Treasures of Sea Grass
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.