Somewhere between the invention of the microwave and the discovery of cheap labor, we lost our patience. We now have a burning need to cure the cold today and have dinner warmed in three minutes. Rather than allowing everything its organic time and process, we seek instant gratification. This greedy habit has eradicated not only liveable wages and sustainable production but also quality and pride in a product born out of rich, ancestral traditions.
The days of textiles threaded with allegory and the rustic beauty of human error are behind us. We are accustomed to wearing plastic now, with 40% of our ready-made garments being made with polyester. Craftsmen, unable to keep up with those economies of scale, lose their art as the future generations do not see it as a stable means of survival.
The arts and crafts of a nation are not just products. They are histories embedded in material objects, telling stories of the peoples who made them. For a country like Bangladesh that thrives off its abundant heritage, true knowledge should be recognized in the expert molding of silver or clay pots. However, post-independence urbanization has left these makers searching for customers that will value this expertise over the shinier, cheaper alternative. Therefore, artisans were no longer present in the frame of the changing canvas of the nation.
It was against this backdrop that BRAC, the world-renowned Bangladeshi non-governmental organization, was looking for ideas on how to engage rural women in income generating activities as part of its development program. In 1976, BRAC founder Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and his wife Ayesha Abed, would engage women in sericulture and making crafts as a means of livelihood. It started a dynamic of women’s employment and connection to the national market that had been severed with the decline of the pre-existing handicrafts industry.
Today, that connection has become Aarong, a one-stop shop for quality-ensured, 100% Bangladeshi crafts. Its popularity grew such that within a short period of time, it emerged as the country’s most iconic fashion and lifestyle brand. Four decades on and Aarong remains the strongest connection between thousands of rural artisans and a growing urban customer base.
The ethos of Aarong embodies Steve Job’s words, “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.” The brand today has single-handedly revived the nation’s interest in and access to its own arts and crafts. It has also allowed the consumer to experience the quality of the products made by local artisans. The result was that an entire nexus of craftsman who finally saw economic benefit in continuing their art was born; all the while protecting age-old traditions. The social enterprise has proven that nakshi kantha stitch need not be confined to the bed and bamboo is as decorative as it is functional.
A Case For Definition
Following the Liberation War, Sir Fazle founded an institution that would soon integrate into the social fabric of society. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee or now just BRAC was built to grow alongside the people of a newly independent nation. The founding members were aware that success was only possible with an entity that could sustain itself. The NGO’s reach today extends to more than 130 million people in 11 countries, with a focus on financial empowerment, health, education, and human rights. Currently Aarong, one of BRAC’s 13 social enterprises, contributes 50% of its profits towards BRAC’s development programs and retains 50% for future expansion.
This social enterprise would come to ensure women in rural areas are benefited by being able to continue their household chores while earning an income on the side. To secure market linkage, BRAC began marketing and supplying their products to shops in Dhaka. However, they found that payments were made only once the products were sold. A small NGO at that time, BRAC found it difficult to pay the women and the idea of having its own retail outlet, Aarong, was born. The first Aarong shop opened its doors on Satmasjid Road in 1978. This undertaking would not only allow the women in BRAC’s program to get paid in a timely manner, but opened up market linkage opportunities for craft producers across the country.
Sir Fazle defines social enterprise as a business that is built with the ambition to solve social problems. “The issue in the case of Aarong was marketing the products of marginalized artisans in rural areas. They could not sustain themselves and their craft solely through traditional sales channels. We decided that we would become that market in the urban areas.” He emphasizes that social enterprises generate opportunities for disadvantaged people and reinvest all of their profits into a cause. “All the profit from Aarong is invested in social purposes like education or health care, primarily for women. We are not just about creating a livelihood, our focus is on bettering it.” Sir Fazle affirms that the organization is always responsible for its artisans. “Our artisans’ welfare is of paramount importance. The quality of craftsmanship will also be consistent when they are holistically supported.”
“We understood early on that creating employment for rural women was particularly a concern. We assured them that we would pay for their merchandise even if it did not sell. We wanted to stop the dynamic of giving power and credit solely to the shopkeeper.” The enterprise that launched seven years after Bangladesh’s independence has since developed the largest supply chain of artisans in the country. This is necessary for a nation where the urban population has grown by 6% annually since 1971. Sir Fazle conveys that Aarong was built to support a changing Bangladesh. “We created the quintessential social enterprise where the distribution of profits would solve the rural marketing disparity. Aarong also helped rural artisans understand the urban market, its taste, and lifestyle in order for them to produce the right kind of product.”
