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The dreams for diversified jute products are yet to be realised as the marketing of geotextiles and jute tea made of jute has but a small share in the market

Meanwhile, the Jute Diversification Promotion Center (JDPC) runs in a totally lethargic manner.

Exports in the jute sector have not increased significantly. Bangladesh earned $1.03 billion by exporting jute and jute products in the 2012-13 fiscal. The export earnings dropped to $880 million, or by 15 per cent, in the 2019-20 fiscal.

The export earnings from the jute sector mainly come from exporting jute fibre, jute-made threads and sacks. The market is yet to be explored for other jute products.

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Uncertainty looms over the potential market of the jute-made biodegradable Sonali Bag as its production still seems expensive. Given the lack of availability of this environment-friendly product, cheap and non-biodegradable poly-bags dominate the market.

Jute and textile ministry additional secretary Mohammad Abul Kalam is focusing on modernisation of the design of jute-made products.

Speaking to Prothom Alo recently, he said, “A boost for the jute sector with access to marketing and raw materials at fair price, training and incentives for the grassroots entrepreneurs would work. Continuous research on jute diversification is a must.”

No market for jute geo-textiles

‘Development and application of potentially important jute geo-textile’ is one of the three big projects undertaken to ensure the use of jute in diversified ways. This Tk 863 million-project was implemented in six pilots for rural road and five river banks protection, and three for hill slope management.

Jute geo-textile is a type of fabric. The 2012-13 fiscal report of jute ministry hoped that when the project would expire in 2014, specification of the jute geo-textile usage and its international standard would be fixed as well as use of the product would be used in preventing road damage, river erosion and landslides. Besides, demands for jute and jute products would grow significantly.

Related officials have said that the project tenure finally ended in June 2016, but the potentials of jute geo-textile was not explored. Neither the product gained any international standard nor global recognition.

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According to jute-based entrepreneurs, at least three jute mills in the country produce a limited amount of jute geo-textiles. Janata Jute Mills is one of them.

Deputy managing director at Janata Jute Mills, Mahmudul Haque, told Prothom Alo, “We have been producing jute geo-textile for 15 years. Still the industry has no growth. All of the produced geo-textiles are exported. However, export of the product from Bangladesh has increased a little as the export from India dwindles.”

He said, jute geo-textiles do not last in contact with water. Synthetic geo-textile can sustain moisture. That’s why use of jute geo-textile is limited.

Project on jute tea closed

In 2016, Bangladesh Jute Research Institute claimed it had invented an organic tea variety from jute. Later, an organiation, Warsi Aqua Agrotech, started export of jute tea to Germany. The jute ministry brought the private initiative under government supervision and made Warsi Aqua Agrotech owner HM Ismail Khan adviser to the jute tea project.

Related officials said, Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC) once used to produce jute tea. For several years in the trade fair, the product sold well. The jute tea was retailed at BJMC headquarters in Motijheel area. However, BJMC is not producing the jute tea at present.

The product now is only available at the Jute Diversification Promotion Center at Monipuripara, Farmgate. The price of 30 bags is Tk200. Jute tea sales at the center is not quite satisfactory.

Sources at BJMC say that Tk50 million was spent under the jute tea project that was started in 2017. Two years later, five tonnes of jute tea worth Tk4.7 million was exported to Germany. In the domestic market, jute tea worth Tk500 thousand was sold. In 2017, there was a plan to conduct clinical trial of the special tea on human body. But it was not executed.

Jute tea project adviser HM Ismail Khan recently expressed his dissatisfaction as the project bogged down. “BJMC itself stopped the project,” he regretted.

BJMC authorities, however, say that the first phase of jute tea project has expired. A proposal for the second phase to grab the international market for the new kind of drink has been placed.

BJMC chairman Md Abdur Rauf told Prothom Alo, “Communication with the German importer has been snapped due to the ongoing pandemic. Jute mills under BJMC are remained closed. This is now impossible to proceed with the project with BJMC fund.”

He added that second phase of the Tk250 million-project would be started if the draft proposal gets approval.

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Will Sonali Bag succeed?

BJMC’s scientific advisor Mubarak Ahmad Khan in 2015 invented the jute polymer-made Sonali Bag. For two reasons, uncertainty looms over the commercial success of the environment-friendly products.

Firstly, Sonali Bag fails to match European standard. One entrepreneur, preferring to remain anonymous, said that he sent a sample of Sonali Bag to Germany to determine its biodegradability. The entrepreneur wanted to launch commercial production of the Sonali Bag.

Secondly, production cost of Sonali Bag 10 times higher than the poly-bags that dominate the market.

Sonali Bag is manufactured by jute-made cellophane. Earlier, several countries have brought cellophane bags produced from wood and other decomposable ingredients. But none of the cellophane projects could grab the market due to high production costs.

Related officials think that BJMC lacks modern technology and machines that are required to produce high quality Sonali Bag at low cost.

Inventor of Sonali Bag, Mubarak Ahmad Khan, told Prothom Alo, the project now requires big amount of investment and an automatic bag sealing machine. “Production of 10 tonnes of Sonali Bag requires investment of Tk3 billion.

Some Japanese businesses showed interest in investing in Sonali Bag at initially, but later lost interest.

We do not need to convert our units into advanced technology overnight. We should emphasis on production of jute-made gardening accessories, carpets, floor coverings and shopping bags that have high demand in foreign markets
Md Rashedul Karim, managing director, Creation Pvt Ltd and director, DCCI

JDPC

In 2002, the government established the Jute Diversification Promotion Center (JDPC) at Farmgate, Dhaka, aiming to regain popularity of the local jute products, its diversified production and value addition. Currently, JDPC is almost idle.

An allocation of Tk47.8 million was made as the budget for JDPC in the 2020-21 fiscal. Of the budget, Tk29 million would be spent in staff salary payment while Tk200 thousand in technological support and research development, Tk200 thousand in market expansion and Tk500 thousand in invention.

Of the allocation, Tk600 thousand has been allocated for maintenance of transport, higher than the above mentioned sectors. Moreover, a budget of Tk2.3 million has been allocated for officials trips in and outside the country while Tk9.7 million for project implementation.

Authorities concerned said that currently 57 staff members are working at JDPC. Operation costs of the JDPC has been managed by the interests come from a fixed deposit of Tk200 million– a grant of the European Economic Commission.

A recent visit to JDPC found no staff at its display hall. There was not a single visitor at the three-room outlet of jute-made clothes, footwear and handicrafts at the first floor of the JDPC headquarters. Exhibitions of JDPC remain open from 10:00am to 7:00pm on weekdays.

JDPC officials said that on an average 15 people visit the exhibitions daily. Between 2017 and February, 2021, products worth Tk28.6 million were sold from the JDPC exhibitions.

JDPC manager (operation) Md Jafar Sadeque told Prothom Alo, “Different government wings are the main buyers of the products.” JDPC supplies jute products–particularly bags, to its buyers prior to their official events.

This correspondent found a young entrepreneur Muntasir Ahmed and his friend Rezaul Karim at JDPC. They resell jute products to foreign buyers. That day, they bought four bags, three baskets and files of different sizes from the outlet.

Muntasir told Prothom Alo, “JDPC outlet was unknown to us. One day I found it on Google.”

JDPC tends to highlight entrepreneurship training as one of its major tasks. According to JDPC, the organisation trained up at least 2,250 people at a cost of Tk5.3 million since 2015. However, JDPC has not tracked record of the trainees’ success.

A big entrepreneur of diversified jute products, in terms of anonymity, told Prothom Alo, “Actually JDPC does not work. A similar organisation was established in India at the same time. The organisation spends around 1.30 Indian rupees annually for research and invention.”

What is the potential?

Classifying 282 items as diversified jute products, the government waives duties by 20 per cent at jute exports.

An analysis on Indian exports suggests that India sees growth in merchandising floor coverings as well as hand and shopping bags. For example, India earned 3.71 billion rupees by exporting carpets in the 2018-19 fiscal. The earnings were 55 per cent higher compared to five years past.

In the 2018-19 fiscal, India’s earning from exporting jute-made hand and shopping bags rose by 71 per cent. The amount was 4.30 billion Indian rupees. However, growth of overall export earnings from the jute products was insignificant.

Managing director of renowned jute item producer Creation Pvt Ltd, Md Rashedul Karim, also director at Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industries, thinks that Bangladesh needs to manufacture diversified jute products like what the other countries are doing with Bangladeshi jute yarn. “We do not need to convert our units into advanced technology overnight. We should emphasis on production of jute-made gardening accessories, carpets, floor coverings and shopping bags that have high demand in foreign markets.”

Citing inefficiency of old-fashioned production units, Rashedul Karim added that specialised mills are crucial to produce quality jute products. “The government must provide policy support to attract investment in the jute sector,” he said.

*This report appeared in the online and print editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Sadiqur Rahman

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