All is not well in agriculture. Humayun Kabir, headmaster of a high school in Chandpur district, last year leased his 10 decimal farmland to a neighbour only for Tk 500 annually. As he remains extremely busy in school affairs and all his three sons are employed in Dhaka city, he has no other alternative but to lease out the land. The lessee assured him that he would give him Tk 500 after harvesting potato he cultivated. Now that the harvesting is over, Humayan Kabir was told that the amount would be given only after he gets the money from the middleman who would pay after selling potato in the market. This is a story of many farmers across Bangladesh. Middlemen take away the lion's share of money a farmer or for that matter the landowner fetches from tilling of lands.
Such domination of middlemen, usually called 'rural touts', drives landowners to sell lands at throw-away prices to persons who simply destroy the alluvial farm lands to build either rural markets or buildings that they do not really need at all. As a result, farmers are increasingly opting for non-farming vocations as farming no more gives them bread and butter. This explains the declining contribution of agriculture to the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), posing a grave threat to food security and employment. These two issues are of crucial nature.
If Bangladesh has to import food to feed its ever-growing population amid rising global food prices due to its shortage often caused by climate change, it will have to exhaust its hard-earned foreign currency. Then there is the question of food availability in the global market as we saw Bangladesh running from pillar to post in 2007/8 to procure rice from abroad in order to build a cushion against likely shortages. Moreover, there is no other sector of the economy that could match farming in employing more people.
A well-thought-out strategy of commercialisation of or growing high-value crops has to be evolved to trigger a return of farmers to farming. Agriculture has to be treated commercially now and not for mere subsistence. There must be investment in agriculture to make crops commercially lucrative, doing away with clutches of middlemen. Shykh Seraj, a veteran agriculture development activist figured out that an investment of just Tk1.0 in the agriculture sector can bring returns of Tk 4.0, which no other sector offers. But then the government should take initiatives to let farmers find out how to invest and make more money in agriculture.
As Siraj said, Bangladesh has enormous opportunities in agro-based industries because of several factors. The shifting of domestic demand -- away from food grains and towards high-value agricultural products, including fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, and dairy products is perhaps the single most important source of agricultural diversification, value addition, and agri-business. Using demand projections based on reasonable growth rates in incomes and population, it is estimated that Bangladesh would need an extra $8 billion of these high-value products by 2020, he said quoting a World Bank study.
Experts find that about 25 per cent of land in the country is either unused or used in unproductive purposes. This misuse should be stopped, and the land can be used for productive purposes like growing high-value agricultural products. Bangladesh has also been successful in exporting high-value products such as shrimp, sea fish, fruit, vegetables, and processed foods as there is high demand for such items from non-resident Bangladeshis as well as foreigners.
Bangladesh can capitalise on the opportunity to raise export of agricultural products through low production cost, which has been made possible by availability of cheap labour. The country is ideal for producing many kinds of horticultural and agro-products. The emerging agri-business opportunities invite more investors. The new generation of educated people, with interests in villages and rural areas, can make a difference by engaging in agro-based industry.
The number of large, medium and small agro-based firms is quite limited in this country of about 150 million. Of such firms, only a few could make headway in agri-business. Two or three such firms are exporting the country's agro-products to the overseas market. On its part, the government has offered some incentives, direct and indirect, for growth of agri-business in the country. But no significant amount of investment has so far been made either by the public or the private sector here.
The areas of agri-business have already been identified. These are cold storage facilities serving the supply chain, especially production of fresh produce for both home and export markets, reduction of the use of chemical fertilisers, cultivation of seeds, eco-friendly jute production that is supported by jute technology development institutes, shrimp farming, 'Halal' foods, milk and dairy products, high value-added foods for export, including herbs, spices, nuts and pulses. In this context, the United States has come up with a model for agri-business in Bangladesh. It has teamed up with the BRAC Bank in replicating or adopting the model in Bangladesh. The USAID project titled 'Feed the Future' partnership is one that is likely to have a pro-active demonstration effect. If the project ultimately proves successful, this can encourage others to follow.