He expounds upon the second purpose behind Aarong when discussing nakshi designs, an embroidery technique that has become emblematic of Bangladesh’s national identity. A befitting comparison is that these traditional nakshi kantha throws are just as elaborate as Aarong’s history. “Our other initiative was to promote the arts and culture of Bangladesh. Kantha designs are common and have been a part of the history of rural communities for hundreds of years.” At Aarong’s flagship store in Uttara, Sir Fazle walks towards a boxed shelf on the second floor towards neatly stacked kanthas according to their color. The motifs have changed through regions and time. “We collected designs from across the world; including from museums from Kolkata to Chicago.”
The kanthas come in black, red, and white. Some are extremely intricate, exhibiting a kaleidoscope of colors, while others are stitched in shades of blues, greens, and brown. Pillows that complement these tapestries are neatly stacked in various shapes and sizes just behind it. “These designs are shown to the embroiderers so they would have more design options to draw on. The variety of design you see today was brought in by us. It did not necessarily exist 50 years ago.” Sir Fazle recollects finding design influences from unobserved places. “We collected over 132 outlines of alpona from various parts of the country. If you also look at the mishti (sweets) and pithas (cakes) of Bengal, you’ll see they have a composition too. Therefore, it became a matter of applying extensive research to incorporate these designs into the crafts and clothing.”
“All the profit from Aarong is invested in social purposes like education or health care, primarily for women. We are not just about creating a livelihood, our focus is on bettering it.”- Sir Fazle Hasan Abed
Aarong has since introduced these patterns into garments, bags, and tapestries. He affirms that the organization has done the same with jamdani sarees. “The jamdani market was very small, with only a few hundred people involved. It was on the verge of non-existence. Now, there are 10,000 people working in the industry. We also brought jamdani designs from museums and collectors to be reproduced.” Aarong’s restoration led to the first exhibition of jamdani at Shilpakala Academy in 1981; a testament of the beginning of a revival of the crafts. “We began production for the jamdani exhibit in 1979. With the support of Syed Zillur Rahman, the director of the gallery at the time, we were able to host the event. Our success inspired subsequent exhibits such as the ones we have done for the nakshi kantha.” Aarong’s focus on design and product development would always be at the core of its long-term success.
Missing the Point: the Unparalleled Value of Work by Hand
“My first experiences with Aarong were before the store materialized. I would go with my mother to villages across Bangladesh. She would immerse herself into the world of weavers and mastercraftsmen making jewelry, pottery, etc discussing motifs, designs, and techniques with them,” reminisces Tamara Hasan Abed, Sr. Director of Aarong and daughter of Sir Fazle and Ayesha Abed. Tamara feels that her passion comes from her mother who was present during the inaugural stages of what is a large conglomerate today, employing over 65,000 Bangladeshis throughout the country.
“When women earn, they have a place in the community, decision-making abilities in the household while enabling them to handle their children’s education. We also want these women to have a sense of identity by investing in themselves and procuring assets.” – Tamara Hasan Abed
Aarong has provided loans, commissioned consistent orders, provided facilities, and trained many of artisans in order for them to expand. “Our artisans should see themselves as entrepreneurs. Sustaining this supply chain is an emerging hurdle. The time to give craft products more attention, value and investment is now.” Aarong’s army of skilled artisans is what makes them stand out. This nationwide community is the reason behind the distinct identity of the brand. Tamara takes pride in this specialty but also mentions the complexity of such an operation. “Maintaining a unified quality with products from numerous sources and scattered locations is a constant challenge. When you are mass producing, everything is in a factory. You have control and supervision of the process.”
Defining the value of handicraft in a world full of cheaper options can be painstaking. For example, Persian rugs can cost up to 2,700% more than those that are manufactured in bulk. “In our case, it is even more difficult because we have to balance efficiency with our social goals. It ultimately comes down to showing that you have a superior product. We will never be able to produce at the rate of machine-made products so our design and quality have to stand out.” She goes on to say that we also have to generate more appreciation for our own crafts. “Whenever we think of high-end sarees, our first thought is to fly across the border. We have Tk. 100,000 jamdanis at Aarong because we want to demonstrate that local pieces can be high-end too.” The exclusive jamadanis are adorned with silver and gold weaving; these are kept in closed glass displays on the first floor of the outlet. They are Bangladesh’s couture, given that a few exclusive pieces are made never to be replicated. Some of them have taken months to make. That was the inspiration behind HERSTORY. A fairly new line from Aarong, HERSTORY exudes uniqueness and exclusivity from clients who want to wear something Bangladeshi.”
