<%-- Page Title--%> Cover Story <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 150 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

April 16, 2004

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The Treasures of Sea Grass


We've heard of furniture made of water hyacinth. We are more than familiar with household items made of bamboo and jute. But who has ever heard of sofa sets and beds made of 'hogla'? Hogla or sea grass is a leaf that although may seem an alien word to many is actually the stuff that is used to make our 'pati' (mat), ideal for sleeping on or praying or using to build thatched huts. For the last few years a small family business has been transforming this seemingly unexciting fibre into trendy household items that are high in demand in European markets. This is the story of how a social worker's dream became a million-dollar business.

If it is entrepreneurial creativity one is looking for, a step into Décor Idee, the chicly named showroom at Gulshan Point in Gulshan 1 will not leave one disappointed. It is like entering into a trendy apartment with furniture from beds to sofas to dining tables and household ware from tablemats to carpets to baskets, to gorgeous braided lamps. Adorned with vibrant coloured linen and arranged cleverly, the furniture is certainly eye-catching. But what makes it more exciting is that most of it is made from an indigenous weed found in the coastal areas of Bangladesh.

Take the special sitting stools made of sea grass rope with foam coconut coir or waste cotton inside and a cushion on top for comfort or the pretty wine bottle holders. Sea grass rope by itself is not very colourful and has a sophisticated beige hue. But even this can be changed (according to the demand) by dyeing it with bright colours to get interesting shaded effects. King-sized sofas have been made more luxurious with soft cushioning and made comfortable by using a solid wood base.

"These items can be washed with water and dried or just dusted with a soft brush," says a salesman of Décor Idee. Ideally however, he adds, they are meant for dry, dust-free environments that makes Europe the perfect market. The showroom itself has only been around for about two years while business with foreign markets started long before. The main purpose of the shop in Gulshan is to introduce the possibilities of alternative raw material for furniture and household accessories. Simple, elegant, environment friendly and also relatively inexpensive, this type of furniture is in tune with the contemporary taste for the unaffected and indigenous.

Décor Idee is the brainchild of Towhida Hossain (Rumu), a Bangladeshi woman who has lived most of her life in Belgium which is where the business took its roots. At present the company B.T. Creation sells to Europe, US and Canada, markets where markets are strongly motivated by existing trends.

Although Décor Idee displays a wide variety of products in the area of basket ware it is mainly the roped baskets that constitute the bulk of the company's exports. Sales from these baskets alone amounts to 80,000 USD a month, which makes it around 1 million USD a year.

The company's phenomenal success has earned it the National Export Trophy (gold) for the fiscal year 2001-2002, for getting the highest export figure in the non-traditional handicrafts sector and for creating thousands of jobs.

It is hard to believe that something that was considered so unimportant only a few years ago, has become a lucrative business that earns valuable foreign exchange for our country.

But this exciting metamorphosis did not occur by fluke but due to a long drawn out story that involves a couple who would never give up and their enterprising family who has pooled their diverse talents to make this business work.

Aziza Khatun Hoque's search for an indigenous product that would create employment for the ordinary folk of Bangladesh began as far back as 1973 when the freshly independent country was in the grips of a devastating famine. She had just come back with her family after a nine month stay in Narshingdi, her husband's home and became witness to the terrible consequences of starvation. She describes the time she had found a baby in the arms of a dead mother who had died of hunger. With the help of likeminded individuals and modest funds from FAO and WFP she started an organisation to save orphans and poor women from famine. "We realised we needed to give these women something that would make them self reliant so that they could survive." At the time Aziza was a young Economics student with idealistic dreams to help her people, a feeling echoed by many other young men and women who had seen the ravages of war and famine and were now itching to change such a bleak scenario. At one point she started a 'silk project' and a mushroom growing project-- anything that would feed people and help them survive. Yet although well intentioned, these projects did not bring the significant results she had hoped for and Aziza realised that she needed more experience before she could pursue her dream. Soon she was off to Belgium on a scholarship to complete a PHD in economics. Her husband, Mahabubul Hoque, joined her with their two children winding up his business in Dhaka. But even after retirement, Hoque could not resist exploring the market in Belgium to see what he could sell from Bangladesh. Soon Aziza joined him in this endeavour and together they began to bring whatever they thought saleable in the Belgium market. From jute carpets to silk products to ordinary jute rope shika Aziza and her husband started from scratch selling to friends and acquaintances, eventually starting a Bangladesh Emporium in Belgium in the late seventies. But although there were orders for baskets with rope shika, the quality was not standardised and the couple decided to establish a factory in Karwan Bazar. Thus Intertrading Corporation was born.

Between 1983 and 1984 the company started doing well and the couple began to introduce their products to trade fairs in Europe including a huge fair in Frankfurt. "At that time I noticed that everyone was selling baskets, a product that amounted to about $60 million world wide," says Aziza. " So in '85 I started working with a French buyer to develop cane baskets innovating with metal rims." The baskets became a hit earning crores of Takas in the next several years.

But by 1990 the demand for such baskets declined and Aziza was racking her brains as to what new product she could develop. While visiting Bangladesh she began to toy with various kinds of leaves to see if they could be developed into a workable material for baskets. It was while experimenting with various kinds of leaves that her darwan suggested 'hogla' leaves. "I gave him fifteen days leave to go to the village and find such leaves and sure enough he did bring a whole bunch of hogla leaves." With them Aziza herself and a few other employees made some rustic baskets that she was too embarrassed to display at the fair in Brussels. But a Spanish buyer noticed the baskets hiding under the shelf table and placed an order worth $7,000. Now the problem was to get enough hogla leaves to meet the demand. Aziza's Bhola-born driver in Bangladesh and he helped to arrange supplies of the leaves from the coastal belts.

