The future is bright for Bangladesh

Cheese producing companies in Bangladesh focus on marketing mozzarella cheese. Credit: Masum Billah

Despite low domestic demand and transportation challenges posed by poor cold storage facilities, Bangladesh’s nascent cheese industry is showing potential for growth.

Consumers are eating more of this dairy product than ever before, spurring growth in imports. According to data from United States-based export-import trade intelligence firm Volza, there were 4,464 import shipments of cheese into Bangladesh, imported by 524 Bangladesh traders, as of 1 January 2023 to October 31. Bangladesh Bank reported commodity import statistics, which showed in July-November 2023, Bangladesh imported US$154.9 million (€142.2m) worth of milk and cream goods, up from US$144.9 million in July-November 2022.

In response to greater demand within this 170 million person market, domestic manufacturers are also seeking to produce more cheese. New York-based data technology company Knoema Corporation reported that 1,269 tonnes of cheese was produced in Bangladesh in 2021, up from 1,228 tonnes in 2020, up 3.3 per cent year-on-year.

The Bangladeshi cheese industry is set to grow further. According to Germany-based market research and analysis company Statista, Bangladesh cheese market revenues for 2024 are projected to be US$960 million (€881.6m), with an anticipated compound annual growth rate (CAGR) average annual growth rate of 9.7 per cent from 2024 to 2028. Such trends are promising for the future of the country’s cheese industry.

Cheese crafting

Sheikh Mohammad Nishan grew up witnessing his father crafting cheese in their village within a wetland ecosystem in Austagram, Kishoreganj, central Bangladesh. However, there was little demand for cheese in their poor village. So, his father would transport the cheese to Dhaka to sell it in Bangladesh’s capital.

Nishan’s father instilled an understanding that cheese production was not just a business in Bangladesh, it was a tradition passed down through generations in their village for centuries. Since then, media reports have rediscovered the rich tradition of the soft, white and salty Austagram cheese, reigniting demand and motivation for local traditional artisans to preserve their craft.

“Many prominent figures, including our prime minister and presidents, have purchased my cheese. Cheese making has been our profession for approximately 300 years,” Nishan told DII. He said 15 to 20 villagers produce Austagram cheese: “I sell around 10 kilograms of cheese every day,” said Nishan, “The per kilogram of my cheese costs around Bangladesh Taka BDT1,000 [US$9].” Austagram cheese makers use raw cow or buffalo milk, abomasum (a cow’s fourth stomach), water and salt as ingredients. They procure abomasum from local slaughterhouses, clean it with water, cut it into four or five pieces, season it with salt, and leave it to sun-dry for 15 days.

The dried abomasum, which secretes rennet, is soaked and then infused into milk, promoting natural separation of curd and whey. Extracted curds are compressed, placed in baskets and pressed to exclude water. The next day, the round-shaped cheese is coated with salt and is ready in 24 hours.

Nishan said one kilogram of cheese requires about 10 kilograms of milk. The region’s wet summers are optimal for cheese, as the cows and buffalo get more grass for grazing and hence produce more milk.

Austagram cheese sales were also boosted when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2020 praised it as being international in quality at a public event inaugurating a new road in Kishoreganj, saying, “Now that the road has been constructed, now I think we can send the cheese produced in Austagram not only to Dhaka but also abroad.” The cheese has also been celebrated in high-profile banquets featuring Bangladesh’s PM and former president, Mohammad Abdul Hamid.

This increased promotion has encouraged Bangladeshi households to buy more cheese of other varieties too, with some local dairy companies mass producing cheese.

Growth anticipated 

Faruk Ahammed, manager of cheese maker Hazrat Traders, which makes cheese branded as Hazrat Alir Ponir, said, “Cheese demand is gradually increasing.” This business is a medium-scale cheese company based in Panchagarh, the northernmost district of Bangladesh, specialising in mozzarella and cooking cheese, made from boiled milk and vegetable rennet, and used in curries. He told DII from his corporate office in Dhaka, “For example, two years ago we produced around 50kg of cheese per day, but now we produce around 150kg per day in our factory.

