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Thursday, August 6, 2009
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Cane furniture has become a hit over the years. But local makers need to import high-quality cane from Kenya and Myanmar. And this requires additional investment. Microcredit is not enough to help the industry flourish. ASA
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Sylhet has a name for cane furniture. The natural and main reason for this is the better growth of cane in the region. Over the years people have started earning their livelihood utilising and exploiting whatever they found growing or available in comparative abundance in their surroundings. Over time, the ways of utilising and exploiting evolved and they acquired expertise in the skill of trade. Certain areas gained name and fame for certain trade or craft.

In case of Sylhet, it is perhaps cane after tea. Of course there is a little logic of any comparison with tea, which has been a big industry from the very beginning. Cane is logically not produced on such a large scale. Whether it is the cool mats or baskets, bags and cases or furniture, cane has remained as a popular cottage or small industry. However, this cottage or small industry, whatever you like to call it, is not where it was say, 70 years ago. Over these years, its qualitative standard, design and product innovation -- all have certainly advanced, if not very fast, but as much as for survival. And now it is overcoming the versatile challenges of plastic and synthetic age.

However, to face the competition of standard, especially in case of furniture, it is no more a sole reliance on local canes. Special quality cane also has to be imported from far away Kenya and neighbouring Myanmar. And this requires additional investment.

Sylhet is generally considered affluent than other areas of the country. The basis of such surmise is that every alternative household is supposed to have a bread earner abroad. At the fag end of the British rule and when the rulers were leaving, some people from Sylhet went with them to Britain as workers. That was the beginning. Then one responded to his kin's call, following him some others, and this way many went there and were engaged in various jobs. Over the time some even opened shops, especially curry shops and restaurants. Among the Bangladeshi expatriates in Britain, people from Sylhet dominate by number. At present, besides Britain, the number of workers and expatriates from Sylhet is also not very insignificant in the Middle East countries.

Remittances from these sources are believed to be the basis of affluence of the people of Sylhet. But not for all. Poverty is also here, if not so acute. And microcredit is helping the poor here too in their efforts to come out of the vicious circle. Such a microcredit beneficiary is cane furniture maker Leema Begum. Sylhet is a sprawling city. Very often the extending city area mingles with the outskirt diminishing demarcation. Such a locality is Ghasitola where lies Leema Begum's sort of cane furniture workshop and abode.

Some eight years ago she became a member of non-government organisation ASA's Osmany Medical College branch and took her first loan of Tk 6,000. Her husband Mohammad Dildar Hossain is a cane worker. He started a factory much earlier taking a business loan of Tk 20,000 from the same branch of ASA. Now his wife has joined hands. She has learned the craft by closely observing her husband and others working over the years.

Since then Leema is running the factory along with her husband. Meanwhile Dildar's business loan was repaid. Leema also paid previous loans and took enhanced new loan each year and after eight years she is now repaying her eighth loan of Tk 28,000. With the returns from this cane furniture manufacturing, they have repaid the loans, renovated homestead and taken service connections. They have two sons and a daughter. Both the sons work with their parents. In addition, there are 5/6 day labourers. Meeting all expenses, Leema and Dildar now have an earning of more or less Tk 20,000 a month.

There might arise natural curiosity about whether microcredit could meet the capital need of even small-scale cane furniture manufacturing unit, especially when it requires use of costly Myanmar and Kenyan canes side by side with Sylhet and Chittagong canes in the face of competition. In fact Dildar and Leema started the business with comparatively small investment and greater input of their labour and skill. Leema enhanced her amount of loan each year, repaying the previous loans that gradually increased their capital and capacity. They now can supply furniture according to market demand, procuring all necessary raw materials. They believe microcredit has helped them attain this level. Then, should they advance with microcredit in case of expansion also?

No. This time Leema will take a bigger amount of loan. She is very much interested in expansion and modernisation of their factory, because, she believes, it is a prerequisite for survival in the competition.

The traditional cane industry is surviving bracing many odds and competitions. In the enterprising hands of such entrepreneurs as Leema and Dildar and many others like them, however small they may be, this craft is set to survive with repute.

The writer is a senior assistant editor of The Daily Star.

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