Mohammad Ashraful Alam is the chief operating officer of Aarong and has been with the ethical lifestyle retail chain for six years. He spoke to the Dhaka Tribune Showtime’s Al Faruque Ratul about the challenges and success of Aarong
What drives Aarong forward?
Our main objective is removing poverty from Bangladesh, and in Aarong’s case we especially want to help the impoverished women of different villages of Bangladesh.
Through Aarong’s involvement, many women are now able to earn money by themselves for their family. These artisans - the term we use to refer to the craftsmen who make Aarong’s products - have become empowered, and that I consider as a big success. Whenever we find a new artisan, we succeed a little more.
How does Aarong help its small, independent producers?
We try to help our artisans by giving them access to Brac’s development programs.
To really remove poverty from their lives we implement saving schemes. To improve and take care of their health we developed health schemes. We also have awareness campaigns to create a safe domestic space for them, and also to develop values in their families. Aarong is always trying to ensure a good future for the descendents of these Artisans. I consider all of this as a success.
Another big success of Aarong is cherishing Bangladesh’s heritage in crafts, and spreading it across the world. Aside from just keeping Bangladeshi crafts alive, we try to innovate new designs from same raw materials to enrich the crafts even more. The continuous trial and development of these designs are noteworthy.
What has been the impact of Aarong on the retail landscape of Bangladesh?
Aarong created a revolution in Bangladesh’s fashion industry. It is a big success we cherish; that Bangladeshi crafts through Aarong are dictating the trends in the Bangladeshi fashion industry. We created a fusion of traditional Bangladeshi attire with contemporary design.
The biggest success comes from the people who shop at Aarong. Whenever people go abroad, everyone - including the (government) ministers - purchase Aarong products to present Bangladesh. The love we receive from the people is our biggest success. Therefore, I would say Bangladesh being represented through Aarong is our biggest success.
What challenges does Aarong face in promoting Bangladeshi design across the world?
One of the major challenges is the decline in skills of our artisan (and) encouraging the next generation to come into this field. This is leading to many Bangladeshi crafts becoming lost forever. This problem started a long time ago and will only increase with time. Finding the next generation of artisan will be a big challenge.
The second challenge we face relates to the age-old battle between handmade versus machine-made products. When we are trying to make handmade products, meeting the (consumer) expectations in terms of price and quality becomes very hard.
The third challenge we face is in regards to the supply chain. We have 14 production centres of our own and 650 micro-entrepreneurs working with us who are sub-production centres in villages across Bangladesh.
The reason for having so many is because we want to give work to as many women as we can, in every village of Bangladesh. We want every woman of Bangladesh to become independent, and if they are skilled in a craft that breathes Bangladeshi culture, we do not want them to seek us out. We try to seek our artisans and make the work experience as homelike as possible.
However, such a big operation obviously needs proper monitoring. Providing the raw materials to 650 sub-production centres, ensuring that each unit is made, and then sending our finished products to the retail outlets is a massive amount of work.
To ensure quality of our products we give these micro-entrepreneurs the same service as our own production centres, which means providing raw materials, and following up to collect the finished goods. Ensuring quality when so many suppliers are involved is a big challenge.
What keeps the artisans loyal to Aarong’s cause?
I think one of the biggest motivations is that we ensure payment within 24 hours of product delivery. We also give credit facility for operation cost. We give health insurance, loans and even a deposit scheme to ensure they have savings for their old age.
But no matter how many benefits you give, a craftswoman will continue to craft for as long as they love their handmade products. The love the artisans have to their craft is what is keeping them with Aarong.
What is the biggest goal of the three day-long event celebrating Aarong’s 40th founding ceremony?
The biggest highlight will be the crafts exhibition. We feel that this generation of youths - especially those from the urban areas - probably has not been exposed to Bangladeshi crafts to a great extent. We want to retain, cherish, and promote these crafts to the new generation; therefore the crafts exhibition is a must.
We will also have workshops on five different crafts to allow the festival visitors to learn. Some of our product consumers want to learn rickshaw painting, block-printing, making handmade jewelry, or wood-work. We chose five crafts to allow people to learn.
We will also have a fashion show to showcase Aarong’s brands Taaga, Taaga Men, and Herstory. There will be a concert on the third day featuring widely popular bands.
However, I would like everyone to attend the awards ceremony of the first day. We arranged it to honour 40 artisans who have been with us throughout our 40 year journey.