You’ll already know by now, aside from my interest in microfinance, I have also developed a curiosity in social enterprises and the impact they have on (primarily) ultra poor women from rural Bangladeshi villages. Not everyone is an entrepreneur afterall and social enterprises tend to work for the benefit of staff and surrounding communities, rather than for the benefit of investors and shareholders. Commercial strategies are applied to the business so it’s a “real” business, but the profits are used to further the organization’s social mission rather than line the pockets of owners and shareholders.
In Bangladesh, social enterprises tend to produce goods that can be sold for a fee, more often than not at a cheaper price than their commercial competitors and leverage a generally uneducated workforce to produce these goods by simplifying the production process. They also offer good working conditions, a salary and other benefits such as day care, medical & eye care, schooling for the kids etc for the staff – unheard of with their commercial competitors.
Over the past few weeks, I visited BRAC’s Ayesha Abed Foundation production centre where mostly women (and some men!) were busy dying bolts of fabric with both chemical and natural dyes; block printing beautiful Bangladeshi designs onto lengths of cotton from hand-carved wooden blocks and embroidering exquisite designs onto shalwar kameez and kurtas by machine and by hand. The beautiful (to my mind art) pieces are sold in the Aarong retail stores scattered around Dhaka. I believe they are introducing an online shopping function very soon and will ship abroad :-).
Last month, I also visited two more BRAC social enterprises – the first was a BRAC Nursery, which is like any garden centre you and I are familiar with. They cultivate and grow many plants: from fruit trees to flowers to cactus plants. Local women are hired to work in the nursery and get to earn a steady income. The nurseries do a decent trade and are self-sustaining.
The second BRAC social enterprise I visited was involved in the manufacturer of sanitary napkins. When you think of the steps involved in this process, it is pretty simple and young women from a rural and uneducated background are easily trained to complete the end to end production. Provision of cost effective sanitary napkins is key to provide personal hygiene products to women, to then allow them to leave the home to work. I never really had given this much thought (we westerners take so much for granted) but I know Child Haven faced similar issues in India and have teamed up with an Indian inventor who has created a machine to facilitate hygienic production of sanitary napkins. Scroll down to read the article. Yen To (an ex-RBC GAMer) is investigating the idea to purchase one of these machines for a community she worked in, in Nairobi, Kenya – so this really is a serious issue for developing countries.
Another social enterprise that peaked my interest here in Dhaka, was one set up about 10 years ago by an English lady Samantha Morshad, who married an English-Bangladeshi and moved to Dhaka in 2004. Pebble Child Hathay Bunano was created in the same year, clearly Samantha did not sit around for very long after her arrival. Leveraging the culture of arts and crafts, Samantha trained poor rural women how to knit and crochet to produce the knitted kids toys you may recognize from your local toy store. this business has gone from strength to strength. I would have loved to meet Samantha in person but her travel schedule means she returns to Bangladesh just as I leave. What a pity, but there is always next time.
It’s been an interesting opportunity for me to explore how the most simplest of ideas, with the most simplest of production processes, can be so profitable such that they drastically change the lives of the predominantly ultra poor women of Bangladesh who work in these enterprises. The next trick will be to figure out how to translate some of those experiences to marginalized groups of people in our western world, and give them the dignity of being able to learn skills and earn an income.