Flowers power many Bangladeshi poor out of poverty

Flowers sell cheaply on the streets of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, adding fire to the efforts of Aleya Begum and several other children nearly begging for sales at a stoplight.

“Sir, buy some flowers,” the tall, slender 14-year-old said. “I need to sell all my flowers before I go (home). Next morning they will all become trash.”

Ten roses fresh from the garden cost 5 taka (six cents), and Aleya said her average daily income is about $4.

Yet flowers are becoming an important source of income for many in Bangladesh as demand for blossoms for everything from social occasions to national holidays soars.

The new interest is helping many in this nation where nearly one-third of the nation’s 160 million population survive on just $1.25 a day slowly inch their way from poverty.

“The flower business is growing fast and becoming more popular every day,” said Montu Miah, a 50-year-old flower seller in the northern town of Bogra, 300 km (180 miles) from Dhaka.

“Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine any occasion such as birthday, wedding anniversary, a state function or even Eid celebrated without flowers,” he added, referring to the festival that ends the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Ten years ago there were no flower market in the town, but now it has one with over a dozen stalls, and several more stalls on sidewalks.

When Montu began his business 15 years ago as a flower vendor, he earned at most 100 taka ($1.35) a day. Now his daily income is 30 times that, allowing him to pay for a home of his own and put his son and daughter through a local college.

Similar success stories abound from around the country, with flowers being used to wish someone well, congratulate students over success in exams or in finding a job.

People now take flowers on hospital visits, instead of the traditional fruit, and flowers are also popular as presents at weddings.

CELEBRATING OCCASIONS

“I think this change started about 15 years ago when going abroad by Bangladeshi people for work and other purposes increased significantly,” said Imdadul Haq Milon, a lifestyle commentator and editor of a leading Bengali newspaper.

“They saw how people in other countries use flowers to celebrate important occasions and have incorporated it into our culture, resulting in the use of flowers increasing here.”

As a result, people in the Bangladeshi countryside now cultivate flowers on land previously used to grow rice and other crops, because it is more profitable. Grower Abu Salam said he earned 50,000 taka ($675) through selling flowers last year, up 30 percent from crops a year ago.

Production has grown so sharply that the country, which once imported flowers from places such as India or Thailand, is now an exporter.

“At present, Bangladesh exports $8 million worth of flowers a year, mostly to the Middle East, and sales are increasing,” said Babul Proshad Dasharath, general secretary of Bangladesh Flower Society.

“We cannot meet export demands as domestic use of flowers is also rising very fast.”

Flowers are commercially produced in Bangladesh’s northwest, mostly in the district of Jessore. They come to the cities on trucks before dawn each day and are sold at shops and key roadside spots. Street vendors like Aleya grab some from friendly flower shop owners.

They also collect local species of flowers grown in the city’s parks and municipal gardens. The most popular among these are jasmine and the jasmine-like white and yellow shefali, rich in fragrance.

Though Bangladeshis always liked flowers, the cost put them out of the reach of many in the past. One traditional proverb said, “Buy food if you can manage some money, then go for flowers if you can spare any of it.”

But a greater supply of flowers has lowered the cost, in turn sparking purchases by people keen on giving them instead of more costly presents. The costs also prompt many people to treat themselves to flowers if they want to.

“Flowers are a lovers’ delight among both the young and old,” said Tabassum Nahar, a student at Dhaka University, who spoke at a flower shop surrounded by smiling friends.

“We say it with flowers.”

($1=74 taka)

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