Bangladesh has a long, established history as a producer of quality tea. As for that other hot beverage, coffee, despite rising popularity among Bangladeshi consumers over the past few decades, there is no such agricultural tradition. Nursery owner Abdul Kuddus, from Munsipara village in Nilphamari's Kishoreganj upazila, however, has taken the first steps to change that. He decided to grow coffee, driven by nothing more than unstoppable curiosity.
“I first heard about coffee in 2009 at a conference run by the Nursery Owners Association,” says Abdul, an energetic septuagenarian who yet walks with a spring in his step. “For a long time I wanted to grow it but I couldn't procure any saplings.”
“For about the whole of his life Abdul has been inquisitive on the subject of rare plants,” explains his neighbour Fazal Kadir, a primary school headmaster.
“Finally in 2014, I managed to purchase 254 coffee saplings from Cox's Bazar,” Abdul continues.
“I contacted the agriculture extension department for advice on how to grow it, but they were uninterested.” Thus Abdul relied on common sense, planting the saplings on his fifteen decimals with a reasonable distance between each one.
The plants seemed to appreciate Abdul's efforts. With organic fertiliser they grew quickly. He decided to prune them, cutting their tops such that they didn't grow any higher than five feet. In 2016 Abdul held his breath. The two-year-old crop for the first time began to grow fruit, which blackened as they ripened.
Abdul's family was unimpressed. Who'd ever heard of coffee being grown in Nilphamari?
“We forbade father to proceed,” recalls his son Md Akram. “We told him all his efforts would be in vain but he didn't listen. He collected the mature fruit and used a wooden tool, a “dheki” to break them open and bring out the beans.”
“Of course there is no specialised machine to crush coffee here,” says Abdul. “So I took the beans to a flour mill and ask them to grind it. I got 67 kilograms of coffee powder.”
Despite the innovative refining process involved, Abdul's groundbreaking coffee is proving popular.
“The coffee produced in Kishoreganj upazila tastes really good and has a nice aroma,” says Siddiqur Rahman, who used to be the upazila nirbahi officer of Kishorganj and now works as an additional deputy commissioner in Narail district.
“I tasted Abdul's coffee and found it better than the imported brands available in the market,” says Sayed Hossain Shabul, president of a local citizens' committee.
Based on the favourable reviews of consumers, Abdul went to the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution in Rajshahi some months ago to apply for a licence for his coffee.
“They said it was not on their list, so I failed,” he says. “However I did get recognition from the district civil surgeon's office which issued a licence under the Food Safety Act 2013 under the name “The Bismillah Coffee”.
Eight ounces of coffee contains 135 milligrams of caffeine, explains Prof Abdul Latif, head of the botany department at Nilphamari Government College.
“It's a popular drink that serves as an energy source. The plant is bushy, of medium height and evergreen. It yields bunches of small, marble-like green fruit which is then crushed to extract the coffee powder.”
Abdul earned Tk 1.3 lakh from this year's coffee crop, selling it for Tk 2,000 per kilogram in Dhaka.
Now he wants to extend his plantation to cover thirty decimals. “If the government and private entrepreneurs get on board,” Abdul says, “then coffee cultivation can be a profitable segment of our agricultural future.”
In the meantime, the local community is already convinced. Several locals have decided to follow Abdul's lead, buying coffee saplings from his nursery at Tk 250 per piece.