Sahanara Begum Soma pioneered green tea farming in 2007 in the plain lands of Lalmonirhat, improving the economic fate of the poor farmers in her locality.
However, she is now passing days in woe as she is unable to run the machines at her tea processing facility for low electricity voltage, putting her investments over the years in jeopardy.
The 46-year-old was inspired by tea leaf farming when she worked with several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Sylhet that focused on the welfare of tea workers.
She first experimented with the tea plant on an acre of land in Lalmonirhat in 2007.
Soon, harvests flourished and she expanded the production at Soma Tea Estate at Bisondoi village in Hatibandha upazila to nine acres in 2012. Harvesting about five tonnes of green tea leaves a month, she sold her produce at a neighbouring market in Panchagarh, about 150 kilometres away.
Seeing her success, around 60 more people in the area followed in her footsteps and began tea farming, taking total acreage in the area to 75 acres.
Seeing the bright prospect of this industry, she and her husband, Ferdous Alam, decided to invest in a tea processing facility that would ensure better prices and save the farmers time and energy to transport the tea leaves.
Together, they set up Soma and Soma Tea Processing Ltd on an additional acre at a cost of Tk 9 crore in 2016.
“I took a loan of Tk 1.95 crore from the Rangpur branch of a commercial bank. I arranged the rest of the funds by selling off my ancestral property and borrowing from relatives,” she said.
However, the facility was operational for only two months.
“We processed one lakh kilograms of tea at our facility in April and May the same year from the harvest from our own farm and other farmers in the area. But we had to stop in June for low voltage. It has been lying idle ever since,” she said.
“Now, the bank loan and interest rate has become a burden for us. Whatever tea we produce in our farm, we sell off to pay our debts,” she added.
Once a month, they run the machines with a diesel run generator to ensure that the machines do not rust away.
“We spend Tk 2 to Tk 2.5 lakh to run the machines by a generator for one day a month.”
They duo also bears a minimum electricity bill of Tk 50,000 a month and employed 50 permanent workers.
“We would like to reach out to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to save our facility that would greatly help the poor farmers,” she said.
Soma’s husband has tried to reach out to several ministers, secretaries and high officials to address the electricity problem in the last two years, but to no response.
All they got were false promises.
“The electricity board has given us an electric connection, but insufficient voltage to run the machines. There is no power grid in the area,” said Alam, the executive director of Soma and Soma Tea Processing Ltd.
“We receive 14KV to 15 KV on our electric line that has a capacity of 33KV,” he added.
The tea workers are deprived of fair prices for this crisis, Project Director of Bangladesh Tea Board in Hatibandha Arif Khan told The Daily Star.
“The farmers commute three to four hours to Panchagarh, while transportation costs eat up their profits. Reviving this industry is vital to alleviating poverty in the area,” he said.
Anit Kumar Roy, executive engineer of Northern Electricity Supply Company (NESCO) Limited, Hatibandha Sub-Station, said there were only 5,000 consumers under the station previously.
By June 2016, that number jumped to 30,000 and that is why the voltage also dropped, he explained.
“Also, we face a 20 to 25 percent voltage loss in the 33KV line while we receive it from Lalmonirhat Power Station, about 50 kilometres away from Hatibandha sub-station.”
“I visited the tea industry several times and unless a power grid is built here, it is not possible to ensure proper voltage,” he told The Daily Star.
They couple fears that they would have to sell of all their properties and the successful farm that they built over the years to pay off their bank loans.