Aarong – An Inspiring Story of Stitches

November 2, 2010
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Reading Time: 3 minutes

A throng of village children, led by a boy in a blue shirt, follow me as I walk over the narrow ledge separating two rice paddy fields, and make my way over to a small production sub-center located in a remote rural area in Bangladesh.Being Indian by birth, I have similar coloration and features as a Bangladeshi but the children seem to know that I am not from their part of the world. I think that my slightly off-Bangladeshi garb, my water bottle and camera give me away.

A throng of village children, led by a boy in a blue shirt, follow me as I walk over the narrow ledge separating two rice paddy fields, and make my way over to a small production sub-center located in a remote rural area in Bangladesh.Being Indian by birth, I have similar coloration and features as a Bangladeshi but the children seem to know that I am not from their part of the world. I think that my slightly off-Bangladeshi garb, my water bottle and camera give me away.

Their curiosity is piqued probably to the same level as mine whenever I visit one of the 653 production sub-centers run by the Ayesha Abed Foundation. These production centers, along with 13 large production centers employ approximately 65,000 women who supply Aarong stores with handmade Bangladeshi products. Aarong is the largest lifestyle retail operation in Bangladesh with 12 stores in its portfolio. The children follow us as my Aarong colleagues and I cross over into the compound of the sub-center.

I have been working with Aarong, one of BRAC’s largest social enterprises, for the last year, managing and implementing initiatives under a grant, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that will increase Aarong’s capacity to support more rural Bangladeshi women artisans. I have visited various sub-centers scattered all over the countryside and always look forward to these trips, perhaps it is the most rewarding part of my job. It is the women that work here that keep me coming back.

Their entrepreneurial spirit, perseverance and tenacity are beyond description. The women that work here make some of the most beautiful handmade products that one is likely to find anywhere in the world. Each production center and sub-center has its own specialty. Some production centers are renowned for their block printing and screen printing, whereas others specialize in wood-working or embroidery. This is usually attributable to the fact that a traditional craft-form may have originated and practiced in the respective area for many centuries. The children peer inside the production center as I talk to the women and the head of the center.

The head of the center is Kausar. She is a warm and personable Bangladeshi woman who has been working at the sub-center since the mid 80’s. She is incredibly young-looking for a forty-something. Kausar started as one of the sub-center workers and was subsequently promoted to be the sub-center’s in-charge. Now she manages about 50 women and is responsible for all work performed at the sub-center.

The women that work in this sub-center are all from the surrounding village where the opportunities for employment are scarce. The women have inherited their craft from their mothers and grandmothers before them. They are adept at embroidering the most beautiful motifs in a technique called Kantha, an ancient embroidery technique where a quilting stitch is used to join several plies of fabric together and was traditionally used to create baby- blankets.

Over the course of the last thirty years, Aarong revived this craft, popularized it in the local markets and is providing employment to thousands of Bangladeshi woman. Kantha is now used to embroider saris, women’s clothing and home-textiles. Kausar is confidently telling me about the sub-center operations and introducing me to the women that work there. As Kausar and I are talking, she points out that she has only one child; her three-year-old son wearing a yellow t-shirt and shorts is playing outdoors with the other village children.

It’s fascinating walking through an Ayesha Abed production center; the array of products that the rural artisans can produce is breathtaking. Aarong is now leveraging the skills of the artisan to develop a line of hand painted products. I saw a group of three women hand-painting a spectacular bed-cover.

The products sold at Aarong are all handmade, produced slowly with painstaking precision and skill. These are not your average Big-Box mass produced products shipped across the ocean. In-fact, Aarong products are so popular in Bangladesh, that Aarong is barely able to keep up with domestic demand. Most production is sold locally with only five percent exported to Australia and Europe.

Last year Aarong’s revenues exceeded $40 million dollars affirming that “Social Enterprises” and “Double bottom line” are not buzz words at BRAC.

BRAC is one of the world’s largest NGO’s and is largely self funded in Bangladesh by revenue generated through its microfinance programs and social enterprises such as Aarong. Aarong also runs the second largest dairy operation in Bangladesh.

All the woman that work at Aarong can also access BRAC’s multi-faceted development programs: education for their children at BRAC schools, access to BRAC’s health centers, legal aid and empowerment just to name a few. As I walk out of the sub-center and get ready to cross the paddy field once again, the boy in the blue shirt appears and asks me to take a picture of him. Next time I am back at this sub-center near Jamalpur, I hope I see him again so I can give him his picture.

– Richa Agarwal

Click here to read more about BRAC’s social enterprises.

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Shehab
9 years ago

I’m bit curious to know where does the profit go nd how the profit is actually spent? Is that $40 million going to be re-invested to make those women workers lives better?

BRAC Blog
9 years ago

Hi Shehab!Thank you for your comment. BRAC is largely self-funded with revenues generated from its social enterprises. In fact, majority of the profits generated from BRAC social enterprises are used for funding BRAC’s core programs in microfinance, health, education, livelihood development, legal aid and women’s empowerment, just to name a few. For the programs implemented in Bangladesh, 66% of BRAC’s funding needs are self-generated with about 34% coming from donor organizations. A small percentage of the profits from the social enterprises are invested back into growing the respective businesses. BRAC’s annual reports along with audited financial statements are available on… Read more »