Page last updated at 02:09 GMT, Thursday, 30 April 2009 03:09 UK

Taking jobs to Bangladesh's poor

Ratankandi women at work
Women in Ratankandi make toys and clothes for export to the West

By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Ratankandi

Never mind the global downturn, even in the good years, Ratankandi would be an unlikely place to come across a positive business story.

It is a thin, sandy strip of an island that sits in what is known in Bangladesh as the Jamuna river and in India as the Brahmaputra.

Every year the island floods and the 100 families living on it know that it is only a matter of time before Ratankandi is washed entirely away. They are among the poorest people in the country.

But 40 women among them now work for a thriving company called Hathay Bunano (translates as hand-made) that sells hand-knitted baby clothes and toys to customers in Europe, Australia and the US.

"Before Hathay Bunano came here, we had nothing to do. The women just sat in their homes," one of the workers, Shilpy, explains.

"But now we have learnt a skill and we can earn some money and pay for our children's school fees," she told me as we walked along a sandy path past the simple homes of the island's inhabitants.

A nearby primary school is the only regular service that the government provides for them. There is no electricity, no clinic and only one very simple little kiosk-shop.

Before Hathay Bunano came here, we had nothing to do. The women just sat in their homes
Shilpy, employee

At this time of year, before the monsoon, the men can work as labourers in the fields that appear on the dry river bed.

"There is a lot of hardship because we are right in the middle of the river and there is a lot of erosion here," her father-in-law, Badshah Munshi, says.

On average, the several million people living on Bangladesh's river-islands, known as chars, are forced by the destructive power of the river to move home at least five times in their lives.

"Every year we have to make repairs to our homes after the river washes bits of our walls and embankments away. The money Shilpy earns helps us pay for those repairs. We have also been able to buy clothes and medicines for the children," Mr Munshi says.

Quirky designs

The work is done in a simple, one-roomed tin building that Hathay Bunano rents from a villager. The women sit on the floor, some with their babies beside them, and knit the different products.

Hathay Bunano workers
Hathay Bunano employs more than 3,500 women across Bangladesh

Their quirky designs are winning more and more customers abroad but they look completely out of place in a remote and desperately poor Bangladeshi village.

At the moment the women are working on finger puppets of animals, rattles that look like biscuits and large, soft, red-square robots.

"When we first saw one we just started laughing," the supervisor Mazimat Poli Begum says. "We had never seen anything like this before in our village, we don't even have a word for it."

The decision to work on Ratankandi island was made by Hathay Bunano's British-Bangladeshi founders, Samantha and Gollum Morshed.

"We felt that if we could create export quality products in the middle of nowhere, where there is no electricity and no other services, we could create these products anywhere," Samantha Morshed explains.

"We have chosen to work in rural areas and some of the hardest areas of Bangladesh in order to provide employment for people who really need it. We believe very strongly that the most effective way of alleviating poverty in this country is by creating employment."

Success story

So far, they have been amazingly successful. Hathay Bunano began operations with a tiny investment of $400 and 12 trainees in December 2004.

Samantha Morshed
Unless you make a profit I think it is impossible to help people in a long-term sustainable way
Samantha Morshed,
co-founder of Hathay Bunano

It now has a healthy and growing turnover and employs more than 3,500 women at 32 sites across Bangladesh.

The Morsheds are confident of weathering the global economic storm as orders are still coming in.

All profits are put back into the company and the women can earn 25% more than the Bangladesh legal minimum. They are also able to spend their earnings in their own villages, where it will really help.

By comparison, most of the five million workers employed in Bangladesh's thriving garment export industry have had to leave their rural homes to work in the factories.

They spend a large chunk on the wages on paying rents, even though most end up in slums.

The Morsheds believe their business model - of taking jobs into the countryside - is a more effective way of tackling poverty. They also think their approach has a more sustainable future than that of non-governmental organisations, which rely on handouts.

"Unless you make a profit I think it is impossible to help people in a long-term sustainable way. The strength of our organisation is that regardless of whether we receive any donations we will sustain and continue to grow," Samantha Morshed says.

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