Facing financial stress during her academic life, Moriom Nargis tried to do something so that she could contribute to her family. Her endeavours have now turned Moriom into a "Nakshi Kantha" entrepreneur, with monthly sales amounting to Tk4-Tk5 lakh.
After obtaining a master's degree from a local college, Moriom started the business in 2011 with her savings of Tk10,000. The self-made entrepreneur of Jashore Sadar now owns a brand named "Twinkl Craft and Jashore Nakshi", employs more than 5,000 workers, and has a Tk50 lakh annual turnover.
"If everything goes as expected, I hope my business will double or triple in the next five years," the 36-year-old entrepreneur told The Business Standard.
Such success stories are not rare in south-western district of Jashore – which is widely known for flower farming and date juice. Some 10,000 entrepreneurs in the district, all of whom are women and include widows and the abandoned, are annually making around 5 lakh pieces of Nakshi Kanthas – a traditional hand embroidery of Bangladesh. Annual sales hover around Tk150 crore, as nearly 3 lakh people are involved in the sector.
Traditionally, the Nakshi Kantha craft was a household one and used to entail the reuse of old fabrics, rags and sarees. Women in Bangladesh have since time immemorial lovingly given away handmade Nakshi Kanthas to newborn children in the family and to beloved daughters going away to set up their own homes.
According to the SME Foundation, there are 500 Nakshi Kantha factories in Jashore, where around 20,000-25,000 workers produce the Kantha quilts.
Though businesses had been sluggish for months during the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, Jashore entrepreneurs say their sales have surged by 40%-50% now owing to online markets.
"I first started selling the product online during the virus lockdown. My monthly sales have soared to Tk2 lakh from previous Tk80,000-Tk1 lakh," Sonia Sakin, an entrepreneur in the district, told TBS.
Sonia says many customers are placing orders after browsing the products, while some are coming to the shop after stumbling upon the Kanthas online.
Nakshi Kantha had always been a grassroots industry in the interior and remote villages of the country. While the women worked in the fields most of the year, monsoons saw them spending most of their time indoors with needle and thread, giving expression to their artistic endeavours through Nakshi Kantha.
Their beautiful creations then took life in the form of quilts, blankets, bed sheets, tapestries and wall art.
Modern Nakshi Kantha no longer involves the use of old fabrics and neither are all motifs strictly traditional now. The Kanthas now sold in the major cities are made of crisp cotton or silks and feature not just the traditional and simple straight running stitch but many more complicated stitches and designs.
The Kanthas made in Jashore are sold all over the country. Each Kantha quilt costs between Tk1,000 and Tk4,000.
Safaram Bibi has been working as a Kantha artisan for nearly 20 years. She told TBS that more and more women are joining the sector every day. If they had a little training and capital, most of them would become entrepreneurs.
Fatima Khatun, owner of Nakshi Rang brand, said, "Most of us are micro entrepreneurs as we stitch and sell the products on our own. If we got a little government support, we could expand the business and generate more jobs."
Imruzzaman, general secretary of Jashore Nakshi Kantha Association, told TBS that the major obstacles for such entrepreneurs include lack of collateral free low-cost loans and display and sales centres.
"Jashore women have come this far without any support. Now the government should come up with some policy support for us," he added.
Mafizur Rahman, managing director of the SME Foundation, said the foundation has a plan to establish a display centre for the entrepreneurs in Jashore or in Dhaka.
Besides, the foundation will provide the women with training schemes, and ask banks to arrange more flexible loans.