Aarong: More than just a store

February 2, 2015 by and

Aarong_householdAs customers enter Aarong retail stores, they are met by fine textiles and handicrafts that the brand strives to preserve. But what goes on behind the retail front and how do these iconic products come into being?

Aarong ensures the livelihood of over 65,000 artisans (85 per cent women) and their families, directly benefiting approximately 320,000 people. Here are some of the individuals who make Aarong more than just a store.



Maruf our designer

Since its establishment, Aarong has succeeded in creating and popularising products that celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Bangladesh through traditional arts and crafts. Today this pioneering and revered brand attracts talented designers, like Kamal Ahmed Maruf, from across Bangladesh. Designers must combine Aarong’s unique style with innovation in order to please current-day market demands. They must also know how to provide the right work to the right producers.

Maruf personalises household-product designs for specific producers by taking their capabilities and skills into consideration. Maruf uses this opportunity to promote skills development, encouraging his producers to try more challenging and innovative designs. One of Maruf’s most talented producers is a young entrepreneur named Prithwa who makes household textiles. Prithwa was anxious about some mistakes she made in a new, complicated design, but Maruf persuaded her to keep on trying. This particular bed-quilt design is now Prithwa’s bestselling product, ensuring a steady flow of orders and source of income.

Maruf says he gets his motivation from his producers; his wish is to ensure and fulfil their financial needs, pushing him to create popular and original designs to catch the consumers’ eye.


Prithwa our producer

Married at 16 years of age, Prithwa found that her husband’s income was not enough to support them. Eager to find a job, Prithwa was inspired by Aarong’s mission to preserve traditional handicrafts. When she first approached them with her textile samples, Aarong was impressed by her creativity and helped her secure a deposit. With that money, she was able to establish her own production centre.

Now, 12 years later, Prithwa’s production centre has achieved a high social compliance rating(health and safety evaluation). With a BDT 1.2 million loan that she received from Aarong two years ago, she was able to turn her production centre into an even safer environment for her and her colleagues. Since then she has noticed the positive effects of her actions, particularly the higher quality of work produced by her artisans.

Prithwa shows genuine pride and affection for the enterprise that supported her as a young, determined woman. The costing process for the products she creates ensures that her artisans are paid and that she receives 12 per cent of the profit as well.


Mohammad our artisan

Mohammad Nadim Hossain is second generation Bihari. He and his family live in the Kalapani Bihari camp in Mirpur, Dhaka. Whilst growing up in dire conditions and facing discrimination from mainstream society, Mohammad found himself discouraged from attending school, dropping out at age 12. After, he started working as a hand-embroiderer, earning BDT 3,000 per month. When he met Prithwaat age 19 through their community network, she trained him in machine embroidery, employing him for BDT 9,000 per month. Mohammad can enjoy the benefits of a fair wage due to the costing process that takes place in the Aarong headquarters. This process involves counting each individual stitch in order to assess accurately the time and skill-level required to complete the design.

A synergy that improves lives

Maruf’s innovative designs combining cultural heritage and consumer-needs allow underprivileged women like Prithwa to gain financial security. By enabling Prithwa to open her small, local production centre for household-textiles, Aarong has made it possible for artisans such as Mohammad to work near his home and family. Mohammad takes the opportunity to save his extra income and invests it in his little brother’s future; who dreams of becoming an engineer. “Now I can save some money, but I pay for my younger brother’s schooling too, because, unlike myself, I want him to be able to read and write.”


Sascha Denkinger  is the project coordinator  for social compliance and producer relations at Aarong.

Heidi Lowe is an intern at Aarong.

Meet a woman who is redefining gender roles

December 28, 2014 by

Fatema working at the wood section of Ayesha Abed Foundation

Fatema working at the wood section of Ayesha Abed Foundation

When you meet Fatema, ‘transvestite’ is not the word that immediately comes to mind.But that is how she is referred to by colleagues and strangers alike. She prefers to wear shirts instead of covering herself with a dupatta (scarf) and wears her hair short.In Bangladesh her behaviour goes beyond most peoples’ social expectations regarding gender.

