A pioneer of silk-farming in Bangladesh
After Bangladesh gained its independence, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder and chairperson of BRAC, searched for an income generating activity targeted towards the poor. With a high demand for silk in Bangladesh, he deemed this as a great opportunity to help those rural poor, primarily women, to empower themselves. Thus, in 1978, BRAC started its sericulture project and initiated the sericulture industry in Bangladesh.
Eventually, this project evolved into an enterprise when it established its own mulberry plantations and silkworm rearing farms in northern Bangladesh. The locations provide a temperate climate for silkworms which are sensitive to erratic weather. Currently BRAC Sericulture has 13 cocoon production centres and two silkworm rearing centres. BRAC purchases cocoons from the farmers at the cocoon production centres and with them produces silk yarn.
The early days
Initially, the sericulture project gave loans to farmers to lease land on mulberry plantations, where they could rear silkworms. It provided secured employment and timely payments for women in rural Bangladesh. As the farmers did not have access to any stable credit facility to be borrowed from outside resources, BRAC created a more reliable microfinance system. To support its sericulture project further, BRAC established another social enterprise called Aarong which primarily focused on textile production. Although the sericulture project initially used to directly supply Aarong with silk, this linkage has now ceased to exist. Furthermore, in spite of its good intentions, BRAC faced a number of challenges with this development programme, including the low productivity of mulberry trees, inability of farmers to pay back loans, marginal farmers taking additional loans from other landlords, and farmers using the land for purposes aside from the intended mulberry cultivation. Repayment problems persisted, and as a result, BRAC stopped administering loans to lease land on mulberry plantations.
Livelihood opportunities in the supply chain
Production of silk occurs in four distinct steps: cultivating mulberry trees, rearing silkworms in these trees, producing yarn from those silkworms and weaving the yarn to produce fabric. This process is carried out by marginal farmers cultivating mulberry, cocoon rearers, yarn reelers, and weavers. At BRAC Sericulture, it is mainly women who fill these positions, although the enterprise struggles to maintain a consistent workforce because it tends to lose a proportion of its workers to the seasonal fruit cultivation.
Synergies with the Ayesha Abed Foundation and Aarong
Today, BRAC Sericulture only produces silk yarn to sell to contracted weavers. These weavers work for the Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF), which is under the supervision of Aarong. Employees of AAF sell completed silk fabrics to Aarong, creating an indirect linkage between BRAC Sericulture and Aarong.
Continuing the legacy of ensuring fair wages and fair prices in silk-farming
Because of its dedication in having a positive social impact, BRAC Sericulture does not operate in a normal profit-maximising manner. However, it does have a profit-making principle to some extent, in order to self-sustain and support BRAC’s development programmes. BRAC Sericulture strikes a balance between marketing silk at competitive prices while also ensuring a fair price for BRAC Sericulture workers to provide them with sufficient income. If these workers worked elsewhere in the sericulture industry, they have high chances of neither receiving fair wages nor fair prices for their silk.
BRAC Sericulture has recently identified the need to produce more value-added products. Traditionally, BRAC Sericulture has focused on the production of silk yarn. In August 2011, it began producing fabric and selling it at BRAC Kanon (one of BRAC’s green enterprises) for BDT 55 (USD 0.66) per kilogramme. BRAC Sericulture also has plans to increase its production and export silk fabrics. Right now, the enterprise is limited to hand looms, but there are plans to purchase mechanised looms to produce good quality silk at a faster rate. The enterprise is also considering silk garment production to be commercially retailed. Although BRAC Sericulture currently makes a modest surplus, these value-adding endeavours will hopefully bring greater returns which BRAC can reinvest into its development programmes.