The man who inspired a tangy trade

Like every other South Asian, Gurudas Banerjee, alias Shyamal, was expected to take up the helm of the family once he finished his studies at Barishal’s Uzirpur upazila.

He had a hard time finding his niche but eventually settled on fish cultivation in 2004 with a small amount of capital on one acre of land passed down by his late father at Dakshin Shikarpur village.

“I planted 55 different species of mango saplings around the perimeter. When the water in the enclosures dries up, I cultivate paddy and vegetables,” the 42-year-old told The Daily Star recently.

Shyamal also went organic with his use of fertilisers and opted for pheromone traps instead of insecticides.

His growing affinity with agriculture gave him a thought: why not also make use of the empty slopes of his water bodies by planting some other fruit bearing plants to bring in some extra cash?

And sure enough, a lucrative, locally developed sweet orange came to his mind. Little did he know that he would become so successful at it that it would go on to inspire some 100 other residents of his upazila.

Oranges are believed to be native to the tropical regions of Asia, especially the Malay Archipelago; along with other citrus species, they have been cultivated from remote ages, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The Roman conquests, the development of Arab trade routes, and the expansion of Islam contributed significantly to its dispersal, it said.

Sweet orange (Citrus sinensis), commonly known as malta in Bangladesh, has always been cultivated on a large scale in Chattogram. The profusely branched thorny shrub or small tree is presumed to have its origins in India and South Eastern China.

Shyamal had decoded to plant Bari Malta-1, one of two varieties of sweet oranges developed through rootstock by the Horticulture Research Center at Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (Bari) in 2005.

Each plant provides a harvest of some 14.35 kilogrammes of the yellowish green fruit, each of 100 grams to 120 grams, between August and November.

It grows well in Sylhet and Chattogram regions, which Shyamal believed was due to the hilly landscape preventing the water from pooling around the base of the plant, effectively keeping orchards well drained.

Besides its cultivation had already spread from the hills to the southern part of the country, said Dr Mehedi Masud, deputy director of a Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) project to ensure nutrition through cultivation of fruits year-round.

Researchers had first presumed Bari Malta-1 grew well in red soil but it actually needs a soil pH of approximately 6 to 7, which promotes the ready availability of plant nutrients.

With the soil pH in the south hovering around 7.5, the Bari Malta-1 plants did not fail Shyamal. He says his plants on 30 decimals of land provide him with more than 50 maunds of malta each season.

Being organically grown and free of formalin, the fruit has been able to draw buyers right to the garden, bringing in slightly higher wholesale prices of Tk 120 per kilogramme compared to what others go for in the market.

Nonetheless, there has always been appreciation of the dietary values of citrus fruits in Bangladesh. They are a healthy source of several vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, thiamine, folate, potassium, antioxidants and fibre.

In combination these ensure healthy immune systems, prevent skin damage, keep blood pressure in check, lower cholesterol, control blood sugar levels and lower the risk of cancer.

It is hard to imagine any Bangladeshi who has not heard of bringing along oranges on hospital visits or travels.

And the pandemic has driven up demand, with over 40,000 tonnes of citrus fruits being imported in the first three months (July to August) of fiscal 2020-21, as per data from the DAE’s Plant Quarantine Wing.

To put this into perspective, just 21,880 tonnes were imported in the whole of fiscal 2019-20. And that’s excluding illegal entries from across the border.

The popularity of Bari Malta-1 has grown simultaneously.

Some 17,800 tonnes of the fruit were grown on 2,525 hectares of land in fiscal 2019-20, around 800 tonnes higher from that in the preceding year, said Kobir Ahmed, deputy director for fruit and flower at the DAE’s horticulture wing.

Horticulture Research Center, Barishal provides some 3,000 to 4,000 saplings of Bari Malta-1 to customers of Barishal division every year, said Shahidul Islam, the centre’s former deputy director.

The hubs are Banaripara and Wazirpur upazilas in Barishal, Nesarabad and Nazirpur upazilas in Pirojpur, and Jhalakathi sadar and Nalchhiti upazilas in Jhalakathi, he said.

“I had started farming malta in 2016 and was able to begin selling the fruit in 2017. This year I think I will make a profit of at least Tk 2 lakh,” said Shyamal.

When it comes to costs, he is said to have spent only about five lakh, that too just to purchase the shrubs years back alongside saplings of coconut and mango varieties such as Bari Mango-5, Bari Mango-4, Haribhanga, Gopalbhog, Fazli and Banana Mango.

Shyamal inspired the creation of about 100 malta gardens in Ujirpur upazila, said Agriculture Officer Zakir Hossain Talukder.

And all because he refused to give in to failure and tried making the best of what he had. 

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