Fatema says she should be referred to as apa (sister); she is a woman, but she sees herself as on the same level as a man. Even though some may view her behaviour as hardly radical, it still affects how she is treated within her community. However she does not allow judgment to affect her decision to be herself.

As a child she remembers always acting like a typical tomboy.Fortunately, her parents were always encouraging her to act the way that made her happy. However, after the death of her father, her brothers threw her out of the house. Her mother, unable to cope with the loss of her daughter, followed her. That was when Fatema set about searching for work to keep herself and her mother out of poverty.

Fatema works at one of the Ayesha Abed Foundation’s (AAF) production centres under Aarong.The centre manager provided Fatema with work 15 years ago, after sending her to Dhaka to receive wood-work training. She prefers to work in the wood section despite it being a heavily male-dominated line of work in Bangladesh.

Fatema said she would never marry, having observed the cruelty that husbands can inflict on their wives. When she was younger, she saw her sister being brutally treated on numerous occasions by her husband.Now, at 35 years old, she says she keeps an eye out for vulnerable women, especially wives. If she hears arguing or anything suspicious arising around her, she goes to seek the cause of the commotion instantly to ensure that no women are being mistreated.

Sometimes Fatema still faces daily troubles due to her gender identity; name-calling and criticism for riding a bicycle are frequent. However, instead of buckling under harsh words, she turns her frustration into hard work. She has even influenced some of the other girls who work at the centre to dress like she does.

Paving the way for redefined gender roles in her community is truly a brave feat. She has now come to consider the AFF centre as her family, helping foster her growth both as a person and an artisan. “It has provided me with economic ability and security,” she says. “My life has been transformed for the better.”

Heidi Lowe is an intern at Aarong.

How BRAC Enterprises became sustainable solutions

November 5, 2014 by

A BRAC Silk worker extracts fine silk from cocoon at a reeling centre in Rangpur district

A BRAC Silk worker extracts fine silk from cocoon at a reeling centre in Rangpur district

BRAC’s social enterprises have always been based on a drive to find alternate livelihoods for Bangladesh’s rural poor. None were started simply as business endeavours; instead, these unique enterprises have stakeholders. While every business has a purpose of maximising profit, BRAC’s purpose is poverty alleviation. These enterprises provide 72 per cent of the funds for BRAC’s own programmes, ensuring self-sustainability by reinvesting 50 per cent of their profits back into development interventions.

In the beginning, around 1976, BRAC realised women were the most disadvantaged groups in rural communities, requiring a solution to empower them through income-generating opportunities. Thus BRAC began its silk production experiments in 1978. By the end of 1982, the project evolved into an enterprise with over 800 women rearing and spinning silk.

Take Aarong for instance, which has emerged as one of the country’s largest fashion retail chains. In 1978, it began as a humble project to provide market access to rural women through sericulture, simultaneously preserving the art of nakshi kantha and jamdani. In 2004, it contributed almost USD 2 million to BRAC’s development activities, which increased to USD 4.6 million by 2007. Creating employment for more than 35,000 rural artisans through the Ayesha Abed Foundation, it is now giving them free access to BRAC’s six core development services through the artisan development initiative. But beyond this, Aarong also has tens of thousands of independent producers earning a livelihood through arts and crafts.

During the 70s, BRAC began its poultry operations as a grassroots experiment to create income-generating opportunities for rural poultry farmers. It has since created a platform for them to access market linkages next to an increasingly demanding urban market. Today BRAC Chicken cross-collaborates with BRAC Poultry and BRAC Feed Mills, creating a value-adding chain ensuring higher-yielding produce for poultry farmers.

