Prothom Alo illustration

Local resident Babul Mollah has seen the transformation of the footwear industry in Bhairab of Kishoreganj from very close. He is also the owner of Nexus Footwear Limited.

He said the Stakmukhi Beel in the municipality’s Kamalpur area was under water two years ago. Now there are lines of footwear factories. Previously, shoes were made by hand. Now factory owners tend to use modern machinery to manufacture footwear. And to his surprise, Babul Mollah saw footwear being exported from Bhairab to Japan for the first time amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

The Foot and Feet Leather Limited started exporting shoes for the first time two months ago. The 100pc export-oriented factory is located in Kalikaprashad union, 10 kilometres away from Durjoy intersection of Bhairab on way to Kishoreganj. After visiting the area, it was learned, construction of the factory began on a 66-decimal plot of land just before the pandemic. Through work remained halted for a while, the factory was inaugurated in February this year.

According to sources at the Foot and Feet, to date the company has exported 3,000 pairs of shoes to Japan so far. The price of a pair of shoes varies from $10 to $70 based on quality. Currently, there are 60 workers at the factory and 100-150 pairs of shoes are manufactured daily. On top of that, work environment of the factory is very good.

Khalilur Rahman, managing director of Foot and Feet Limited, told Prothom Alo, “We are the first to start exporting footwear from Bhairab. Now various European countries are contacting us to import our footwears. We expect our export would increase gradually.”

The journey of the footwear industry began in Bhairab in 1989. And it is the largest footwear manufacturing hub in the country. The first factory was set up in Bhairab Upazila Parishad area. Then more factories opened in adjacent area stretching to 10 kilometres away. Factories have also been set up in the neighbouring Bajitpur and Kuliachar upazilas.

Sources said expansion of footwear industry did not even stop during the pandemic. The Moonstar Pew Footwear Limited, a joint venture of seven owners, was set up by earth filling in Satmukhi Beel area of the municipality’s Kamalpur area. Two hundred workers got jobs at the factory.

Visiting the area recently, it was seen construction of several other factories progressing. On the one hand, earth filling is on in the beel area, and on the other hand, construction material including bricks, sand, cement and rods are brought together. Take everything together, construction of new factories is underway in large scale. Brick roads has also been turned into concreate ones in Kamalpur area during the pandemic.

A vibrant economy was seen in Bhairab centering the footwear industry. Banking and financing services are expanding. New hotels and restaurants are opening. Price of land is shooting up. A decimal of land was Tk 1 million (10 lakh) a year ago, it has now climbed to Tk 4 million (40 lakh). Local residents are increasingly building new houses and renting those to others. Besides, two leisure centres have been set up and large numbers of people spend their free time there from in the evenings.

There are at least 300 shops of various footwear equipment including shoeboxes in Bhairab area in addition to the shoe design factories. The number of wholesale footwear shops is also increasing day by day.

According to factory owners, wholesalers and locals, such transformation of the footwear industry in Bhairab has been possible at the initiative of the locals. No assistance came from the government in the expansion of the footwear industry. Even entrepreneurs of the footwear industry in Bhairab did not receive loan from the government’s pandemic-time stimulus. Several entrepreneurs went to banks for loan, only to return empty handed.

Factory owners said the rise in the prices of raw materials is the biggest problem in footwear industry. Raw materials are imported from various countries including China and India with up to 93 per cent tariff on import.

Entrepreneurs said a decreased tariff on import of raw materials and an increased supplementary duty on import of footwear are necessary to expand the local footwear industry. Entrepreneurs have long been making such demand to the government but their demand has not been met.

Local trader Nadiruzzaman Sohel said Bangladesh cannot compete with China and India due to a high import tariff on raw materials of footwear. Import of raw materials with a high tariff increases footwear production cost and prices. So, customers tend to buy foreign footwear instead of locally made ones. It is necessary for the footwear industry to impose more supplementary duty on import of footwear and less tariff on import of raw materials, he added.

The industries ministry’s SME Foundation declared the footwear industry of Bhairab as a cluster about a decade ago. The SME Foundation also identified a set of setbacks and placed recommendations on the footwear industry in Bhairab to the government, but not a single one of it has been implemented as yet.

Establishment of a footwear industrial park was proposed in Satmukhi Beel of the Bhairab municipality town eight years ago. No initiative has been taken as yet. The proposal on organising an annual footwear festival in Bhairab have not been implemented too.

The SME Foundation proposed easy loans for entrepreneurs, developing a website for Bhairab Footwear Factory Owners Cooperative Association to display all footwear products and provide necessary information for free, and setting up a common facility centre (CFC) with state-of-art machine. Not a single proposal was implemented.

President of Bhairab Footwear Factory Owners Association Al Amin Mia told Prothom Alo the footwear industry took a heavy toll because of the coronavirus pandemic. Everyone including factory owners, wholesalers and equipment sellers incurred loss. No one received loan from the government’s stimulus. And banks impose such terms giving no opportunity to avail a loan. Many traders of the footwear industry are going bankrupt due to lack of capital and loan with low interest must be arranged to save them, he added.

To date, no survey has been carried out on the number of factories and workers in Bhairab area. There is no account on the market value of the products manufactured in the Bhairab factories as well as the annual turnover of those factories. Traders have no idea on the use of computer for business management. According to the SME Foundation, a severe lack of skilled manpower including adequate technicians and designers is the biggest challenge for the footwear industry in Bhairab.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Masudur Rahman, chairman of SME Foundation, said fund sfrom the government’s stimulus is not as much as the number of entrepreneurs in the small and medium industry. So, it was not possible to lend to everyone. More funds are necessary, if they are to give loan with low intertest to the huge number of small and medium entrepreneurs across the country.

He said the SME Foundation is giving hands-on training to the entrepreneurs of the footwear industry in Bhairab. Previously, those entrepreneurs manufactured a single product. Now they manufacture a variety.

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna