Buoyed by a surge in interest in coffee farming that had a modest beginning in the Chattogram Hill Tracts back in the 1990s, Bangladesh plans large-scale commercial production of coffee beans.
Coffee farming has spilled beyond the rolling hills into the vast swathes of Nilphamari, Tangail and Moulvibazar.
The Department of Agricultural Extension or DAE and Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute or BARI are spending Tk 2 billion on separate projects to promote the cultivation of the non-traditional cash crop.
Farmers are being trained up while research is being carried out on the local coffee species and the new technology in coffee farming.
BARI is confident about exporting coffee once the commercial farming takes off, reports bdnews24.com.
WHY COFFEE FARMING
Currently, two types of coffee are cultivated in Bangladesh. One is Robusta made from beans of the plant Coffea Canephora, an African species, while the other is Coffea Arabica, also known as mountain coffee.
The coffee shrubs differ in size and harvest based on the hilly sites. On average, a hectare of land yields 7.5 to 11 tonnes of Robusta coffee, while three to six tonnes of Arabica is grown in each hectare.
A total of 395 Robusta plants yield 3.16 tonnes of coffee beans, according to Hill Tracts Agricultural Research Centre.
Though they have not started full-fledged coffee farming, farmers in Rangamati are growing fond of it, said Altaf Hossain, chief scientific officer in Rangamati Raikhali Agricultural Research Centre. The research centre has more than 150 seedlings of the two types of coffee plants. Amateur farmers collect the plants only for Tk 20 apiece.
Farmers are getting increasingly interested in the cultivation of coffee besides that of fruits like mango, orange, jackfruit, banana and pineapple as the wild plant can be successfully cultivated in the garden if proper irrigation is ensured, said Paban Kumar Chakma, director of DAE, Rangamati region.
As many as 473 farmers have begun cultivating coffee on 122.9 hectares of land in seven Upazilas of Bandarban, said Omar Faruk, agriculture officer of Bandarban Sadar Upazila. They harvested 56.25 tonnes of coffee beans from 104,589 plants last year.
Cultivation of Coffea Arabica has been a hit with the people in Bandarban, according to Faruk, with most of the farmers coming from Ruma Upazila.
At least 350 farmers in Ruma harvested 39.15 tonnes of coffee beans from 29,544 plants on 48 hectares of land.
They took to coffee farming in the hills 20 years ago as a test case. Now the farmers in the hills have embraced the cultivation of the cash crop, claimed officials at Khagrachhari Hill Agriculture Research Centre.
They have cultivated 395 Robusta coffee plants and 200 Arabica plants on one acre of land of the research centre, said Munshi Rashid Ahmed, chief scientific officer at Khagrachhari Hill Agriculture Research Centre.
Each plant produces seven to eight kg of coffee beans. Last season, the centre harvested 450 kg.
“We have been farming (coffee plant) seedlings regularly since 2005. The annual demand for seedlings remained 4,000-5,000 until last year. But a sudden spurt has led us to produce 20,000-25,000 seedlings," Munshi Rashid said.
"Even a farmer who took some seedlings from us produced 5,000 seedlings in addition to harvesting coffee beans. Now he wants to sell those seedlings. This is how the interest in coffee farming is growing.”
He also explained why the hill soil is more conducive to coffee farming. Acidic soil with organic matter is good for coffee farming; coffee plants can grow naturally in the soil having pH levels of 5 to 6.
The climate and soil in the hill tracts are ideal for the commercial production of coffee. The Arabica species need to be cultivated in high altitude land, while Robusta can be farmed anywhere in Bangladesh.
A resident of Garo Bazar in Madhupur Upazila in Tangail, Sanwar Hossain cut his teeth in coffee farming as an amateur in 2016 when he got out of teaching at a college. He has gone on to become one of the pioneers in coffee farming in the country.
Sanwar brought more than 200 Robusta seedlings from Raikhali and planted them on 1.2 hectares of land in his orchard. Within three years, he harvested 80 kg of coffee beans from those plants. Sanwar set aside 50 kg of coffee beans to make more seedlings and used the rest of it to make coffee powder.
"Coffee farming does not need separate land," Sanwar said, "because it can be cultivated in a shady place."
"The seedlings can be planted around any big fruit tree. It may take three years for the plants to yield fruits."
"Inspired by my success, many others are taking an active interest (in coffee farming). I'll have to produce around 50,000 seedlings to meet the demands. Besides, coffee powder is also in demand for personal brewing. I've sold coffee powder for Tk 1,000 to 1,200 per kg."
A total of 55.75 tonnes of coffee was produced on 118.3 hectares of land in fiscal 2019-2020 year, according to the horticulture wing of the DAE.
Also, 32.517 tonnes of green coffee was imported in FY 2019-2020, it said. Bangladesh meets 95 per cent of its demand with imported coffee.
The DAE and BARI have co-designed a Tk 2 billion workshop on coffee and cashew farming process and farmer development. The project, tailored with an aim to reduce imports, is awaiting the approval of the ECNEC, said Dr Md Abu Taher Masud, chief scientific officer at BARI.
"Our project is focused on the development of commercial farming of coffee and cashew," said BARI Director General Nazirul Islam. The project focuses on inventing new species, production and processing technology.
The DAE will provide seedbeds and seedlings for small and medium entrepreneurs under the scheme. Besides, it will reach the processing technology invented by the BARI to the farmers and set up some processing units as well.
The programme plans to set up a soil testing and plant diseases identification laboratory in the Hill Tracts Agricultural Research Centre and a coffee research centre in Bandarban.
The government is generating jobs for 2,000 poor farmer families by developing coffee and cashew farms in the remote areas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts for "sustainable living and socio-economic development".
Interested farmers will be trained up in coffee and cashew farming, processing and management. They will also be involved in honey farming.
The Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs is spending Tk 499 million on a project on poverty reduction in the areas through coffee and cashew farming.
WHAT EXPERTS SAY
For coffee farming, which could change the trend of agriculture in the hilly areas, Bangladesh should follow the scientific model, said Mehedi Masud, a project director at DAE.
“Coffee is a plantation crop and it needs minimum 81 hectares of land for commercial production," he explained. "It can’t be done randomly.”
“Special irrigation system is needed for any farming in the hills. We had talked about setting up a dam between two hills to store rainwater long ago," said Altaf Hossain, researcher and chief scientific officer of Raikhali Hill Agriculture Research Centre.
"It's becoming popular these days. We must remember that besides a shady place, irrigation is very important for coffee farming.”
“Connections with the international coffee and cashew markets will propel the production in Bangladesh; the industry will turn in a profit,” said Mizanul Haque Kajol, secretary general of Krishi Orthonitibid Samity, a platform of agricultural economists.
Coffee is an “infant industry” and providing stimulus will bring profit in future causing a drop in the import, he said.