A dairy farmer brings his milk to sell to a chilling centre in Rajshahi

A dairy farmer brings his milk to sell to a chilling centre in Rajshahi

Despite the abundance of milk production, the demand for milk in villages was not enough to generate a decent income for dairy farmers. A lack of refrigeration systems resulted in frequent wastage of large amounts of unsold milk. As a solution, BRAC established BRAC Dairy and Food Project in 1998, to collect milk from rural dairy farmers across the country and sell them to the urban market as processed milk and milk products. This enterprise cross-collaborates with BRAC Artificial Insemination, another social enterprise, which provides dairy farmers with access to better quality breeds of cows. Launched in 1985 initially as a partnership initiative with the Bangladesh government, this enterprise has increased the income of many farmers, because better breeds provide higher yield of milk and stronger offspring.

BRAC Salt started in 2001 in Cox’s Bazaar, aiming to address the acute iodine deficiency among rural poor, while ensuring a sustainable income for local salt farmers. It also introduced Minamix, a high mineral-based salt for cattle, which helps farmers raise healthier cows producing a greater yield of milk and meat.

A shrimp farmer in Khulna

A shrimp farmer in Khulna

As a post-war rehabilitation effort for destitute women, especially in remote areas that are surrounded by water, BRAC Fisheries started out in 1976. When there was a lack of access to quality fish spawn, BRAC initiated its own fish hatcheries to provide high-yield fish spawn. The project gradually evolved into an enterprise in 2008. It has been an outstanding platform for rural fish farmers to earn a livelihood through modern fish farming ever since.

As a response to the reproductive health needs of poor women, especially school-going adolescents and pregnant women in rural Bangladesh, BRAC Sanitary Napkins and Delivery Kits started in 1999. It was to address the retrograding problems where school drop-out rates and absence of girls sharply increased when they hit puberty and where an assortment of safe birthing tools were necessary. To make affordable, sanitary and biodegradable products, this enterprise employs ultra poor women from rural communities, providing them with a source of income.

BRAC Kanon, a green initiative by BRAC Nursery in Dhaka

BRAC Kanon, a green initiative by BRAC Nursery in Dhaka

Aiming to encourage forestation and raise awareness on the importance of planting trees, BRAC Nursery started in 1988. Today this enterprise markets household plants – both ornamental and medicinal. Additionally, to address paper wastage, BRAC initiated its Recycled Handmade Paper enterprise in 2000. It collects wasted paper from urban corporate offices and recycles them into fancy handmade paper products. Here also ultra poor women are employed, giving them a chance to generate a steady income.

BRAC’s enterprises were first initiated to fill the gap in a lack of sustainable development initiatives. The needs were always there – the need for an opportunity to utilise one’s skills and generate income, the need to learn and foster, and the need towards a sustainable future. While BRAC’s other programmes have been catering to specified needs, its enterprises catered to them all. After all, when the problems of the development sector are ever-changing and persistent, we must come up with sustainably adaptive solutions.

Miftahul Jannat Chowdhury is a senior communication officer and sub-editor at BRAC

An artisan with a story to tell

July 17, 2014 by

Under the rain-soaked canopy of a mango tree stood a one-room structure with large windows. As we entered, a soft murmur of whispers swept through the room. Curious eyes greeted us with shy, furtive glances. Most workers of the Bangladeshi apparel industry work in grim, unsafe environments, but this place sang a different song. The room was wide and spacious, flooded by broad daylight and fresh air that smelled like rain.

We were in one of the 650 Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF) sub-centres in rural Jamalpur. Women of various ages sat bundled in multiple groups on the clean concrete floor. Each group had a piece of large cloth in their midst. The clothes, some half-made and some almost ready, had hand-embroidered flowers blooming in the canvas, each more beautiful than the rest. The artisans worked their needles with swift, skilful moves even while looking away. In one corner sat Taslima – an artisan with a story to tell.