The ball was finally rolling and the sea grass baskets became a much sought after item in the trendy markets of Europe. Back home this meant a considerable number of jobs for people. At present around several thousand men and women are at work in different areas of rural Bangladesh; collecting, clearing and processing the leaves and finally twisting them in ropes to make or turn them into final products. The whole process requires the work of another 5,000 people.

But here there is a curious and rather romantic turn to the story. At the time the Hoques were living in Brussels with their two university-going daughters who had practically grown up in Belgium. It was a chance meeting between her elder daughter Towhida Hoque (Rumu) and a young naval trainee that changed the course of the family business. Belal Hossain had just gone to Germany on a navy training assignment, but when he met Rumu all his ambitions to be a star naval officer were blown to the winds. The two married and decided to settle in Belgium. A move that earned Belal a court marshall at home which he got out of by paying a hefty fine. But for Aziza and her family Belal was a Godsend. With his cadet college discipline, navy background and impressive organisational skills, the business reached new heights of success. The factory at Gazipur is proof of how good managerial abilities can turn a business around. In 1998 the family decided to come back permanently to Bangladesh to set up a proper plant, with frequent travel to Europe to sell their products.

For the company, BT Creation, it is an ideal situation. While Aziza remains the inspirational force, Mahabubul is actively involved in marketing the products abroad, spending most of his time in Belgium. Belal takes care of the production, the consignments and all the nitty gritties of getting the shipment to the foreign markets. Meanwhile Rumu while teaching at the International School of France in Dhaka, and looking after two small children runs Décor Idee that she uses to develop and display newer products that will eventually enter the foreign markets.

Other products besides those made of hogla leaves include kanthas made of new saris, rugs and household items made from garment factory waste and silver jewellery. Towhida's flair for designing is an inherent trait developed from childhood and brushed up with two-years of art under the International Baccalaureate in Brussels. She was also constantly exposed to the sophisticated designs of furniture and interior décor at prestigious exhibitions in Milan, Paris, Brussels and London, where she helped her parents to set up the Bangladeshi stall.

A visit to the sprawling factory in Gazipur where the real action takes place gives a sense of a well-organised establishment where multiple jobs are being done in clockwork time. It resembles a disciplined boarding school with Belal Hossain Ahmed as the benovelent yet exacting headmaster. There are for example three categories of employees -- 22 office staff, 32 factory staff and around 310 workers. There are production units spread out in remote areas such as Bhola, Barisal, Pirojpur, Bhairab, Belabo, Bogra, Magora and Jhenaidah. The last two units are producing kantha that Towhida has introduced in the local market as "lakh lakh fonree kantha", because of the countless stitches used to make them. The factory at Gazipur is called the 'finishing unit' and it is here where the labelling, packaging, quality control as well as back up operations (if anything goes wrong) take place. With all the units around 8 to 12 thousand people are employed by this business. The workers are categorised into three groups each one with their own colour of uniform. Workers and apprentices wear brown uniforms while supervisors wear blue and junior officers wear teal coloured shirts.

The first room we enter is filled with yards -- around 20,000 -- of rope made from hogla leaves. This is the basic raw material. In the next work area metal is being welded and bamboo sticks being sliced. Metal or bamboo frames are often used to provide shape and support for the baskets and stools made of rope. As we move on to the next work areas we can easily distinguish the new recruits and skilled workers who work diligently under close monitoring of the supervisors. While the apprentices -- young teenage boys work with frames, the skilled workers weave the ropes into perfect spherical baskets with the help of a measuring tape. It takes roughly two hours to make two basket sets. "We usually try to recruit people from the area so that they don't have to commute and to make sure designs are not leaked out," says Belal.

Work at the factory starts at 8 a.m. sharp and ends at 7p.m. with a tea break at 11a.m. lunch between 1p.m. and 2p.m and another break at 4:30p.m. Belal himself maintains the same hours as his employees and maintains a good rapport with them, often joining them for lunch or saying prayers with them.

The last work area is the finishing unit where the workers are all women in blue printed saris and wearing ID cards. Women are more efficient in doing the fine-tuning of the products such as cutting off stray strands from the baskets and other items.

A business such as this is strongly trend dependent and the greatest challenge for the company is to keep up with contemporary tastes. This is why Aziza and other family members involved in the business are constantly thinking of new ways to attract the market, which is highly sensitive to trends. Today baskets maybe the 'in' thing in Western markets but their appeal may wear off at some point. Thus Aziza and her partners are constantly on their toes trying to innovate their products. Hogla baskets maybe lined with polythene to make them more durable or a stool maybe made like a cube instead of the usual spherical shape all according to the demand of the customer.

Another major bottleneck for this business, one that businessmen have no control of, is political instability, says Belal, which can have devastating effects. "If there is a transport strike then the supply gets held up and consequently the entire production so we just have to keep the factory closed." He also adds that although the government does provide cash incentives to such businesses, it is not at the level of patronisation that competitors such as Vietnam, Myanmar and China get from their governments. This makes it difficult for Bangladeshi producers to compete with their competitors' prices. "There should be bigger cash incentives, better marketing opportunities. This is an important industry for Bangladesh as it creates many jobs."

What is unique about the Hoques and their family is not just that they have managed to make a million-dollar business out of an indigenous product that has created jobs for poor people. It is their positive attitude to their country in spite of all the difficulties of doing business or even of living. They are among the rare breed of individuals who are willing to take risks, who recognise opportunities and who believe that the people of this country, given half a chance, can offer something important to the world. Optimism of this sort maybe rare in the present turbulent circumstances but it is possibly the only ingredient for survival.


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