Akhi Moni from northern Dinajpur is an artisan who has been involved in handicrafts business from a young age.
Both her parents and four siblings are artisans; they have been making hand-woven and handcrafted showpiece items since the 80s.
Akhi's family has faced problems with their business such as reaching a potential customer base and selling handmade products for a wider profit margin.
Since they live in the northernmost part of the country, commuting back and forth from the capital and other cities can be a huge challenge.
Handicraft products have been around for the longest of time. In Bangladesh, the market and demand for handicraft products are equally saturated with both buyers and sellers.
With the development of e-commerce in the last few years, Akhi has found a new way to sell her products all over the country online via various e-commerce sites.
Customers looking for authentic and locally made handicrafts also face difficulties while directly buying the products from the artisans. There is a wide communication gap.
To minimise this gap between the buyer and the seller, an e-commerce platform named "Dorpon" has dedicated itself to serve the artisans of this industry.
Dorpon is the country's first marketplace for handicraft products.
Launched in 2018, Dorpon's aim is to provide a platform for local artisans who produce handmade and handcrafted goods.
"Our local market is saturated with Chinese and Indian goods and the supply chain for locally made handicrafts is very strained. Dorpon wanted to break this strained chain of supply and make it streamlined," said Md Zayed Hossain, the business development head at Dorpon.
For the artisans, Dorpon provides all kinds of external services such as customer service to photography to delivering the goods to the customers.
"When we go to cities like Jashore and Kushtia to source handcrafted goods, we train our artisans so they can take photos of their products by themselves. We have also taught them to properly set the prices instead of only making a small profit," Zayed told The Business Standard.
Dorpon moves around the country to seek out artisans for the platform. "Apart from seeking them out ourselves, we also contact NGOs. With their help, we find artisans in rural areas of Bangladesh and educate them about Dorpon," Zayed said, adding, "Many artisans contacted us by themselves afterwards. Also many moved on to other platforms after seeing profits from Dorpon. One of our goals is to make the artisans self-sufficient through our platform."
At Dorpon, none of the artisans are signed into a contract that restricts their stay with the platform.
With creative freedom and free will to decide on their tenure with Dorpon, the artisans can also seek funding through City Alo's project that supports local artisans and their businesses.
Elaborating on the process, Zayed said, "The sales record from our site for each artisan is submitted to City Alo so they can receive funding. Our agreement with City Alo supports women entrepreneurs and local artisans."
Unlike many e-commerce platforms, Dorpon allows its artisans complete control over the pricing and product curation for their separate Dorpon stores.
They are given training on how to manage their own shops and upload product photos on the site.
There has always been a burgeoning demand for handmade goods in Bangladesh.
According to Zayed, Dorpon only tapped into the existing market.
However, he also mentioned that the main problem with dealing with this sort of products is in quality and product variation.
Regarding this, Zayed said, "Many artisans use high-quality raw materials while some do not. They mainly focus on the surrounding markets before investing in a product. Due to these issues, we cannot sell a cheap product at a high rate as we try to remain price-sensitive to ensure longevity in the market."
Speaking more on Dorpon's activities, Zayed said, "We aimed for different bank agreements since we cannot directly finance the artisans. This is why we went for an agreement with City Alo and Bank Asia, where we teamed up with the latter's agent banking services to reach out to grassroots artisans."
Zayed said, detailing further on the process, "We trained the agent banker from Bank Asia in places like Bogura, Narayanganj and Shariatpur so they can market Dorpon's products to locals near the border and hard to reach areas from the agent points."
Covid-19 ruined a major share of Dorpon's plans for 2020. One of them was to bring in foreign trainers to train artisans on product finishing.
"We also wanted to open a few hubs outside the main city as display centres. Mainly we wanted to showcase our products in the hubs as internet services outside Dhaka can be unstable and we wanted to bypass these logistic issues," Zayed told the correspondent.
Upon asking about Dorpon's post-pandemic aims, Zayed said, "We want to change our business module and bring in more artisans from the root level. We want to ensure better product quality along with creating a premium and exclusive products tab on the site. One of our aims is to expand into more cities and towns along with training and developing more artisans to ensure high-quality products."
According to Zayed, training the artisans will be a step towards Dorpon's long-term plan to make the handcrafted goods worth the B2B market.
"Many ex-pats contact us but as we are not an export-oriented platform, we cannot just send our products abroad. But we are in talks with Bangla Craft regarding this. Currently, we are thinking of buying individually from the artisans with plans to export."
As Dorpon is not an essential goods' platform, the impact of the pandemic was devastating.
"Dorpon's activities were halted for four to five months since April. We resumed our operations from last month and we are trying to turn around now. Most of our artisans could not get their hands on raw materials to produce the handcrafted goods during the months of March and April and we could not even deliver half the orders."
Although Dorpon had the opportunity to cash in on the pandemic by making masks, Zayed said that doing this would have gone against their business ethics and standards since locally-produced raw materials for masks are not safe and may endanger public health.