Taslima is a 22-year-old single mother working as an artisan. Her story started from when she was 13 and newly married to a man she never met before. Since her family was poor, the prospect of a marriage meant one less mouth to feed. It was an arranged marriage and like many other girls in her community, her consent was not required. In four years, she was a mother of one daughter. To her it was a perfect family. She felt safe and content. But the feeling didn’t last long. After six years of marriage, her husband married his cousin. Taslima was oblivious to this till he brought his bride home and politely asked for a divorce.

Betrayed and heartbroken, she returned to her parents with her daughter. Now being a single parent, it was hard for Taslima to raise her daughter without a source of income. Her ex-husband hadn’t paid any alimony and he seldom provided for their daughter.

At this point she started working as an artisan at the Goherpara AAF sub-centre in Jamalpur. The money helped with her daughter’s food and expenses. One day when a barefoot lawyer from BRAC’s legal services came to her workplace, Taslima came to know about the legal action she could take against her ex-husband.

The barefoot lawyer took Taslima’s case to BRAC’s staff lawyer, who suggested an alternative dispute resolution. They also sent a legal notice to her ex-husband stating if he does not pay the alimony and child support, he will be sent to jail. This prompted him to agree to pay Taslima the alimony in instalments and provide child support for their daughter. Today he has only paid BDT 25,000 out of the BDT 60,000 he owes her. It might not compensate for the years of economic hardship Taslima went through, but it gave her a sense of financial security for her daughter’s future.

The legal service that Taslima received came through the artisan development initiative (ADI), a BRAC integrated development programme for artisans who work at AFF, Aarong’s own production units. Aarong is a social enterprise creating livelihood opportunities for over 65,000 rural artisans, 95 per cent of who are poor women. ADI brings BRAC’s six core development programmes like microfinance, health and nutrition, education, water and sanitation, community empowerment and legal services to directly to their doorstep. ADI’s goal for 2014 is to cover all sub-centres and production centres, which will eventually benefit over 20,000 artisans every month.

Services under ADI include access to microloans and savings accounts, access to free legal assistance and prenatal and postnatal care for pregnant artisans. Free sanitary latrines are distributed to artisans who are too poor to afford one, and awareness on safe water and good hygiene practices are promoted. Social issues like gender equality, HIV/AIDS, child marriage, dowry and many more are openly discussed. The artisans are particularly fond of the legal sessions because these provide them access to practical solutions to their legal problems.

Taslima’s story is just the tip of an iceberg. Majority of the women in rural Bangladesh do not have proper access or enough resources to seek legal solutions and Taslima was no different. Although indifferent at first, Taslima fought valiantly for her and her daughter’s rights and ADI provided her the platform to do so. She dreams to raise her daughter into a headstrong, educated woman in the future.

ADI at a glance:
389 sub-centres covered by ADI
7,000 participants at health sessions
4,700 savings accounts worth more than BDT 7 millions managed by microfinance
4,000 artisans received water and sanitation-related awareness classes
2,100 artisans graduated from BEP sessions and nearly 2,000 new members are enrolled presently
3,000 artisans received legal services
1,400 artisans have been included in community empowerment programme


Miftahul Jannat Chowdhury is a senior communications officer and sub-editor at BRAC.

Literacy and legal empowerment in the workplace for Aarong artisans

April 3, 2013 by


The fashion and garments industry of Bangladesh, employing the largest labour force, has become a national pride. A huge fraction of the labour force is women, which has brought about a revolutionary change in the concept of women’s empowerment and economic independence. But a few of the recent garments and fashion house fire incidents have changed this whole notion of national pride into death traps.

Lives have been lost and flouting of safety norms is increasing. Employees losing trust has become a threat for this sector. In these vulnerable conditions, Aarong has embarked on an initiative to connect its artisans with an integrated array of development services.

