Pre-ban export earning volume was worth $40million, now the product has potential to fetch more

Back in the year 2011 a woman in the United Kingdom suffered from an acute stomach pain. Physicians and the UK authorities concerned later traced a shop from where she had sourced betel leaves to chew. The leaves were found to be contaminated with salmonella bacteria and had been part of an export consignment from Bangladesh.

Over the following three years, the UK and Bangladesh saw dozens of official exchanges over Bangladesh’s slack phytosanitary measures and eventually on 13 February 2014 the European Union (EU) clamped a temporary ban on betel leaf export from Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s failure to satisfy the EU on the phytosanitary standards of its exportable surplus of betel leaves resulted in a continuation of that temporary ban for seven long years.

During this period, Bangladesh’s yearly export earnings from betel leaves dropped from around USD 40 million to less than USD two million.  

Finally, today things appear to be turning for the positive.

Sellers standing with their basket of betel leaves at a market place Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

With the EU lifting the ban after seven long years, Bangladesh is resuming exports of betel leaves today. Thanks to a renewed initiative by the Ministry of Agriculture and the active involvement of the Plant Quarantine Wing of the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) and Bangladesh Fruit, Vegetable and Allied Products Exporters Association (BFVAPEA), the EU lifted the ban on April 15 this year.

This morning (Wednesday), Agriculture Minister Muhammad Abdur Razzaque will inaugurate a packaging of betel leaf export consignments at the government’s Central Packing House in the city’s Shyampur. Every day, hundreds of traders from across the country bring their betel leaf consignments to Shyampur, a wholesale hub, for auction and dispatches to retails.    

DAE Director General Md Asadullah yesterday told Dhaka Tribune that the re-entry of betel leaf consignments from Bangladesh to the European market would definitely help Bangladeshi betel farmers and exporters earn more, while the addition of betel leaves to Bangladesh’s export basket would fetch more earnings for the country as well.

Market sources said that during the last seven years, when no betel leaf consignments could make their way to Europe, the country’s exporters managed to export only some volume to Middle Eastern countries. But that again was hit hard in recent years when Saudi Arabia raised the issue of a higher residual presence of pesticides in Bangladeshi betel leaves.

Following the EU ban, the agriculture ministry took various initiatives, including an action plan to ensure salmonella-free betel leaf export to the EU.

Under the action plan government departments and exporters agreed to ensure a growth of betel leaves under constant monitoring, involving contract growers and ensuring pre-testing of samples of all export consignments.

The authorities had a hard time convincing their EU counterparts that all sorts of forgeries would be checked strictly so that no one could export betel leaves under any fake phytosanitary certificates.  

Betel leaves are a traditional product that certain South and South-east Asian populations and their diasporas living abroad chew after meals as a mild stimulant and breath-freshener.

Bangladesh is a major producer of betel leaves and generally used to export betel leaves to European countries, where communities of Asian immigrants reside. Among these countries are the UK, Germany and Italy. Additionally, betel leaves are exported to some parts of the Middle East, mainly Saudi Arabia.

Betel leaf production in Bangladesh has seen an over four-fold increase since the early 1970s. Currently, Bangladesh produces nearly a quarter of a million tons of betel leaves each year on over 50,000 acres of land in different regions.

The Bangladesh Fruit, Vegetable and Allied Products Exporters Association estimates that with a good exportable surplus Bangladesh can potentially earn up to USD 60 million from betel leaf export.  

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