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Sunday, May 31, 2020
Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Top, Women are cleaning waste agar chips at a factory in Barlekha upazila. Bottom Left, Md Abdul Kabir, secretary of Agar-Atar Kutir Shilpo Rokkha Committee, a platform for the sector, is holding waste agar chips that have been piled up for export to Middle East countries. Right, Inside an agar factory in Rafinagar village. Photo: Iqbal Siddiquee
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Agar farming by the private sector is changing the lifestyles of many people in the Sylhet region. It is changing the economic landscape of the area and at least 30,000 people are now earning a livelihood in the silently rising sector. Being a profitable form of farming, it is also contributing to reducing poverty.

Farmers are now cultivating agar on a commercial basis in regions like Fenchuganj, Beanibazar, Golapganj and Sadar of Sylhet and Rajnagar, Kulaura, Komolganj, Srimangal and Barlekha of Moulvibazar district.

The Barlekha upazila is one of the pioneers for growing agar, and the Sujanagar union is well known at home and abroad for it.

About 1,000 families in the villages of Sujanagar earn a living by working in the agar factories set up in their homes and around. Some more villages involved in the same work include Saldigha, Bartal, Uttar Sujanagar, Dakshin Sujanagar, Tangortoli and Rafinagar.

Md Muhibul Islam Raju of Rafinagar, an industry insider, said despite huge potential, the agar industry is facing numerous challenges like harassment by the law enforcers during transportation, an absence of marketing facilities, a shortage of funds and lack of maintenance.

Md Ziauddin, who runs a factory called Kamrunnahar Agar Factory in Khadimnagar in Sylhet, said an adequate quantity of raw materials is required to cultivate agar, and it is unfortunate that the industry cannot meet demand for a scarcity of raw materials.

He, however, supported the planting of saplings on the hilly forest lands and khas lands (government lands) to ensure the availability of raw materials. One good thing about the agar trees is that cattle never eat the plants, he said.

“We face a lot of trouble in transporting the agar plants from different upazilas. The law men ask for permits from land, agriculture and forest officials, which are almost impossible to show for a trucker or the labourers.”

Agar is produced in two ways -- artificially and naturally. Most people adopt the artificial methods as it takes seven to eight years to collect agar. On the other hand, natural methods may take up to 30 years.

A handful of agar plants are also present in some of the government institutions. The Agriculture Research Centre at Akbarpur in Moulvibazar has about 30-40 agar trees.

Agar is used to make different liquid products, including fragrances, golapjal (scented water), agar bati (incense) and different types of creams.

Presently, there are about 121 agar processing factories, including 100 in the Barlekha upazila of Moulvibazar alone. Some other factories are located in Kulaura, Srimangal, Komolganj and in Sylhet.

These factories are totally export oriented and highly labour intensive. The industry's contribution to GDP is about Tk 30 crore.

Rafiqul Islam Ful, 55, of Rafinagar village has been running his family business of agar and atar for decades now. After spending for 12 years in Dubai, Rafique returned home and started the agar business with his brother Mujahidul Islam. They are not much into production, but they collect the agar trees for processing.

They collect agar oil and send to the UAE, where another one of his brothers looks after the business.

“The transportation of agar trees from one place to another is a big problem for harassment by police and forest people, which has become a regular affair.” Bribing is the only way out, he added.

Md Abdul Kabir, secretary of Agar Atar Kutir Shilpo Rokkha Committee, a platform for the sector, told The Daily Star recently that the government should give adequate importance in giving the agar industry a boost as soon as possible.

Kabir runs his family business -- BAY OF BENGAL -- at his village home in Shaldigha of Barlekha upazila.

The sector can be boosted quite easily by involving forest and agriculture departments, Kabir said. Adequate training for the farmers is also important, he added.

In addition, the agar farmers need loans at low rates of interest, Kabir said.

At least 25 agar factories had to be shut down in recent years because of a rise in production costs, especially gas prices, he added.

“We are charged industrial rates, but commercial rates should be considered for the sector. Besides, fluctuations in gas pressure cause turmoil for the sensitive heating process.”

“We had already placed appeals to consider the gas rates and pressure issues, but no action has been taken yet,” Kabir said.

Upon collecting agar oil from the agar wood chips, what remains has low market value. It is used as a raw material to make agar sticks and others. “We export it to the Middle East,” Kabir added.

The Export Promotion Bureau has, however, taken steps to stress the production of agar in the Moulvibazar district under their programme -- one district, one product. Bangladesh exports agar oil and chips to Singapore, Saudi Arabia and UAE.

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