Aarong, identified as a well known fashion house in the country, has stepped beyond its popularity and depicted itself to be more than just a BRAC social enterprise. Aarong artisans are now learning to read and about the state laws that apply to their lives, and much more than sitting in their own workplace. Read the rest of this entry →

Empowering Rural Women Through the International Fashion Industry

February 24, 2012 by

On Thursday, February 24, Richa Agarwal, BRAC USA’s project manager for Aarong, spoke on a panel at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s guest lecture series, Creating Sustainable Futures: Women’s Empowerment through the International Fashion Industry. Speaking about BRAC’s largest social enterprise – Aarong, Richa was joined by Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, Craig Leavitt, CEO of Kate Spade New York, Deborah Lloyd, President and Chief Creative Officer at Kate Space New York, and Benjamin Stone, President and CEO of Indego Africa. The panel was moderated by Chrissie Lam, Senior Concept Designer at American Eagle Outfitters and Founder of The Supply Change, an organization working to connect fashion brands with social enterprises in developing markets.Richa began her presentation by explaining Aarong’s history, expanding from a one shop operation in 1978 into the largest retail fashion chain in Bangladesh, employing 65,000 rural artisans throughout the country. To demonstrate the Aarong model of sustainability, and how it fits into the greater BRAC system, she told the story of Shondhya Rani, a woman living in a rural village in Bangladesh. Her story is representative of the millions of women across the villages of Bangladesh.Shondhya is a married woman with two children. Neither of her children went to school because she was unable to afford their school fees. She often faced physical and verbal abuse at home at the hands of her husband. Five years ago, Shondhya attended a BRAC community meeting in her village with a friend who was a BRAC microfinance client. At the meeting, Shondhya learned about employment opportunities with the Ayesha Abed Foundation, the production arm of Aarong, and about the multitude of other services provided by BRAC. The Ayesha Abed Foundation operates 653 rural production centers, enabling women to earn a living while remaining in the village rather than having to migrate to urban areas for employment. After receiving a microloan and skills training, Shondhya purchased her own sewing machine and now works as a supplier for Aarong while her children attend BRAC schools free of cost.

With over 30,000 independent cooperative groups and traditional family-based artisans selling their crafts through Aarong, Shondhya’s story is just one of many. Over the course of its 33 year existence, Aarong has revived the interest in traditional handicrafts and interpreted them to suit the tastes of modern consumers. Following Aarong’s success, many competitive brands have emerged in this space ultimately resulting in employment opportunities for rural artisans all over Bangladesh. At the end of Richa’s presentation, she urged the students of FIT to keep women like Shondhya in mind when they begin their careers in the international fashion industry, utilizing fashion’s allure to create sustainable livelihoods for women in the developing world.

Cornell MBA student pursues her dream internship at Aarong

June 30, 2011 by

I am a first year MBA student at the Johnson School at Cornell University. This past year I was studying Sustainable Global Enterprise and social entrepreneurship and am so thrilled to be doing my internship with BRAC-Aarong this summer. Most first-year MBA students take internship positions with large banks, consumer package goods companies or other corporations. And while many of my classmates came to b-school to purse these more traditional paths, I envisioned a career where I would be able to merge my creative background with my newly honed business skills and work for a company that considered social and environmental needs in addition to the bottom line. But honestly, when I first started looking for an internship, I thought that this was a pipe dream.

It was in the middle of a half-hearted internship search that I first heard about BRAC and Aarong in my Sustainable Global Enterprise class at Cornell. Through the course of the talk delivered by Santhosh Ramdoss, BRAC USA Program Manager, our class learnt about BRAC’s unique and successful approach to aid and development, and about a BRAC social enterprise called Aarong. As an ethically sourced textile company, Aarong employs thousands of rural artisans across Bangladesh. My ears perked up. Coming from the art industry, I had a particular interest in working with crafts people and was interested in BRAC’s work with local artisans.

As I learned more about Aarong, I was amazed by the company’s tremendous success. But what I was most drawn to was Aarong’s reputation within Bangladesh. The company is so highly regarded mainly for its gorgeous, fashion-forward designs and house wares that celebrate Bangladeshi techniques and motifs. The opportunity was also appealing because, until I went back to school, I had spent my entire professional life living and working in New York City. And after a semester of reading and hearing about business in the developing world, I wanted to immerse myself in another country. Being in Dhaka and navigating a new business landscape and immersing myself in a new culture is an incredible opportunity and adds another layer to my experience that I would not have had I stayed in the States. This summer, to me is about more than just my project with Aarong. It will surely inform my career and business choices moving forward and gives me hope that there are opportunities to pursue all of my interests and to make the career that I want.

