Coffee grown in three districts of CHT -- Bandarban, Khagrachhari and Rangamati — can be as good as the ones from central and South American, says Rick Hubbard, founder and managing director of North End Coffee Roasters
A little-known fact about Bangladesh: coffee can be grown here.
The germ was sown at the turn of the century with the government handing out a few coffee saplings to farmers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts to try out.
But the initiative did not get momentum a decade later, when Rick Hubbard, an American national who was previously a Coffee Master with global coffee giant Starbucks, set up North End Coffee Roasters.
“There was no focused effort before that. We started the move to make coffee a commercial crop,” Hubbard told Dhaka Tribune.
From handing out saplings to training farmers on processing the coffee cherry, Hubbard has been involved every step of the way, often collaborating with non-governmental organisations as well as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations for the end.
“Instead of 20 trees, we said, ‘let’s have 1,000 trees’. We bought seedlings for farmers. That was probably our contribution.”
Today, coffee is grown in three districts of CHT on a large scale -- Bandarban, Khagrachhari and Rangamati -- and in Tangail, Rangpur and Nilphamari on an experimental basis.
And Hubbard’s North End buys almost all the coffee that is grown in Bangladesh, 90 per cent of which is in Bandarban.
“For the first 3-4 years, we were buying coffee that we could not sell as the cherries were picked before they were ready. We still bought them to encourage the farmers.”
Coffee cherries, which encases the coffee bean, need to be picked only when they are bright red in colour and fully ripe. The cherries are then peeled, dried out in the sun and then processed.
North End purchases a kilogram of “passable quality” coffee beans for Tk 300 and good-quality ones for Tk 320, which Hubbard says is higher than the Fair Trade prices.
To teach farmers about the discipline of harvesting and processing beans, North End as well as a couple of NGOs brought in professional trainers.
One such farmer who benefitted from the counselling is Fungkhal Bawm from Farukpara in Bandarban.
He planted 25 coffee saplings that began to bear fruit in 2015.
His first harvest yielded him 80 kilograms of beans that he sold to North End for Tk 10,400.
He has gone on to increase his acreage to 5 acres, where there are about 10,000 coffee trees now.
Not all of them are bearing fruit yet: a coffee tree takes five years to mature and bear fruit.
For coffee farming to truly flourish in the Hill Tracts, Bawm called for support from the government in the form of more coffee bean processing machines.
“The machines are expensive and the farmers can’t afford them,” he told Dhaka Tribune.
Today, there are around 400 farmers involved in coffee farming, according to the Department of Agriculture Extension.
But the government wants more to get involved.
And for that end, the DAE has taken up a project worth Tk 200 crore, which is still in the works.
The farmers can earn Tk 3 lakh after spending Tk 50,000, according to Mehedi Masood, post-project director of the agriculture ministry’s Year-Round Fruit Production for Nutrition Improvement Project.
Coffee can be grown bio-dynamically without costly fertilisers or agrochemicals.
“There are 7 lakh hectares of wastelands in hilly areas that are unused. We will ask the government to take back those unused wastelands for coffee farming,” he said.
Coffee plantation is actually good for the hill tracts, which has a major erosion problem, according to Hubbard.
For coffee trees to thrive, elevation, consistent rainfall and volcanic soil are needed.
"Bangladesh has none of those things and yet it is possible to grow good coffee here," Hubbard said.
As there is a huge demand for coffee in Bangladesh and abroad and farmers are also interested, the government also wants the production of the crop in 1-2 lakh hectares of lands at least for the next term, Masood said.
In fiscal 2019-20, the total coffee production in Bangladesh was about 55.75 tonnes from 118.3 hectares of land, according to the DAE.
Given the flexibility and the availability of modern processing machines and technology, coffee’s cultivation will increase, said Kabir Hossain, director of the Horticulture Wing of the DAE.
Hubbard thinks the coffee grown in Bangladesh can knock it with the ones grown in central and South America.
“There is potential to grow some good coffee in Bangladesh.”
At North End, the Hill Tract blend of coffee beans sells fast.
“We got some pretty great reviews,” he said, adding that North End procured 250 kg of coffee from the Hill Tracts.
Were there enough stock, North End would have been able to market it in a bigger way.
“We have a major coffee trader in Singapore who will buy it in container loads. This is why we are encouraging farmers to grow more coffee.”
At present, there are about 1.8 lakh coffee trees. Once there are about 2 lakh mature coffee trees, a sustained supply of beans can be obtained.
After processing, 300 kg of coffee cherries becomes 80 kg of coffee beans.
Hubbard cited Vietnam as the perfect example for Bangladesh to follow.
Coffee plantation in Vietnam did not take off in a big way until the 1980s and today it is the second-biggest exporter of coffee in the world, behind only Brazil.
But Bangladesh has better prospects as the coffee grown here are mostly the superior, smoother-tasting arabica variety.
Vietnam produces the bitter-tasting robusta coffee bean, which is used mainly for instant coffee.
“What I love to see in the future is that villages that have hilly areas and do not have coffee trees have them,” Hubbard said.
He went on to express the hope that coffee farmers will go on to form co-operatives such that it becomes a sustainable cash crop.
“My biggest fear is that middlemen will get in,” he added.