Pran has started aseptically processing tomato pulp at its Barind Industrial Park in Rajshahi to attain a longer shelf life for enabling its export alongside grabbing a bigger share of processed tomato sales in the country.
Being aseptic denotes free from contamination by harmful bacteria, viruses or other microorganisms.
This is achieved in food processing through sterilisation, of the product by heating and immediate cooling and of the containers using superheated steam, all the while ensuring that an aseptic sealed environment is maintained up to packaging.
"Bangladesh used to import tomato pulp to produce sauces and ketchups here. Things have changed now and we plan to start exporting our produce this year," Kamruzzaman Kamal, director of marketing at Pran-RFL Group, told The Daily Star.
"It is the tomato farmers who will be the ultimate beneficiary if we are successful. The market will grow and it will generate employment," he said.
Pran, one of the country's leading food processors, has already been exporting tomato sauce and ketchup to 60 countries, including Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, US, Italy and Sweden.
Around Tk 250 crore worth of tomato sauce, ketchup and paste are sold in the country a year and the market is growing at 10 per cent annually.
Pran is leading in the market with its capacity of producing 18,000 tonnes of tomato sauce a year using its two plants in Rajshahi and Natore districts.
For Pran's processed tomato products, life starts through contract farming, with cultivators growing tomatoes organically.
Cooler temperatures are congenial for tomato cultivation, for which the season ranges from December to February.
This season, Pran has collected 5,200 tonnes of tomatoes until yesterday.
This year's cultivation contracts stipulate that the company procure 12,000 tonnes of tomatoes from 10,000 farmers in Rajshahi, Natore, Chapainawabganj, Pabna and Dinajpur districts.
Last season, it procured 7,000 tonnes of tomatoes from 8,400 farmers.
The number of contract farmers are increasing by 20 per cent a year thanks to the efforts of Pran in providing them training and farming inputs and ensuring value of their product.
The increase depicts the growing enthusiasm among farmers for finding value for their crops.
"Other than Pran, we have customers from across the country. The demand for our product is increasing for its quality and high yield," said farmer Bokul Hossain.
Talking to this correspondent who was on a field visit at Basantapur village in Rajshahi's Godagari upazila, Hossain said he produces at least 10 tonnes of tomatoes from 1,337 square metres of land in the three months.
Partnering with five other farmers, he has been cultivating tomatoes on 6.69 hectares of land since 2017.
By investing Tk 20 lakh behind the cultivation, he produces 560 tonnes of tomatoes a season and earns at least Tk 60 lakh.
Pran buys tomatoes from the farmers and takes those to its state-of-the-art plant that produces tomato pulp.
Maintaining aseptic conditions, the tomatoes are washed and separated in several phases before being mechanically pulped and packed in sterile bags.
In this way the bags of pulp attain a shelf life of two years, said Sayed Sarwar Hossain, manager of Pran's Rajshahi plant.
The company finally takes the pulp to its plant in Natore for producing sauces and ketchup.
"We have plans to begin producing sauces and ketchup from our Rajshahi plant in the near future," he said.