Prokritee is manufacturing handmade products from various sources such as jute. These products are exported to the USA, Canada, Australia, and European countries. In an interview with Dhaka Tribune’s Rafikul Islam, Prokritee Executive Director Swapan Kumar Das shared their journey, vision, the state of jute goods, and future of the sector
As a fair trade company, what approaches do you adopt to reach the people?
We began our journey in 2001 with rural women supported by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). In fact, it was a part of their job creation program, which later gained its own independent status as a separate company in 2003.
We received our licence for Not-for-Profit status from the government in 2008. Just for your clarification: Not-for-Profit doesn’t mean that we don’t make any profit. It simply means that the profit gained from selling the handicrafts would not go directly to the CEO or the board of directors. Instead it goes directly to the funds that help our artisans improve their livelihoods.
Our operating principles were adopted to reach underprivileged women in the rural areas. They are: help everyone irrespective of caste, creed, race, culture, ethnic identity, gender, and religion; make decisions that encourage self-reliance; reach out to women who are disadvantaged; demonstrate integrity in all actions; show the ways of nonviolence in problem-solving; demonstrate simplicity in life and work style, and ensure fair trade through transparency and flexibility.
Initially, we weren’t looking out for doing business and making profit; we were just trying to help them (rural women) lead a better life, but now Prokritee is one of the leading fair trade brands in the world, selling handicrafts to more than 30 countries. Some of our biggest buyers are Ten Thousand Villages, Oxfam Australia, Trade Craft, Trade Aid, Trades of Hope, El Puente, etc. We also do a lot of work with recycled materials, water hyacinth, kaisa, hogla, etc.
How are your diversified products contributing to the country’s economy?
We are one of the few fair trade organizations in Bangladesh that has WFTO Guaranteed Certificate. They renewed our certificate this year and it’s going to be valid till the end of 2019. Besides looking into the organization structure and how it maintains the 10 fair trade principles, WFTO also looks into product quality and, of course, diversification.
We have a long product range -- from baskets to bangles -- that make use of locally available raw materials such as jute, bamboo, kaisa, water hyacinth, hogla, keya leaves, etc.
We produces bags, Christmas decorations, baskets, handmade paper, stationery items, greeting cards, furniture, jewellery items, soaps, fashion accessories, textile, ‘nokshi katha’, batik fabric, table linen, wall hangers, lamp shades, carpets, and terracotta products.
By exporting these products, we are not only showing the world what we can do with our resource, but also giving jobs to over 2,000 women, not to mention all the people who are indirectly related to our business: the raw material vendors, logistics staff, bankers, etc.
Here at Prokritee, we believe in diversification and know that it can make a difference when it comes to improving a country’s economy.
How do you collect raw material?
We buy our raw materials from local vendors and farmers, who are also from underprivileged backgrounds, just like our artisans. We are not like our garments industries, where they import most of the fabric. We use locally-grown raw materials, such as pineapples, jute, recycled cotton, etc. to make the fabric required for our products. Same goes for the rest of our raw materials.
What challenges are you facing?
To be honest, the biggest challenge we are facing right now is a shrinking foreign market for handicraft products. Most of our foreign buyers are fair trade and they are still behind in the race of online business. Big companies, like Amazon and eBay, are taking away all the business.
Other than that, we have been facing the challenges like lack of skilled workers, good quality raw materials, marketing on fair trade products in the country, lack of government involvement in promoting fair trade products, lack of good communication in regards to artisan-buyer relationship.
How do you plan to capture the markets with your jute products?
We have only been focusing on marketing our products in foreign markets but they are shrinking slowly. We have also started looking into domestic markets. That’s why publication such as these are important.
To inform the people about fair trade, we regularly publish promotional videos explaining the 10 fair trade principles. We also publish a quarterly newsletter and a yearly report, all of which are available on our website. Through these publications, we are trying to reach the younger generation, who will run this country in future.
Tell us about the potential of jute products in the local and global markets?
All our products have immense potential. Europe has already given up plastic bags and the US is following suit.
We are now working on producing a new line of jute bags that can replace plastic bags. We are also looking into jute paper.
Due to digitization of information, paper has almost become a thing of the past but we believe it still has a place in this modern day and age.
Our jute notebooks are some of our best-selling products. We are working extensively with JDPC to promote jute diversified products in both domestic and foreign markets.
Is the production cost higher compared to plastic or those available in the markets?
It is true that production costs for our products are higher compared to the similar products that are currently available in local and foreign markets. But that is only due to the point that we pay fair wages to our artisans. We also provide them health benefits, provident fund, gratuity, emergency fund, etc.
Tell us about your future plans?
The developed countries are [gradually giving up] the use of plastic goods due to their harmful effects. So, it is an opportunity for us to reach the global markets.
We are now trying to take the chance. However, we are now working with women only. We will appoint men and expand our business.
What sort of support do you seek from the government for the sector’s development?
We have already received incentives and tax benefits for exporting handicraft goods from the government.
It’s really great!
However, we believe the government is missing out a lot on other untapped, potential opportunities. The government should take more initiative to provide skilled manpower for this sector.
We need financial support. We want the government to promote handicrafts in the local market, train young people more. Actually, we need good seed and modern machines to further develop the sector.