set for solar home system project

Posted in Bangladesh, Energy and power, Renewable energy by Sherpa Hossainy on October 3, 2011

Published in The Independent on 3 October 2011

Read the article on Independent website

Digital print version

The Infrastructure Development Company Ltd (IDCOL) has beefed up its target for installing solar home system (SHS) to 2.5 million units by 2014, company officials said.

The previous target was to set up 1 million SHSs by December 2012, which the non-bank financial institute achieved by June this year.

“If the current trend continues, we’ll be able to achieve the new target by mid-2014,” said Iqramul Hasan, programme officer (solar) of IDCOL.

According to IDCOL statistics, the solar programme has helped save more than 80,000 tonnes of kerosene in rural households, worth around $79.45 million and saved another $300 million in terms of costs of connection.

A man installs solar home system (SHS) on a roof in Bangladesh

“When we achieve the new target the combined capacity of the total project will be around 155 megawatts, providing electricity to more than 1 crore people,” said Hasan.

Currently the total installed capacity of the solar project is around 52MW, which serves around 50 lakh recipients.

The financier has already meted out around $172 million in loans and $34.28 million in grants for installation of SHS until June. IDCOL also plans to invest another $387 million in soft loans and $45 million in grants for the SHS programme.

Easy credit facilities and subsidies have made the programme, dubbed as the fastest growing renewable energy programme in the world, a success, said Hasan.

“We provide easy to avail financial support through our partner organisations and supply quality equipments to get solar power. For the rural people who have only seen kerosene lamps, this is a big incentive,” Hasan added.

IDCOL has installed 60,142 SHSs in Sunamganj till June, which is the highest coverage by the company in a district. With 58,836 and 39,483 SHSs, Patuakhali and Satkhira are the second and third most-covered districts, the statistics showed.

There are 30 the partner organisations that help implement the IDCOL SHS project. Among the 1 million installed systems, Grameen Shakti alone installed over .6 million and Rural Service Foundation has set up over .15 million around the country.

IDCOL had been promoting dissemination of solar home systems in the remote rural areas of Bangladesh with the financial support from the World Bank, Global Environment Facility, German Technical Corporation, Asian Development Bank and Islamic Development Bank.

It started the programme in January 2003 and its initial target was to finance 50,000 SHSs by the end of June 2008.

The target was achieved in September 2005, three years ahead of schedule and $2 million below estimated project cost.

IDCOL then revised its target and decided to finance 200,000 SHSs by the end of 2009. This was also achieved by May 2009.

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