Few local bicycle manufacturers could think in the recent times that the industry would fall on such a phase of adversities. Disheartening reports keep pouring in from trading circles as well. To speak in brief, both the local bicycle manufacturers and traders are going through setbacks as demand sees a decline in the local and international markets. The global economic slowdown, caused by the protracted Russia-Ukraine war, has been singled out for the grim development.
It's now clear that sectors engaged in global bicycle manufacture and trading have been afflicted by unease for some time. That a relatively humble sector like one dealing with bicycle would fall victim to this complex web is beyond the thoughts of the stakeholders. But reality shows the grim aspects of the local bicycle production. As an FE report notes, costs of bicycle manufacture have galloped due to import expenses for raw materials amid a dollar crisis in the Bangladesh market. Local traders engaged in importing bicycles have cut down on their imports due to complications in opening Letters of Credit (LCs), aggravated by the currency crisis, it adds.
The present impasse vis-à-vis earnings from bicycle exports appear to be unprecedented. According to sources close to bicycle exports, the country has not faced such adversities even during the corona pandemic times. During that fraught period, the manufacturers of export-oriented Bangladeshi bicycles were fortunate enough to take heart from the increase in demand for their products in the global market. During the pandemic times, people in many overseas developed countries, especially Europe, turned to bicycles to meet the prerequisite for 'social distance' and remain strong physically. According to market insiders, the higher import cost of raw materials poses a great challenge to the local manufacturers. Some others maintain that between 30 to 40 per cent of the bicycle parts have to be imported.
On the other hand, many hygiene-conscious people were seen opting for bicycles during the pandemic period. They had the health authorities' advice on avoiding crowds in buses and other short-distance public transports in mind. Bicycles have been an integral part of life in Dhaka and other urban and semi-urban cities and towns since the 1940s. The pedal two-wheeler began entering even the remote villages a couple of decades later. Physically fit people of all ages above adolescence riding bicycles are common spectacles in Dhaka. The two-wheel vehicle offers dozens of facilities while using them in cities. They do not require much space while on road. During the times of traffic gridlock, they can manage their passage through the traffic congestions. Few drivers of motorised vehicles view them as any hindrance to their movement. Unlike the motorcycles, they hardly encroach on the Dhaka footpaths. These and some other features continue to make them a popular and user-friendly transport in the large cities of Bangladesh.
Apart from the office-goers, smart and sprightly youths are seen being drawn to bicycles in increasing numbers. In the period of the 1970s-1990s, only a handful of students studying at colleges and universities would use bicycles as their transport. Nowadays, they could be seen overflowing the fixed stands and parked at almost every corner on the campuses. The recent fall in the bicycles' demand has led to worries on the part of both manufacturers and exporters. Prior to the overall decline in the last fiscal year, the country's export earnings from bicycles grew by around 28 per cent from $130.89 million in the corresponding fiscal year of 2020-21 to $167.95 million in FY 2021-22. It declined by 15 per cent to $142.24 million in the last FY, as per data from the Export Promotion Bureau. Bicycles experienced a rise in demand in Europe during the pandemic, as people turned to the two-wheelers considering them an environment-friendly mode of transport, the general manager of a bicycle manufacturer based in Chattogram EPZ has said. Between 30 to 40 per cent of the bicycle parts are imported, he added. It has been learnt that the major destinations for the Bangladesh-made bicycles include Germany, the UK, India, Denmark and the Netherlands. Meghna Group is considered the premier entity in the sector of bicycle exports from the country. Its share comprises around half of the international market for Bangladeshi companies. A director at the Group says local sales remain lower than expected, mainly due to inflationary pressure on the consumers.
There are also signs of optimism. According to sources, the local market is still mostly dependent on imports, but the bicycle manufacturing has started picking up over the past couple of years. Given the current state of the market, there is an estimated demand for 2.0 million bicycles in the country per year. Of it, 40 per cent of the pedal bikes are made locally, the rest coming from abroad.
Meanwhile, young bicycle-fans find themselves in a fix. Seeing the state of the current bicycle market in the country, many of them feel perplexed. The Bangladesh bicycle market is at present estimated at around Tk 18 billion. The country's bicycle aficionados rue the fact that the local market has lately been facing difficulties --- the reason being the inability to procure quality bicycles. Passionate bicyclists accept the present stalemate, saying traders have reduced imports as they face difficulties, leading to a drop in demand. Despite the existing ground reality amid the global economic uncertainties, they are also prepared to await better days.