During my first week at Aarong, my goal was to immerse myself in the company and to learn as much as I could about this unique company. Part of that was taking a trip to see one the many Aarong production centers. I was incredibly fortunate that Rafiq Islam, Program Head of the Ayesha Abed Foundation, offered to take me to Manikganj, the largest and oldest of the production centers, located a few hours west of Dhaka. Rafiq bhai has been with BRAC since 1978 and on the drive up gave me a history of BRAC and told me some amazing stories about what it was like in the very early days of the organization. He told me that at one point when he first started, things were so tough, that he nearly quit. He promised Sir Abed that he would give it three more months, and wound up staying for more than 30 years.

When we arrived in Manikganj, we met up with Susan Davis, President & CEO of BRAC USA, who was visiting with BRAC USA board member – Bridget Liddell, British MP – Robert Evans, and Emma Earl. They graciously allowed me to accompany them as they went to visit several of BRAC’s programs in the surrounding villages. As a social enterprise, a portion of Aarong’s profits go towards BRAC’s development work (the rest are re-invested in the company). It was so inspiring to have the chance to see those programs at work. In addition to a tour of Aarong’s main facility, we went to one of the production sub-centers a few miles away. The sub-centers are the heart and soul of Aarong. Though they receive some training from Aarong, many had learned the stitches and techniques from their mothers and grandmothers. There were women of all ages there, including a young girl who was working for the sub-center as a summer job to save money for books and clothes for the school year. Seeing the women at work (many were doing hand embroidery on a gorgeous pink sari) made me so proud to work for and to wear Aarong!

Jessica Fracassini
MBA Class of 2012
The Johnson School at Cornell University

Aarong launches a Flagship store

April 1, 2011 by

On 25th March, Aarong – A BRAC social enterprise, now in its 33rd year of operation, opened the doors to it’s newest Flagship store. Aarong is Bangladesh’s leading fashion and lifestyle brand. At 36,000 sq. ft. the new outlet, located in Uttara is currently the country’s largest retail store. True to the Aarong tradition of continuously raising the bar, this store utilises state of the art layout and décor to create an unparalleled shopping experience. While shopping at Aarong, one can appreciate the fact that Aarong is creating employment for rural women who have very few work opportunities. Aarong’s value chain incorporates rural Bangladeshi artisans, mostly women, who have kept the age old tradition of Bangladesh’s arts and crafts alive.

Aarong was seeded by the late Mrs. Ayesha Abed who wanted to provide a market linkage for the products made by women in the villages. Three decades later, Aarong has expanded it’s operations to include 10 stoes across Bangladesh and a workforce of 65,000 rural artisans. It is difficult to find another example of a successful lifestyle retailer with the sole mission of providing employment to rural artisans, at the scale Aarong has achieved.

Nakshi Kantha, a traditional Bangladeshi embroidery, has been chosen as the overall theme for the store, to reflect Aarong’s pioneering role in the revival of this unique Bangladeshi craft. Spanning the north wall of the building is a six story mural titled “Aarong’s Tree of Life” – in which Aarong’s story is interwoven with the many thousands of stories of its family of artisans. The network of roots and branches of the tree is in fact an image of the rivers of Bangladesh. The motifs that form the tree use unique Nakshi Kantha patterns shaped from natural materials – metal, wood, clay, leather and bamboo-indigenous to the work of the country’s artisans.

