What was wrong with Md Zahidul Islam? That question was the talk of his village for a while, in 2010. The young farmer from Maria village in Bogra's Shajahanpur upazila had just planted his 33 decimals of land with ugly-looking spiky plants that nobody could recognise. The villagers wondered who would buy such a bizarre crop. What was he thinking?
“When I grew aloe vera initially,” recalls Zahidul, now 32, “my neighbours laughed at me. They said I'd never sell it and for the first three years they were right! I was so disappointed. There wasn't anybody to buy the aloe so I used to give it away for free.”
Native to the Arabian Peninsula, aloe vera is a succulent with medicinal qualities, especially renowned for skin care.
For Zahidul, the decision to grow the plant was years in the making. Since he completed his Secondary School Certificate he'd been desperate for work. “I searched like crazy for a job but couldn't find one,” he recalls, “and I also wanted to do something different.” Eventually his elder brother suggested aloe vera. Zahidul went to neighbouring Natore where aloe cultivation was already established, to buy the first plants.
It was 2010 before Zahidul's persistence started to pay off. “I managed to sell around three kilograms that year,” he says. “It wasn't much but since then sales have improved.”
Last year Zahidul made around Tk 2 lakh from his plot. He has 20 local juice vendors as regular customers. They seek out his garden daily to buy leaves for around Tk 20 per kilogram.
“I buy 50 kg aloe leaves every few days,” says one juice vendor, Md Abdul Kudus from Bogra town. “I sell aloe vera extracts and jelly with juice to city commuters. From every Tk 1,000 I spend I can make three times that. Schoolgirls in particular like the leaves which they use for facials. Demand is increasing day by day.”
Zahidul's innovation brought changes, even to his own name. “It feels so good when people call me 'Alo Vera Zahidul',” he says. He's been approached by several journalists and many locals to tell his story; and with last year's profits he bought a brand new motorcycle.
As early as 2011 another farmer, Zabed Ali, followed Zahidul's lead. He planted aloe vera on his 45 decimals too. “The profit from aloe vera is three times higher than what we could expect from any of the more traditional crops,” says Zabed Ali's son Rafiqul Islam. “With summer upon us the price for 50 kg is currently Tk 1,250. That certainly makes us happy.”
Several neighbouring farmers would also like to grow the crop, but to get started isn't that easy. The plants aren't cheap; upfront capital is required.
Being crop pioneers at least locally, Zahidul and Zabed Ali have had to confront challenges. Foremost among them is the pest attacks on their crops, attacks that are especially troublesome in winter. Neither farmer knows how to protect the crop, though they have been trying the use of lime paste on the aloe leaves. They say no agriculture official has ever visited their fields.
“Our upazila-level officer will go there soon to give advice,” says Bogra district's deputy director for horticulture in the Department Of Agricultural Extension, Md Abdur Rahim. “But spreading lime on the leaves won't work.”