The perishable nature of the fruit and the high packaging costs account for the eyewatering price tag
Every week, as a special treat, Shanila Tasmin buys a kilogram of strawberry — those small, ruby-red berries — from Meena Bazar on Dhanmondi 27.
Believed to have originated in France, the berries are jam-packed with vitamins, fibre, and particularly high levels of antioxidants known as polyphenols, all of which help to protect the heart, lower blood pressure, regulate blood sugar and ward off cancer and boost immunity.
Tasmin, who is prediabetic, has five strawberries a day for the health benefits.
Most of the time, she ends up getting the imported ones, which cost Tk 1,500-2,500 a kg. In contrast, the local ones cost Tk 300-400 per kg in the retail market.
“I just wish the homegrown ones were available throughout the year. It’s usually the Thai ones that are available,” the 42-year-old bank employee added.
There is though no want of farmers for growing strawberry in Bangladesh, which is believed to have the ideal climate for its cultivation, thanks to the high price the fruit commands.
Six years ago, Mohammad Babu, a lifelong farmer at Joypurhat, dived into strawberry farming, encouraged by the success his neighbours were having with the cultivation of the sweet, juicy fruit.
And Babu, too, tasted success.
“Courtesy of my strawberry sales, my farmland has expanded to close to a bigha from 16 decimal. By 2021, my income will increase manifold,” he told Dhaka Tribune over the phone recently.
There are at least thousands of farmers like Babu across the country whose lives changed for the better due to farming of strawberry, primarily a winter fruit that takes three months to harvest.
Many have become self-reliant, especially in Chapainawabganj, where 80 per cent of strawberry growers were found to be young farmers.
Farmers usually sell their produce to intermediaries at Tk 150-250 per kg, which goes up to Tk 250-300 at the wholesale level and Tk 300-400 per kg at the retail level.
In fiscal 2019-20, local production was 286 tonnes from 64 hectares of land, which brought in about Tk 7.2 crore in revenue, according to the Department of Agricultural Extension.
This fiscal year, the area increased to 70 hectares, and a yield of 348 tonnes is expected, said Mehedi Masood, project director of the agriculture ministry’s Year-Round Fruit Production for Nutrition Improvement Project.
Each strawberry seedling costs Tk 30-50 and takes 50-55 days for harvesting. Each plant can fetch half to 1 kg of the fruit.
There are 45 laboratories across the country that create tissue culture to grow strawberry plants.
Tissue culture is a method of biological research in which fragments of tissues from an animal or plant are transferred to an artificial environment in which they can continue to survive and function. The cultured tissue may consist of a single cell, a population of cells, or a whole or part of an organ.
Farmers collect this tissue culture and grow plants themselves for their farming.
The planting of the saplings is usually done from November to December and the harvesting from February to April.
Supermarket chain Shawpno, which is currently selling about 30-40 kg of Thai strawberries, is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the locally grown ones a month and a half from now.
In 2019, during the season, Shwapno sold 500-800 kg of locally grown strawberries a day for Tk 450-550 per kg, said Sajedul Haque, category manager of the supermarket chain.
Last year, Meena Bazaar had sold 96 kg of imported strawberries and a whopping 2,317 kg of the local ones, up from 1,100 kg in 2018, according to Rafiqul Islam, its procurement manager.
This year, the supermarket chain sold 108 kg of imported berries.
“Children are addicted to strawberries as they taste sweet and exotic. But due to the high price of imported ones, people search for local strawberries,” Islam added.
To scale up the fruit’s cultivation, the government’s support is needed, according to farmers and agricultural experts.
Strawberry is a rapidly perishable crop. Given the absence of proper cold storage facilities in Bangladesh, farmers hesitate from growing them.
“We don’t have any storage facility and transport facility for ensuring a smooth supply chain,” said Mohammad Delowar, a strawberry farmer from Gazipur.
Strawberries can be preserved in cold storage for more than three days, according to farmers. But building cold storage is beyond the means of a farmer: it takes Tk 40-50 lakh.
Building cold storage takes Tk 40-50 lakh, which is beyond the means of a farmer.
And that is where the government can help out, said Md. Monzur Hossain, a professor at Rajshahi University’s botany department at Rajshahi University, which has so far trained 800 farmers in the district to take up strawberry farming since 2007.
“Strawberry has vast commercial potentiality in Bangladesh. It can be even grown for export purposes given the high global demand,” he said, adding that it is possible to earn Tk 4-5 lakh per year just by growing strawberries.
The global fresh strawberry market is valued at $17.7 billion in 2020 and is expected to hit $22.5 billion by 2026, according to Absolute Reports, an Indian market research firm.
But the DAE still considers it as a horticulture product, but it can easily be classified as a value-added fruit.
The DAE should take this fruit’s cultivation more seriously and ensure the availability of proper transportation, logistical support, supply chain and storage facilities, he added.
“Admittedly, it is a high-value crop. If anyone wants to support, we help them,” Masood said, adding that the fruit’s demand in Bangladesh is about 500 tonnes a year.
However, there is no processing facility for the fruit.
“There should be one — we can also preserve dried strawberries,” he added.
For consumers like Tasmin, that would be even better news, as she consumes the ruby-red fruits by blending into a smoothie or by adding to her morning oatmeal.
“I wouldn’t need to worry about them going off and wasting my money,” she added.