Exports of fresh produce from Bangladesh have been hit in the wake of flight restrictions imposed by several Middle Eastern countries to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, exporters said yesterday.
The Middle East, home to more than five million Bangladeshi migrant workers, is the biggest destination for the locally grown vegetables and fruits, which brought home $100 million in the last fiscal year.
The perishables are shipped by air cargoes and their shipment began to suffer after Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman slapped entry restrictions on international flights, including those from Bangladesh.
"Our exports to these destinations have come to a halt because of cancellation of the flights. We are facing the curb just at the beginning of the main export season to the Middle East," said Mohammed Monsur, general secretary of the Bangladesh Fruits Vegetables & Allied Products Exporters' Association (BFVAPEA).
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are two major export destinations for fresh vegetables and fruits and 60-70 tonnes of the perishable are shipped through air cargoes from Dhaka daily.
The shipment has nearly halved over the last one week, Monsur said.
Exports of vegetables slumped 40 per cent year-on-year to 3,000 tonnes in the January-February period of 2020, BFVAPEA data showed.
This was the first blow for vegetable and fruit exporters, who were upbeat about exceeding the annual shipment targets for the current fiscal year of 2019-20, thanks to increasing demand for local fresh produce.
Fresh fruits and vegetables export bounced back in fiscal 2018-19, ending four-straight years of slump, on the back of higher demand and efforts aimed at improving farming and packaging practices in order to produce and ship disease-free crops.
Shipment of fresh produce hit a four-year high of 61,500 tonnes in the last fiscal year, up 52 per cent year-on-year, according to data compiled by the Hortex Foundation under the agriculture ministry.
Export receipts from vegetables shot up 93 per cent to $140 million in July-February, data from the Export Promotion Bureau showed.
"Our exports will suffer whenever flights to our export destinations are suspended. We had expected that our exports would be higher than our annual target this year. Now, there is a slowdown in growth," said BFVAPEA President SM Jahangir Hossain, adding that the situation would, however, be clear after a week or more.
Exports to European destinations, namely the United Kingdom, have so far been unaffected, giving some breathing space to exporters.
"The risk is that exports to London may come to a halt anytime," said Paritosh Chandra Das, proprietor of Dip International, which mainly exports to Kuwait and London.
Dip International sent its last consignment to Kuwait earlier this month. As Kuwait suspended all flights to and from six countries, including Bangladesh on March 6, its exports have come to a halt.
Last week, the curb on the flights was extended without giving any specific time for any reopening, Das said. Local carrier Biman and Kuwait Airways ran flights between Dhaka and Kuwait.
"The blow came just at the beginning of the main sales season," he said, adding that the decline in the shipment would affect the growers from whom his firm buys vegetables.
Dip International has contract producers in Narsingdi, Kishoreganj and Habiganj.
Apart from exporters, many farmers will incur losses if the coronavirus pandemic prolongs, Monsur said.
The improvement in production and post-harvest management practices has contributed to the increasing shipment of fresh produce in recent periods, said Mitul Kumar Saha, assistant general manager for marketing at the Hortex Foundation.
"The coronavirus pandemic is a global crisis and Bangladesh has little to do unless the global situation changes for the better," he said.