With most businesses suffering a deep wound inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, biscuit makers in Bangladesh have a different story to share.
The crispy food, liked by people from all walks of life, has seen its demand grow both in domestic and export markets as many consumers have stayed indoors and shunned eating out.
After posting 10 per cent year-on-year growth in the fiscal year of 2019-20, which included two pandemic-hit quarters, the upward trend of shipment of biscuits has continued in the current fiscal year as well. Biscuits exports almost doubled to $31.5 million in the July-December period from $16.6 million in the corresponding period a year ago, data from the Export Promotion Bureau showed.
The steady growth of biscuit makers came while merchandise shipment declined 0.36 per cent year-on-year to $19.23 billion in July-December as Bangladesh's major export destinations continued to struggle to tame the rising coronavirus infections.
Earnings from the apparel shipment, which contributes more than 80 per cent to the national exports, dropped 2.99 per cent to $15.54 billion.
"Consumption of foods sold by restaurants and street vendors fell significantly because of the worries about the virus among consumers. As the cheapest alternative, we have seen an increase in demand for biscuits," said Madad Ali Virani, executive director for operations of Olympic Industries Ltd.
Popular brands such as Energy Plus, Tip and Nutty have 25-30 per cent share of the domestic market.
Bangladeshi diaspora living abroad are the main buyers of locally made biscuits.
"They are helping us grow," said Virani, adding that the 20 per cent incentive given by the government on exports also contributed to the sales in the overseas markets.
The local biscuit industry has been growing by about 15 per cent annually. The market for biscuits is worth Tk 5,000 crore to Tk 6,000 crore, with large, well-known brands taking up the major share, according to industry people.
Olympic, the market leader, posted a 15 per cent increase in sales to Tk 1,589 crore in the fiscal year of 2019-20, from Tk 1,373 crore from the previous year. The majority came from the sales of biscuits.
It maintained the sales growth in July-September as well. Olympic's sales soared 17 per cent year-on-year to Tk 465 crore.
Bangas, another biscuits maker, posted robust growth in sales, according to its annual report for 2019-20.
No biscuit factory was closed during the pandemic except for some days in April, the first month of the countrywide lockdown, said Md Shafiqul Islam, chief sales officer of Romania Food and Beverage Ltd, a concern of Bengal Group of Industries.
The consumption of biscuits grew as people stocked dry food as part of their preparation for the lockdowns, which were imposed in almost all countries to contain the spread of the deadly pathogen.
The demand in the domestic market has grown by 30 to 40 per cent, while exports surged more than 60 per cent, Islam said.
The share of the branded segment of biscuits is expanding thanks to the rising demand, particularly from the lower middle and middle-income groups.
Debasish Singha, head of export of Danish Biscuit, which is owned by Partex Star Group, said exporters were able to grab some global market during the pandemic as consumers either cut back on their intake of processed food or regular food for fear of catching the virus.
"It has created an opportunity for Bangladeshi dry food exporters," he said.
The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Nepal, Oman, Qatar, the European Union, and the US are major markets.
Singha, also the chairman for market research and development of the Bangladesh Agro-Processors' Association, said some new investors were making a foray into the manufacturing of biscuits as the government provided the cash incentive on exports.
Kamruzzman Kamal, marketing director of Pran-RFL Group, said the demand for dry foods increased significantly at local and international markets as people relied on them.
Rifat Jahan, who lives with her husband and a son in the capital's Mirpur area, was not fond of biscuits before the pandemic.
"But during the pandemic, I have bought biscuits every month. We eat biscuits every now and then," she said on Sunday.
Bangladesh produces about 475,000 tonnes of biscuits each year, according to the Bangladesh Auto Biscuit & Bread Manufacturers Association.
Annual per capita biscuit consumption in Bangladesh is 1.8 kilogram while it is 4 kg in Sri Lanka, 2.2 kg in India and 2.5 kg in Pakistan, according to IBISWorld, a US-based industry research firm.
Olympic Industries will invest around Tk 42 crore to expand its annual production capacity by 12,442 tonnes to cash in on the rising demand.