Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 5, Issue 45, Tuesday November 18, 2008




Aarong: Behind the scenes

Shondhya Rani Sarkar's eyes lit up when she spoke of her son and how well he's doing in school. When Shondhya first came to the Ayesha Abed Foundation 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 who was left fatherless, when Shondhya's husband died. She had joined the local village organisation of 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 from 8 am to 5 pm, six days of the week, she earns a steady income for her family 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 also 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 the country that we are brought face to face with, making us realise the true impact of an organisation which has come into the limelight as one of Bangladesh's most successful brands - Aarong.

Reading the contents of the box above, we can say that Aarong is an all deshi brand, which has over the last 30 years turned out to be a true Bangladeshi icon. It signifies and represents a hardworking, positive, successful Bangladesh. The success of an organization is the success of all involved. When you go to the store and appreciate one of Shondya's blocks, when you fall in love with Al Amin's jamdani, when you cannot do without Shathi's porcelain, even though you may not know these names, you know for sure that this Aarong- the village fair, has touched your heart and it pulls you to go over and over again to buy your dreams.

From the wooden spoons to the nakshi sari, each item has gone through a phase-by-phase metamorphosis before you feel it's worth your greens. You know that each item has a story to relate to; from conceptualisation in the design studio to placing orders and producing it, up until you buying it, the process is a lengthy one. But a journey the management meticulously undertakes because this is their secret to success; giving the displaced a reason to survive, going through each minute detail, and finally presenting you with the best.

“It is a unique organisation and none can match it. One simple reason is the variety of handcrafted products you get, all under one roof. Shoes, bags, jewelleries, household accessories, clothing, so many varied products all under one brand is definitely a story to tell. Even Fab India is not as wide-ranging as us,” points out a very fiery Tamara Abed, Director Aarong and Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF).

“Aarong has inspired and motivated so many others to work with crafts and open different scales of business. Ours is a complex set-up; it is not a factory-based production house; its roots have sprung up from a cottage industry foundation and are still firmly standing on those small huts in remote villages where women are working tediously. The total number of artisans (producers) is around 65000. Ayesha Abed Foundation, which houses our main producing capacity has a total number of 13 main production centres and a total of 600 sub-centres,” Abed points out.

The artisans are mostly members of Brac's micro-credit members. The purpose with which it started was to provide livelihood and allow women to stay at home, look after the children, do chores and also work outside so that they can add to the families' income; mainly to help displaced women to start all over again. Their mode of operation is simple, a minor quarter of the bulk they buy from individual producers and artisans who have their own workshops and for the rest they place orders with the Ayesha Abed Foundation, which takes care of all, till the products return to quality control, then the store and finally to you. “Aarong is totally an artisan-based organisation, whose success is linked to the hopes of 65,000 workers. Our artisans have access to Brac's comprehensive development packages, and we do monitor the working conditions of our outside producers as well. I strongly feel that instead of honing a few buzzwords regarding compliance and such; you need to be familiar with the country's actual economic context. These people are crucial to the country's economic growth,” says Abed.

Aarong has a strong team of very professional designers that strives to produce the very best. The organization has a team of local designers and an Indian designer heading the design team. "Parisian couture houses bring in American designers to work with them; similarly, in America, they bring in French designers. It is all about adding a little versatility to their designs. As long as we are promoting local attire and designs that are essentially Bangladeshi in their core, I don't see why there should be a problem if one of our staff is foreign," Abed states.

Another important aspect that Aarong is constantly responsive about is helping poor craftsmen to revive and hold on to their skills and crafts. If a skilled craftsman cannot earn a decent livelihood from his traditional business then a lot is at stake; the next generation will not be inspired to carry on the family trade and the craft will be lost forever. A simple example could be the near disappearance of the unique Monipuri jewellery- only a handful of elders knows the trade but reviving it poses as a great problem. “Many of these invaluable crafts have been saved but a lot needs to be done still,” Abed feels.

On a broader scale Aarong is truly a trendsetter; be it jewellery or a dining cloth, the store knows how to present. However it must also remember that a brand has a brand promise, it must now invest in customer services. Customer care is Aarong's one true drawback. The problem seems to lie with the fact that the fresh trainees are sent out to the field with the older staff, who may have some deficiencies in their customer service, and the newcomers end up picking up on these as well. With their span of clientele only growing, Aarong must pay extra attention towards giving nothing less than the best to their loyal customers, and Tamara Abed assures us that the management is looking into the issue of customer care, and that we can look forward to some positive changes very soon.

Aarong, being with us for the last thirty years has become a pride factor for most Bangladeshis and on an international arena we certainly feel good owning Aarong as our one true brand. It is a social enterprise whose profits are ploughed back to Brac's development programs. So with each Aarong product that you buy you make women like Shondya grow strong.

By Raffat Binte Rashid
Photo courtesy: Aarong

Eating out

Roll Xpress

The evening was cool and the lights were low. The sound of rock music filled the air. There was not an empty chair in sight. People in all hues had come to watch Radioactive's concert and singer Laura later joined them. According to the owners, this was the first of many shows to be hosted at Roll Xpress.

It's been quite a journey for Roll Xpress and its owners, Farzeen Chowdhury and Fuwad Abdullah. They had gone to Kolkata, where Farzeen's uncle owned a shop, which had rolls as its main item. "We had gotten the idea from there, and I believe that it is to our credit that rolls have become so popular in Dhaka. Before us, when people heard 'rolls' they only thought of spring rolls. We changed that." Farzeen says, not with pride but with some measure of satisfaction.

The first such shop was opened at the Mini Mart shopping mall. Although quite popular there, the seating capacity of 19 meant that business would always be limited. The next branch was situated in Navanna Tower, but there too the constraints of operating in a mall were not ideal for business. "Navanna was closed for one day every week and the clientele we attracted were mostly office-goers. Ideally we want a more varied clientele."

She may have gotten her wish, because Roll Xpress has now moved to a location in Banani in a single unit house where the proprietors' vision would have more scope to be realised. "This is the first time we have an atmosphere that would let customers treat it as a hangout place," she said. The location is also very advantageous. Surrounded by universities and offices as well as homes, the restaurant attracts customers all day long. The clientele is also very varied.

The availability of Wi-Fi is a further attraction. In addition to the concert held this past Friday, Farzeen says that there are plans to hold events once a month, and long term plans to host art exhibitions. Although this Friday it had been a rock concert, Farzeen insists that she is intent upon reaching and creating a diverse clientele. "It will not always be rock concerts, we are also thinking of hosting jazz events to appeal to a different demography."

The core items are the rolls, but consistent with her efforts to build a diverse clientele, the menu also contains soups, set menus for lunch with rice, lentils, dosas, chaat, tandoori kebabs, etc. And of course, no hangout place can be complete without its staple: coffee. Farzeen maintains that the prices are affordable, and really quite cheap when the quality of the foods is considered. "We have never compromised on quality, be it rolls or coffee," she declares, and one would have to believe it having eaten at the cafe.

Another attraction of this, the latest and now the only branch of Roll Xpress, is the outdoor seating facility complete with a gazebo with sofas. Surrounded by greenery, one can relax after a hard day's work or even during lunch breaks. The variety of food on offer leaves customers with a lot of choices to suit their moods. The Roll Xpress cafe offers flexibility to customers, who like it very much for its atmosphere and ambience. Farzeen Choudhury and Fuwad Abdullah seem finally to have hit the jackpot.


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