This new flagship store is a testament to BRAC’s commitment towards generating employment for the rural artisan workforce for the last 33 years. A wide array of Bangladeshi arts and crafts have been featured in the store, both in the product offering and the store decor itself. This includes beautiful Nakshi Kantha embroidery work, hand loomed fabrics, delicate Jamdani (hand-loomed lace) saris, handcrafted footwear and accesories, apparel, brass sculptures and trendy home-furnishings, just to name a few.

“All our efforts culminate in the creation of a complete, state-of-the-art retail experience for the customer. For the past three decades, our customers have relied on Aarong not only for the unique design and impeccable quality of our products, but to also set standards in Bangladesh’s retail industry with regard to the quality and extent of our customer satisfaction efforts. We hope that the unparalleled shopping experience we are offering at our flagship store will add a whole new dimension to the country’s retail industry”, said Tamara Abed, Director, Aarong.

The outlet was inaugurated by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, Founder & Chairperson BRAC. Muhammad A. (Rumee) Ali, Managing Director, BRAC Enterprises, Tamara Abed, Director, Aarong and other senior officials from Aarong and BRAC.

Aarong: Crafting hope, weaving dreams

March 25, 2011 by

Artisans make products for Aarong, a fashion house that supports the lives and livelihoods of 65,000 rural artisans and handicraft producers. Photo: BRAC/Shehzad Noorani

Shondhya Rani Sarkar’s eyes light up when she speaks of how well her son is doing in school. When Shondhya first came to the Aarong Production Centre in Manikganj, he was a year old. The self-assured Shondhya of today was then a desperate young widow with no means to feed her baby.

She joined a local microfinance group of the NGO Brac and was recommended for employment with a nearby Aarong production centre, where women like her could earn a decent living without endangering their dignity. That was 15 years ago.

Today, Shondhya is one of the most experienced block print workers at the centre, training new recruits. Working 8 am – 5 pm shifts, six days a week, she earns a steady income that could easily rival that of any men-lead family’s in her village. Her life is not easy, but Shondhya gains satisfaction from the thought that she has provided for her son and ensured a brighter future for him — one that fifteen years ago had seemed to her an impossible dream.

Shondhya’s story is hardly exceptional, but it is in the slow and steady changing of the lives of thousands of Shondhyas across Bangladesh that we are brought face to face with the true impact of an organisation, which has so far come into the limelight only for its commercial success.

A lot of us grew up with Aarong. In homes around urban Bangladesh, it has become a household name. Yet, Aarong’s true beauty does not lie in the air-conditioned confines of its outlets around the country with which we are all familiar. For all its business success and conquest of trends, Aarong’s strength comes from a far more humble yet purposeful beginning, a history with which most of us remain unfamiliar.

Aarong began as a means to an end for a quiet organisation fighting to uphold the dignity of the marginalised. In 1976, when Brac first began encouraging sericulture for women in Manikganj, their only buyers were a few scattered retailers in Dhaka. Weeks, even months would pass between supply and payment, until Brac intervened. Aarong was born out of a need to ensure that these penniless silk farmers of Manikganj were paid for their goods on time, so that they could feed their families.

Today, holding steadfast to its original mission, Aarong supports the lives and livelihoods of some sixty-five thousand rural artisans and handicraft producers. Women like Shondhya make up half of its producer base — that is more than thirty five thousand disadvantaged women who are now supporting their families. And since every woman who works in the Aarong production facilities also has access to Brac’s multifaceted development programmes, the support they receive extends well beyond simply their wages.

Then there are independent producers who supply to Aarong everything from coin purses to silver bracelets. Each of these small entrepreneurs is a success story with manifold impact.

Khodeza Begum, as a good example, has been with Aarong since the beginning. As a child, her interest in embroidery turned into a source of income during the early 1970s, when her husband’s income was not enough to support their family. Her expertise with the ‘Nakshikantha’ caught the eye of someone at Aarong and soon orders followed. In no time, the orders reached sizes she alone could not handle. Starting first with the women in her family and then those in neighboring families and beyond, Khodeza trained a rank of Nakshikantha craftswomen who formed the basis of what has today grown into a successful small business working solely to supply Aarong.

