Outstanding Woman in Business of the Year

Pristine harvest

It all started with a casual hobby and genuine interest that, over time, turned into a successful and export-oriented agri-business.

Selina Quader was born in Jessore in 1947. Her father was a lawyer by profession but he took a keen interest in gardening that he shared with the rest of his family. Selina graduated from Jessore Women's College in 1967 and married an agri-scientist the following year. When her husband, Dr Shaikh Abdul Quader, returned from Germany in the early eighties, he was posted in Chuadanga.

Selina was excited by the large piece of land that was available within her home premises and promptly started growing a kitchen garden. Soon there was no looking back. She reinvested everything she earned from selling her vegetables into leasing more and more of nearby land and grew an increasing amount of produce. Now, her total area of production is nearly 200 acres including her own land, leased land, and those of her contract growers in Chuadanga and Thakurgaon. Her direct employees number over 200 and her total turnover reached Tk 25 million in 2004 after demonstrating an impressive growth rate in the last five years. Her company, Agroconcern, works closely with client and contract farmers on both production and marketing aspects.

Inspired by her success, Selina's neighbours in Chuadanga have also joined the bandwagon of vegetable production -- now almost 6-8 truckloads are shipped everyday from the vicinity for destinations in Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet. With this spectacular performance in a previously arid geographical region, has come the benefits of economic development for all; villagers in the area now have access to electricity, concrete housing and Selina's previous workers themselves have now moved onto their own lands.

Even though Selina's production basket includes a whole variety of items like cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, capsicum, papaya, egg-plant, rice, maize, watermelon and sugarcane, her biggest success so far has been her potatoes. At first, she grew the seeds herself with the help of her husband to produce a variety that is high-yielding and disease-free. Large-scale production ensued in 1990 with the help of contract growers. Prompted by high acceptance of these potatoes, she first exported 4 containers in 2000 to Singapore; since then, she has also exported to wholesalers in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Furthermore, after three years of research, she has found a new variety of tomatoes that can be grown even during rainy seasons. Selina plans to produce this highly-demanded strain in bulk next year. Consistent quality in all her products is ensured by importing seeds intermittently from European countries and by bringing in foreign technicians to monitor progress.

Selina's journey to this day definitely has not been obstacle-free. As is true for all other agricultural produce, she is plagued by the middlemen who dominate the supply chain and eat up a chunk of the total margin. Lack of access to financing is also a factor that constrains her growth potential. The bags she needs to export her produce are not available in the local market, they must be imported from China or India, and hence increase the lead time involved. Most importantly, she still has not been able to avail of the government's declared cash incentive because of procedural delays.

Despite these challenges, Selina is determined in her future ambitions. She plans to build further on her existing work of developing improved strains and introducing exotic seeds. She is exploring the export potential of her newly-developed tomatoes as well. At the same time, she feels that a joint-venture partner in the seed development industry for industrial vegetable production would help her go much further.

Throughout her life, Selina has maintained a multitude of interests and activities. She has been an active athlete for most of her life and has won numerous prizes. Starting with student politics in her college days, she has continued to lead and implement various welfare projects. Today, she takes immense pride in the fact that her production quality is above average without the use of toxic chemicals and her seeds are highly sought after by farmers. After all, she has been able to exact a discernible difference in the lives of many of her community mates.

Special Achievement Award of the Year

Brands that enrich lives

"90% of Bangladeshi households use one or more of our products", "More than 99% of our products are manufactured locally", "Our floating hospital has served over a hundred thousand people since commissioning in 2002", "More than 10,000 people directly derive their livelihood from our operations"…. Do these words bring to mind any particular name? Actually, no other single company can proudly claim this breadth of achievements in Bangladesh other than Unilever Bangladesh, the company chosen for the Special Achievement Award 2004.

The journey of Unilever first began in 1930 with the merger of British soap-maker Lever Brothers and Dutch margarine producer Margarine Unie. Today, Unilever is a world renowned fast-moving consumer goods producer that is present in more than 150 markets, employs hundreds of thousands of people, and markets 400 powerful brands. In Bangladesh, the saga started with Lever Brothers Pakistan first founding a soap-manufacturing unit in Kalurghat, Chittagong in 1964. After independence, the company was incorporated as Lever Brothers Bangladesh Ltd. with Unilever owning 60 percent of the shares and the Government of Bangladesh owning the remainder. The company recently underwent a name change to become Unilever Bangladesh Ltd.

The reasons why Unilever Bangladesh has been chosen for this year's special award make a long list. But what attracted the attention of the organizers the most were essentially threefold: the impressive growth in business performance, the growing and market-appropriate product portfolio, and the range of social/philanthropic activities.

Businesswise, Unilever Bangladesh has grown into a Tk 800 crore giant, in terms of turnover, fuelled by consistent double-digit growth rates in the last six years. What is particularly impressive is that this growth has been achieved despite ordeals like floods and hartals and in the absence of any price increases. Considering the annual inflation numbers, this actually means that real prices have gone down over the years -- good piece of news for the consumers.

Secondly, the product range of Unilever Bangladesh deserves genuine appreciation. Starting with the familiar names of Lux, Wheels, Lifebuoy and Vim, the company has made serious effort to continually develop new products that fulfill the unique needs of Bangladeshi consumers. Unilever, leveraging on its dual strengths of global expertise and local insights, has been the first mover in this country into emerging categories like detergent powder, dishwashing bar, face wash and deodorants. It has invested considerable amount of resources to build up each of these categories in terms of generating awareness about a latent need, developing a brand experience, and packaging that suits the need of our specific consumer sets. With fourteen brands plus variants at different price points, the company today has a diversified portfolio that matches a whole range of purposes of a typical household.
Last, but not the least, Unilever takes its corporate social responsibility role very seriously. The company contributes towards multiple causes and has also constructed social events around many of its brands. It has just refurbished and added a new operation theater at the 'Maa o' Shishu General Hospital' in Chittagong. Pepsodent, the only oral care brand endorsed by Bangladesh Dental Society, organizes free dental check-ups across the country to raise awareness about oral hygiene. The Lifebuoy Friendship Hospital is a converted oil-tanker that takes healthcare services to people in riverine areas who otherwise have no access to a doctor. The Fair & Lovely Foundation provides vocational training and education scholarships to women from economically challenged homes in a bid to improve their future.

Interestingly, the company has not always been in this top-notch form that deserved notice. As recently as 1998, operations in Bangladesh were much more limited and complacent. Then came the blow of 'halal' soaps which took up the market by storm and overnight ate into Lever's shares. Lever management wisely was able to exact a complete turnaround and, through tremendous hard work, has brought the company to where it stands today a true gem in the global Unilever crown. And international decision-makers have noticed this superior level of performance too. Awards that have been received in recent months and add to our national prestige include, among others, Unilever's prestigious Sustained Innovation Performer award and an A rating at the Unilever International Quality & Consumer Safety Audit.

In a recent survey by an independent research agency covering a wide range of respondents, Unilever Bangladesh was voted as the company with the "best overall reputation" -- a feedback that speaks volumes indeed. A finding that shows what is expected from a true corporate leader and what really matters at the end of the day. Modern society expects a high-performance company to possess not only above-average business financials but also efficient processes that allow lower prices, investment in human resources, and nurturing of business partners -- and, of course, ethical means is assumed to be a given. Companies like Unilever Bangladesh that gain respect in the long run do so after years of demonstrated professionalism and integrity. In a world of global competitiveness, we can only wish that more of our local companies will adopt a similar mantra for advancement.


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