Traders had permission to import 183,000 tonnes of onion, but they could bring in only 8,992 tonnes in the last two months due to a lack of adequate number of refrigerated containers in ships, businesses said.
Onion is a perishable item and it has to be transported in refrigerated containers, importers and shipping agents said.
But the existing container vessels do not have the capacity to carry more than 50 refrigerated containers.
As a result, traders have not been able to bring in huge volume of onions even after getting the permission, they said.
Bangladesh is desperately seeking onions as the price of the key cooking ingredient skyrocketed amid supply crunch when India slapped a ban on its exports on September 29.
Prices of onion hit an all-time high of around Tk 250 a kg in the third week of November. Last week, it fell slightly to Tk 230-Tk 240 a kg in the retail market.
According to data from the Plant Quarantine Centre in Dhaka and Chattogram, about 180 traders obtained permissions from September 29 to November 30 to import 183,000 tonnes of onion from some 12 countries.
However, only 8,992 tonnes were released during the time. Of them, 8,610 tonnes were imported through the Chattogram port and the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. After getting permission from the Plant Quarantine Centre, importers can open letters of credit (LCs) with banks. Traders opened LCs for 78,000 tonnes of onion in October and November, Bangladesh Bank data showed.
Traders, however, do not require the import permission and opening LCs to buy onions from Myanmar. Around 41,000 tonnes of the vegetable were imported from the southeast Asian country in the last two months.
S Alam Group has received approval to bring in 55,000 tonnes of onion from Egypt, Sonali Traders 18,060 tonnes from Turkey, BSM Syndicate 1,600 tonnes from China and Turkey, Wasif Enterprise 1,000 tonnes from Belgium, and Monir Enterprise 1,000 tonnes from China.
Of them, BSM Syndicate imported 530 tonnes of onion through the Chattogram Port on November 27 and S Alam Group brought in 102 tonnes of the vegetable from Egypt two weeks ago through the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport.
Abul Bashar Chowdhury, chairman of BSM Group, said on average 80-120 tonnes of onion were imported per shipment because of the inadequate number of refrigerated containers in ships.
He said a maximum 400-500 tonnes of onion can be imported if all the refrigerators in a ship are used.
As a result, most importers have not been able to import the onions in large volumes even after having the permission in hand.
Chowdhury said although it is possible to bring onions in bulk carriers, as the item can perish if it travels a long distance.
All these issues are failing the traders to increase its supply in the local market, he said.
According to the Chittagong Customs House, 370 tonnes of onions are on way to Chattogram port from Pakistan, China, and Sri Lanka in six consignments. The onions will take at least two weeks to arrive.
Ahsanul Huq Chowdhury, chairman of the Bangladesh Shipping Agents’ Association, said a container-carrying ship has only 30-50 refrigerated containers and most of them carry fruits like apple.
Now onion has been added to the list, he said.
It takes nearly a month to carry onion in refrigerated containers through vessels, said Abdul Latif, senior information officer of the commerce ministry.
The importers are struggling due to the lack of refrigerated containers at a time when the government has been facing problem to solve the onion crisis, he said.
Some onions were imported from Pakistan and Egypt through air to boost supply, he said, adding that some companies are also trying to bring the vegetable by sea in large quantity.
The onions to be imported by City Group and S Alam Group will be sold through the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh at fixed prices, he added.
According to the National Board of Revenue, 63,000 tonnes of onions worth Tk 287 crore were imported in the last two months.
A total of 41,370 tonnes of onion worth Tk 171.22 crore were imported from Myanmar through the Teknaf land port.
The rest came from countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and Belgium.