Four Decades and the Future
Tamara wants to focus on the youth for Aarong’s 40th Anniversary Festival this October. “Earlier generations grew up in villages or visited them often and are more familiar with handmade products. The current generation is more confined to urban life. They are not exposed to the painstaking work, skill, and artistry behind everything we sell. Aarong’s 40th Year Festival between 25-27th October at Army Stadium will be free and open to all to experience live craft demonstrations and workshops and enjoy food, music, and fashion with their friends and family. Our hope is that through this we can elevate the understanding and appreciation for our own crafts and heritage.”
Tamara asserts that catering to the youth is the next step, “If we want the attention of the younger generation, we realized that we would have to make products for them. Our research showed that Aarong was not focused on the younger male generation at all, so we introduced Taaga Man in August this year to cater to that demographic.” Taaga and Taaga Man, sub-brands of Aarong, opened its first dedicated outlet this year in the center of Dhanmondi. “We want the youth to take pride in wearing something that is completely Bangladeshi, while catering to their global tastes. Our Taaga store has a unique modern ambiance that complements the apparel.”
Aarong has its sights set on moving further afield after decades of dominating the local market. “Our e-commerce already delivers products to any part of Bangladesh and will soon be shipping internationally. We are also at the preliminary stages of launching the Aarong app. The consumer now wants a personalized experience more than anything and we are working to achieve that.”
Tamara also understands that customer targeting involves being active on social media platforms. With 3.1 billion users, these platforms attain 42% penetration, with 71% of consumers more likely to purchase based on social media referrals, and 8 out of 10 users stating that a company’s social media engagement impacts their purchase. “We are looking to be more active on social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. Club Taaga, a new loyalty program, was launched to give younger consumers something to come back for. Brand alliance and loyalty are a priority at Aarong. The exponential growth of digital media has allowed us to expand those offers.” The team at Aarong understands that shopping is an experience. They have devised the right ambiance in every store. “The design of our stores makes shopping convenient and easy. Shopping is a sensory experience. Our retail and visual merchandising teams are responsible for ensuring an enhanced customer experience.”
The Innovative Philanthropists: Scaling with a Purpose
Social enterprises are on the rise in South Asia. Studies have shown that India leads the way with nearly 2 million, while Thailand, Bangladesh, and the Philippines are emerging with 116,000, 150,000 and 60,000 respectively. The challenge for these organizations becomes a matter of how they want to scale while staying true to their purpose.
When expanding their scope, social enterprises have to consider how they can maximize impact. They have to decide as to whether they will invest in their current coverage or broaden their reach. Aarong has over 800 small and medium entrepreneurs supplying to them. “We audit our producers under our social compliance audit to make sure they are looking after our artisans. Investing in our suppliers establishes increased capacity in the long run. Our financial support allows them to maximize their volume.” Given that it is not a mechanized project, her team supervises consistent production through the year. The vertical integration of their production and retail allows them to plan and forecast sale prior to the sales year. “To ensure consistent orders for producers we receive warehouse products for the holiday season throughout the year. This is not financially optimal but it keeps production centers of smaller producers running.”
Putting women at the center; Aarong’s focus is on interventions that make the biggest difference to women. Studies show that women make up 45% of the full-time workforce of social enterprises in Bangladesh. Aarong has surpassed this number where 85% of its artisans are women. Aarong organizes artisans directly through the Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF). The foundation manages over 35,000 artisans through 14 production centers and 637 subcenters. Tamara affirms that Aarong works with BRAC to improve the livelihood of its artisans. “We want to instill behavioral changes that create impact. Workers at AAF receive education and healthcare benefits from BRAC. We have also introduced annual check-ups, health insurance, and retirement benefits for them.” AAF plans to start more centers in different parts of Bangladesh. Every year 500,000 people migrate to Dhaka looking for jobs. Most of them end up in a cycle of poverty. We want to continue to create opportunities for women in rural areas. Only 33% of women in Bangladesh participate in the labor force, in comparison to 80% of men. Additionally, a 10% increase in women’s participation could raise the GDP by 1%. Tamara continues the expansion of Aarong with BRAC’s values, “When women earn, they have a place in the community, decision-making abilities in the household while enabling them to handle their children’s education. We also want these women to have a sense of identity by investing in themselves and procuring assets.”
A forty year journey has discovered the formula for broader solutions and protecting the history of crafts in a developing Bangladesh. Aarong is a business of inclusivity, providing opportunities for those who do not see it in themselves. The establishment goes beyond supporting and advancing the rural artisan, it’s centered on showing them that their workmanship is irreplaceable.
Photographs of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and Tamara Abed are by Din M Shibly
Photographs of artisans from Aarong