Once roasted and shelled, it is a highly sought-after nut, whose global market stood at $14.9 billion in 2019
Some ten years ago, Uthai Marma, an officer at a non-governmental organisation, started planting a few kilograms of cashew seeds in the front yard of his homestead in Bandarban Hill Tracts on an experimental basis.
He wanted to see if the seeds grew into cashew trees and start bearing cashew apple. The fruit’s seed, which is shaped like a kidney, dangles at the bottom and is rich in oil and protein.
Once roasted and shelled, it is a highly sought-after nut, whose global market stood at $14.9 billion in 2019 and is estimated to grow at 4.6 per cent between 2020 and 2025.
Within a few years, the trees started bearing fruit and yielding him profit. So much that he quit his job at the NGO and concentrated on cashew farming full-time.
Today, he is the proud owner of a 5-acre garden lined with 1,000 cashew trees, which fetch him Tk 2.2 lakh in earnings.
Marma is one of 2,000 farmers currently engaged in commercial cultivation of cashew, especially in the hill tract areas, tempted by the high price of the nut in the local market.
A kg of cashew nut sells between Tk 800 and Tk 1,700 depending on the quality in the local market.
And the number of farmers are growing rapidly.
Seeing the success his neighbours were having with the farming of the nut, Jashim Mia, a farmer from Khagrachhari, just sowed cashew seedlings on 1 acre of land.
“More and more people are now getting interested in cashew farming as the nut’s demand and price are high in the local market,” Mia said.
In fiscal 2019-20, about 1,323 tonnes of cashew were produced, up 32.3 per cent from a year earlier, according to data from the agriculture ministry.
But the demand for cashews is 50,000 tonnes, meaning the majority is imported.
The nut is pitched as a healthy snack, but it is increasingly being used as a base for curries, milky drinks, cakes and sweets to bring richness in flavour.
Given the rising per capita income, urbanisation and exposure to international cooking methods, cashews consumption will only increase in Bangladesh.
The nut though can be cultivated on a large scale in Bangladesh: it grows in places where mango and tamarind trees thrive.
India used to be the cashew capital of the world until Vietnam stole a march and overtook India in 2016.
Today, the Southeast nation is the cashew king, thanks to an ingenious push to automate the business and government policy.
In the 1980s, Vietnam’s government encouraged landowners in some of its poorest districts to plant cashew trees. By the 1990s a few processors had established themselves, employing thousands to process raw cashews into an edible form.
Generally, the processing of raw cashew nuts into edible cashew kernel takes six steps traditional method: steam roasting, shell drying, shell cutting, peeling, grading and packaging.
Western supermarkets such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco -- the biggest buyers of cashews -- were flexing their growing muscle across a global web of suppliers, pressing relentlessly for cost cuts.
This prompted the Vietnam government in 1995 to ask Nguyen Van Lang, who owned a business packaging food for sale abroad, to explore how cashew exports could be boosted.
Lang realised that cashew processing was essentially a manufacturing job in which mechanisation might provide an edge. He decided to invent his own machines. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Vietnam is the largest grower and processor of cashews in the world.
This year, it exported about 450,000 tonnes of cashew kernels worth $3.2 billion, according to data from the Vietnam Cashew Association.
The Bangladesh government, perhaps, could take a leaf out of this and push for cashew cultivation and exports.
“If our production increases, we can cut back on our imports,” said Mehedi Masood, post-project director of year-round fruit production for nutrition improvement project at the agriculture ministry.
The government has already taken several steps to increase commercial production on a large scale, he said.
For instance, the government is set to initiate a new project worth Tk 148 crore to boost the production of cashew and coffee. As much as 60 per cent of the budget would go towards scaling up cashew nut cultivation.
About 10,000 hectares of land will come under the cashew nut cultivation and the yield is expected to increase to 25,000 tonnes when the project ends in 2025.
“Our target is to hit $1 billion in exports over the next few years,” Masood said.
The wasteland in the hilly areas could be used as cashew nut gardens, he said, adding that the tax on the import of the seeds should be withdrawn.
“The future of this item is bright,” said AFM Jamal Uddin, professor at the horticulture department of Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University.
The university has provided 2,000 cashew tree seedlings to cultivate on a trial basis at homesteads.
Uddin also called for increasing the number of cashew nut processing centres along with cultivation: at present, there are four located in Nilphamari, Potenga, Bandarban and Rajshahi.