The Financial Express

Jute diversification in limbo

Jute diversification in limbo

Diversified jute products from Bangladesh have had enormous potential in the world market because of their environment-friendly attributes, but the government-led efforts in the area in recent years have not succeeded in making much headway. Innovations like jute geo-textile, paper from jute-pulp, or tea from jute have not lived up to their potential or the expectations they generated at the initial stage.

As a consequence, export of jute and jute goods have remained more or less stagnant during the past 10 years.And reliance on raw jute, jute yarn and twine, jute sacks, bags and carpet in the traditional export basket continues unabated.

The jute geotextile project was launched simultaneously in Bangladesh and India in August 2009 with the financial help of the UN Common Fund for Commodities. The international project was extended up to 2016, although it was originally slated to end in 2014. A total of 26 field trials were conducted under the project - 10 in Bangladesh and 16 in India.

In the Bangladesh part, five trials were conducted for protecting rural roads, three for curbing river erosion, and two for preventing landslides. Still, nothing concrete was achieved from the project in terms of international accreditation or global recognition. Three jute mills of Bangladesh have been manufacturing jute geotextile for some years, but there has not been much progress in its usage or exports.

The Bangladesh Jute Research Institute claimed discovery of organic tea from the leaves of jute plants in 2016. A Dhaka-based company even started exporting jute tea to Germany, which was claimed to have medicinal properties including positive impact on diabetic patients.

When the matter came to the notice of the jute ministry, the company was brought under government management and its owner was made an adviser of the ministry's project. Then BJMC produced tea from jute leaves, and these were sold quitewell at trade fairs and BJMC headquarters. Now it is available only at the Jute Diversification Promotion Centre, Dhaka.

It is reliably learnt that a project on green tea from jute leaves was implemented by BJMC from 2017 to 2019, whereby five tons of tea was exported to Germany in addition to local sales. Although a clinical trial of the product was supposed to bedone under the project, ultimately that did not happen. Now, another project is in the pipeline following disruption in exports due to Covid-19 pandemic.

A third diversified product that showed some initial promise was the 'Sonali Bag' produced from jute polythene. It was invented by a scientific adviser of BJMC in 2015. Now questions are being raised about its commercial viability. The first question-mark is about adequacy of its bio-degradability. The second issue is related to its costing, which is 10 times higher than that of ordinary polythene bags. Modern equipment and tools are needed for enhancing the quality and reducing the price of 'Sonali Bag'. But the government apparently lacks willingness to do so as well as the urge for carrying forward the initiative through financing and other means.

The government established the Jute Diversification Promotion Centre (JDPC) in Dhaka city back in 2002 with the objective of bringing back the lost glory of jute through diversification of its products. It was set up to sustain development of the jute economy through extension of potential uses of jute and jute products.

Now it appears to have lost its steam, as evident from its budget for 2020-21. Out of a total budgetary expenditure of Taka 47.80 million, an amount of Taka 29 million was allocated for salaries and allowances. Only Taka 200,000 was allocated for its main task related to technological assistance, research and development, Taka 200,000 for market development, Taka 500,000 for innovation,and Taka 970,000 for programme execution.

Despite the dismal scenario mentioned above,Bangladesh as the world's second largest producer after India as well as the leading producer of high-quality jute has a unique advantage for producing diversified jute products. The challenge for future success in this area lies in swift development of product designs and market linkages.

With its advantage in labour cost compared to India and China, as well as existing export infrastructure, Bangladesh has all the potentials to become an attractive manufacturing hub for diversified jute products. Continued use of antiquated equipment, however, may negate the labour and cost advantages. Low output prices and insufficient marketing support-cum-extension services also adversely affect diversification of jute products as well as export earnings from them.

The government should develop a clear vision for the future of jute industry and provide the industry with appropriate non-distortionary supports. A development programme in partnership with the private sector can create a fabric bank of higher value-added jute and jute-based fabric, which can be used in hand-bags and other fashion items. Further assistance can include initial market research combined with partnerships with the buying community to track market and fashion trends in order to help remain on top of the global demand.

The jute packing law enacted by parliament should be enforced strictly by the government as is done in India. This will result in increased domestic demand for jute and jute goods, and raise exports, employment and output. Development partner financing may be considered to stimulate further R&D (research and development) for the development of additional diversified fabrics and for reducing the cost of currently available high-end fabrics.

The Jute Research Institute, for example, had a pilot project on diversified jute fabrics and was earlier exploring collaborations with some garments/textile units for large-scale runs. Issues like marketing, research, and branding can be addressed on a regional basis with India and Nepal. If the South Asian countries get together and share marketing, branding, and research costs under a regional approach, that can be most helpful as well as synergistic for all the parties. Better late than never, as the saying goes.

Dr HelalUddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.

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