“We supply cheese to supermarket shops like Agora, Shwapno, Meena Bazar, etc. Mozzarella is in high demand here, and restaurants also use our mozzarella cheese. Our restaurant dealer takes around 500 kilograms of cheese every month,” said Faruk.

He said the market was competitive, with companies such as Pran-RFL Aarong, Ultra, and the Ezab Group all offering cheese to Bangladeshis.

Kamruzzaman Kamal, Pran-RFL marketing director, one of the largest conglomerates in Bangladesh and a market leader in the cheese sector, stressed how his company promotes Dhaka Cheese, a cottage cheese snack product, but its primary focus is on marketing mozzarella. “It is used in various dishes, and has a higher demand here,” he said.

Inside the tapestry of time 

A M Saadullah, known as Tutu Saad among his peers and cheese admirers in Dhaka, and founder of Tutu’s Artisan Cheese in Dhaka, is another dairy executive stressing the traditions behind Bangladesh cheese. An octogenarian cheese crafter, he discovered his passion for cheese in 1968 during air force training in Pakistan’s Swat Valley (when Bangladesh was East Pakistan), when he was fascinated by the cheesy-flavoured yogurt made by the local tribal people.

He now runs an artisanal cheese factory that makes cheddar, gouda, Swiss gruyere, manchego, colby, camembert, brie, halloumi and feta-style cheeses. However, he notes the Bangladeshi cheese traditions are to be encouraged, in products such as Austagram and Dhaka Poneer, a hard, crumbly, white cheese. Stressing cheese was introduced to Bengal by the Portuguese around 400 years ago when they were the first European settlers in the region, making the dairy product for the two months’ return voyage to Portugal. “They used to suffer from diseases due to a lack of protein on their journey back home. As milk perished fast, they started making cheese and stored them in the ship. That is how the cheese got introduced here,” Tutu told DII.

Muslim Bangladesh allows the use of rennet, which is banned in India due to Hindu religious reasons linked with cows, even if rennet imports into Bangladesh still attract 10 per cent duties.

Taking off

Should the country’s cheese industry really take off, it may need to import significant volumes of rennet, but it will need to increase exports for this to happen, which are currently very small.

The Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) of Bangladesh said that the country exported cheese and curd worth just US$17,652 from July 2022 to June 2023.

Kamruzzaman stressed that the sector remains “in the nascent stage” in Bangladesh, with Pran “yet to look at the export potentials,” he said.

One problem hindering Bangladesh’s cheese potential are the shortage of cold storage facilities. “We don’t have a cold storage crisis at Pran since we deal with various types of pasteurised milk, butter, curds, and frozen food – so we have to maintain the cold chain. But for others, they must enter the market by establishing the cold chain. So, this is an entry barrier in this sector,” said Kamruzzaman.

Bangladesh’s developing road and rail transport services makes it difficult to reach products in remote areas, while maintaining cold chains. But it is improving gradually,” he added.

Hasib Khan Tarun, former chairman of Bangladesh Milk Producers Co-Operative Union (Milk Vita), a dairy company supervised by the country’s ministry of local government, rural development and co-operatives, agreed with Kamruzzaman on the cold chain problems.

“Since it is a hot country, using freezing lorries is essential, and we need more freezing cars,” said Hasib Khan. “Besides, we need more promotion to further popularise cheese in Bangladesh. However, its potential is flourishing day by day. The market is expanding exponentially.”

Kamruzzaman concurred that demand is growing “as more people are eating fast food such as pasta, burgers and sandwiches,” which may contain cheese. Hazrat Alir manager Faruk said that as Bangladeshis are learning to use and eat cheese more than before, “cheese has a bright future in this country.”

Related content

Leave a reply

Dairy Industries International