Bagdha Enterprises provides employment for rural Bangladeshi women. Women come together in a central location to clean, sort and spin hemp fibers into rope and twine. The twine may then be used to make products such as purses and bath mitts. Many families depend solely on craft income to support themselves. An all-women management committee now directs the association’s business. Benefits to producers include medical assistance and a producer development fund.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) began Bagdha Enterprises in 1982 to create employment for rural women. From a remote village with few resources and women with no education or employment experience, Bagdha has transformed the lives of these women artisans, their families and community. Bagdha now exports its products through various fair trade organizations in a number of countries.
The story of Bagdha Enterprises’ beginnings makes its current success even more remarkable. Below are excerpts from the story as told by Doug Dirks, who was the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) job creation administrator in 1983 when the group began.
“Shahjahan Miah, MCC project development officer, visited Bagdha village at the request of a Catholic Church representative in Bangladesh. He returned to the office saying that the people he met were some of the poorest he had ever seen, and asked me to join him on his next visit.
“Bagdha was quite remote in the early 1980s; the only way to reach it was to travel by a combination of ferry boat, bicycle rickshaw and small boat. The trip took more than 20 hours—for a distance of only 75 miles.
“It was obvious Bagdha was a poor village. The houses were bamboo frame with grass thatched roofs and dirt floors—no bricks, corrugated iron sheet roofs or concrete foundations. We met with 20 women to talk about how MCC might help them develop a small business. Shahjahan had found out that hemp was an abundant and inexpensive local crop. He thought the women in Bagdha could learn to make rope and twine, and to sell it locally and for export.
“Most of the women we met were single mothers who had been widowed, divorced or abandoned. They had no education, no resources, no employment experience and were not respected in their community. They found it very difficult to feed their families, and could not even think of sending their children to school. This definitely looked like a group we should be working with.
“That evening, Shahjahan and I were invited to Nani Bala’s house. We sat on a grass mat and were served chicken curry with rice. Only Shahjahan and I ate. Everyone else watched. When I asked why no one else was eating, Nani Bala said that we were the honored guests, so we should eat first. After some more questions, it turned out that we were eating the only chicken eaten in Bagdha in the past year. Most of the people watching us eat probably wouldn’t eat at all that evening.
“Later, on a tour of the area, we ended up behind Nani Bala’s house where we met her mother, lying on a grass mat on the ground. She didn’t look well. Nani Bala explained that her mother hadn’t eaten for a few days, and they were expecting her to die soon from starvation. There was not enough food for everyone in the family to eat all the time, so the oldest and weakest person, her mother, was not eating at all. Nani Bala’s mother died the next day, while we were still in Bagdha. I realized this really was a place where we should try to establish a business, so at least some local people could earn some income for survival.
“Shahjahan recruited a rope and twine making family near Dhaka, the capital city, to provide training for the first 20 women. By the time I left Bangladesh in 1985, these women were making and exporting garden twine to Germany and England. They were beginning to earn some money, but were still a long way from economic security.
“When I was able to revisit Bagdha in 2001, the trip from Dhaka took less than four hours. Approaching the village, I noticed corrugated iron roofs, some brick walls and concrete floors and foundations. We were met by a group of 40 women who garlanded us with flowers and sat us down to a big rice and curry lunch. Everyone ate together, and all had plenty; no one was left on the sidelines. The group was making hemp rope and twine, as well as handmade paper products with three other enterprises in the area.
“Before we left, Nani Bala invited us to her house—now with a shiny corrugated roof, a concrete floor and real wood doors. She was the major wage earner for her extended family of 12. While drinking tea, Nani Bala shared her pride in her eldest daughter, enrolled in nursing college. Amazing! Nani Bala, a woman who had to watch her mother die of starvation 18 years earlier because of extreme poverty, was now the proud mother of a college-educated nurse. The income she had earned making hemp rope and twine was surely put to very good use.”