Aarong: Crafting Hope, Weaving Dreams
Shondhya Rani Sarkar’s eyes light up when she speaks of her son and how well he’s doing in school. When Shondhya first came to the Aarong Production Centre in Manikganj, her baby was hardly a year old. The sturdy, self-assured Shondhya of today was then a desperate young mother with no means to feed a baby left fatherless with the death of her husband. She had joined the local Village Organisation of the NGO BRAC in the hopes of finding a source of income and was recommended for employment with the nearby Aarong Production Centre, where women like her could earn a decent living without endangering their dignity. That was 15 years ago, and Shondhya has not looked back since. Today she is one of the most experienced and skilled block print workers at the Centre, training new recruits on the job. Working an 8 am – 5 pm shift six days of the week, she earns for her family a steady income that could easily rival any of the families in the area that are lead by men. She proudly supports not only herself and her son, but her mother in law as well. Her life is not easy, but she gains satisfaction from the thought that she has provided for her family and ensured a brighter future for her child – 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 the thousands of Shondhyas spanning the breadth of Bangladesh that we are brought face to face with the true impact of Aarong - an organisation which so far has come into the limelight only for its commercial success.
In homes around urban Bangladesh, Aarong has become a household name. Along with the colorful billboards of soft drinks and mobile phone service providers, Aarong’s ads with their sophisticated elegance represent a new era in Bangladeshi popular culture. Yet Aarong’s true beauty lies not in the air-conditioned confines of its stores around the country that sell everything Bangladeshi. For all its business achievement and conquest of trends, Aarong’s strength comes from a far more humble yet purposeful beginning, a history with which most people remain unfamiliar.
Aarong the store began as a cause – 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 the penniless silk farmers of Manikganj were paid for their goods upon delivery, so that they could feed their families.
Today, holding steadfast to its original mission, Aarong supports the lives and livelihoods of some thirty seven thousand rural artisans and handicraft producers. Women like Shondhya make up almost half of its producer base - that’s more than seventeen thousand disadvantaged women who have been offered a way out of destitution and degradation where before they had none. And since every single woman who works in Aarong-owned production facilities is also a beneficiary of BRAC's multifaceted development programmes, the benefits that they receive extend well beyond simply the wages they earn for their products.
Then of course there are the twenty five thousand individual producers who supply to Aarong everything from coin purses to silver bracelets. Each of these small entrepreneurs is a success story with manifold reverberating 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 1970's when her husband’s government job 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 no longer handle. Starting with first the women in her family and then those in neighboring families and beyond, Khodeza trained a rank of Nakshikantha embroiders 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 four-hundred women in Jamalpur, Tangail, Kushtia and Narayanganj – in particularly depressed areas chosen by Khodeza where she feels her business can create opportunities for rural women similar to what Aarong has provided for her.
When Khodeza speaks of her business and of 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 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 would be termed 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. Take the story of Jagadish Chandra Karmakar, a silver smith based in Patrail, Tangail. Crafting silver jewelery is a two-hundred year old tradition for twenty-something families in his village, and his is no exception. Before Aarong came about, they depended solely on word of mouth endorsement, selling mostly to people from neighbouring villages or the occasional buyer lured there by their reputation. With urbanization and the prices of goods steadily increasing, the infrequent business was hardly profitable. Children in those families were growing up reluctant to follow in the family traditions. Now along with him, a dozen other families in Jagadish Chandra’s village supply their handmade silver jewelery to Aarong. With regular bulk orders from Aarong every month, they now struggle to cope with the demand, but at least they can keep their families together.
Jagadish Chandra feels proud and not a little relieved to have been able to pass on the trade of his forefathers to his children, knowing that their future is secure.
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 scrutinizing buyer, in Bangladesh and abroad. On the flipside, the amount of energy and creativity expended in marketing its goods, while technically a most gainful campaign, have imposed upon Aarong an aura of glitz and glamour which seems to the naked eye a divergence between the organisation and the grassroots arts and artisans that are its backbone.
But that’s because most consumers have never been to the nine Production Centers or six hundred and fifty sub-centers of Aarong spread across the country. Whatever Aarong does to increase its business, at the end of the day, equals to that many more jobs created somewhere in rural Bangladesh, many legacies preserved and many Khodezas inspired to do something for rural artisans, women and men alike.
Aarong's aggressive marketing campaign has also achieved something else that is of equal value to society. It has brought consumer attention back to the products and styles that are indigenous to Bangladesh. Just as interest in imported fashion was piquing, Aarong designers came through with designs that blended the traditional with the contemporary in a manner that won instant consumer appeal, starting a revolution in trends that has now been taken up by countless other boutiques and stores. They made buying Bangladeshi “cool” – focusing on the diverse types and textures of crafts and patterns that have been passed along from generation to generation among weavers and artisans in craft hubs around the country. In particular, Bangladesh's handloom industry has enjoyed a rather intimate symbiotic relationship with Aarong. In some areas such as Chapai Nawabganj and Norshindi, the rural weaver community is entirely dependent on Aarong's fabric consumption for their survival; Every year this amounts to millions of yards of hand-woven fabric.
Few will argue that Aarong is the local Mecca for
Bangladeshi handicraft. But in a manner belied by its public front as simply a retail outlet for such craft, the organisation took on the role of protector and promoter of traditional Bangladeshi products and designs from the very beginning of its existence. Perhaps part of the secret behind Aarong’s success with setting new standards in fashion are the age-old patterns it resurrected from Nakshikantha art and pitha molds – designs that had lost their place in Bangladeshi heritage and were slowly getting lost amidst the clamor for foreign products and imported styles. Aarong houses an extensive design library where remnants of rich craft heritage, be it Nakshikantha art or lost Jamdani pattern, have been widely researched and archived for present as well as future use. Aarong celebrated its thirty year of operations last year and held a series of exhibitions showcasing modern day Bangladeshi handicrafts as well as beautifully preserved and archived handicrafts from the Aarong library.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of an organization as visibly profitable as Aarong is that, as a support entity of BRAC, a significant portion of its earnings goes directly into financing BRAC’s development programs in healthcare, education as well as economic and social development. In the simplest of terms, after the in-house operating costs and overhead is settled, this retail giant functions more as an income generating activity for BRAC, helping to finance BRAC’s core programs in microfinance, healthcare and education.
So while buying products from Aarong we can appreciate the fact that somewhere in Bangladesh a Shondhya or a Somiron traveled forty minutes on foot to put a hundred year-old intricate kolka print on a piece of fabric. We’ll 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 Jagadish Chandra’s daughter’s school books. As long as people keep buying these products, 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. Buying something at Aarong is a wonderful shopping experience knowing that it is a purchase one can afford to feel good about.