Khodeza Handicrafts now employs more than 400 women in Jamalpur, Tangail, Kushtia and Narayanganj — particularly depressed areas chosen by Khodeza, so her business can create opportunities for rural women similar to what Aarong has provided for her. When Khodeza speaks of her business or Aarong, it is with equal pride and an equal sense of ownership. For her they are one and the same. What matters in the end, she says, is, “What we are doing for our people.”

Whether it is by direct involvement, or in a ‘pay it forward’ manner, Aarong as an organisation operates on what is known in the business world as the ideal ‘double bottom line approach’. Creating positive social impact is its primary and fundamental goal, where business performance plays a crucial yet secondary role as a way to sustain and expand the breadth and scope of this impact.

Meanwhile, on the business operations end, Aarong has steadily groomed itself into a well-oiled machine, keeping a watchful eye on the other ‘bottom line’. The kind of attention it puts into controlling the quality of its wares remains largely unrivaled by even the most consumer-friendly enterprises in the country. As a result, Aarong’s products have secured the trust of even the most scrutinising buyer, at home and abroad. This, and the amount of energy and creativity expended in marketing, has imposed upon Aarong an aura of glitz and glamour.

To the naked eye, there is little connection between the organisation and the artisans that are its backbone. But that is because most of us have never been to Aarong’s 13 production centres or 624 sub-centres spread across Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s handloom industry has enjoyed a rather intimate symbiotic relationship with Aarong. In areas such as Chapainawabganj and Norshindi, some weaver communities are entirely dependant on Aarong’s fabric consumption for survival. Last year alone, this amounted to almost 6.45 million yards of hand-woven fabric.

Aarong’s marketing strategies have also achieved something equally important: bringing consumer attention back to products and styles indigenous to Bangladesh. Just as interest in imported fashion was piquing, Aarong’s blending of the traditional and the contemporary won instant consumer appeal, starting a revolution in trends that has now been taken up by countless other stores and boutiques.

Not many are aware of the role Aarong has played in protecting and promoting traditional crafts and designs from its inception. Perhaps part of the secret behind Aarong’s success with setting new standards in fashion lies in the age-old patterns it has resurrected from Nakshikantha art and pitha molds — designs that were otherwise slowly getting lost amidst the clamour for foreign products and imported styles. Many will be surprised to learn that Aarong houses an extensive design library where our rich craft heritage, be it Nakshikantha art or lost Jamdani pattern, have been widely researched and archived for present as well as future use.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of an organisation as visibly profitable as Aarong is that, as a support entity of Brac, half of its surpluses go directly into financing the NGO’s development programmes. In the simplest of terms, after the in-house operating costs and overheads are settled, this retail giant functions as an income generating activity for Brac, helping to finance its fifty thousand schools, countrywide tuberculosis treatment programme or legal education classes.

Today, Aarong opens the doors to its flagship store, Bangladesh’s biggest retail outlet, in Uttara. True to the Aarong tradition of continuously raising the bar, this store utilises state of the art layout and décor to create an unparalleled shopping experience. And while buying a sari from Aarong may still be a luxury for some of us, at least we can appreciate the fact that somewhere in Bangladesh, a woman travelled forty minutes on foot to put a hundred year-old kolka print on its aanchol. We will know that while one of Khodeza’s women takes home some of the money that we pay at the counter, part of it also goes towards Shondhya’s daughter’s school books. As long as we can afford to keep buying Bangladeshi, as long as Aarong’s business is booming, thousands of people will enjoy the luxuries of steady employment — getting a decent pay on time, going home to healthy, educated children.

The next time we are at Aarong looking over their candles or cushion covers, we might stop to take pride in what is a truly remarkable Bangladeshi institution. Buying something at Aarong might be a better shopping experience knowing that it is a luxury we can afford to feel good about.

Q. Pushpita Alam

Aarong – An Inspiring Story of Stitches

November 2, 2010 by

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.