Miniatures of the Eiffel Tower and Kaaba Sharif, Merlion 3D fridge magnets, and Malaysia's Petronas Twin Towers keyrings are stuff you can find in almost every household nowadays. They are received as gifts by friends and family members visiting abroad. These items are not just souvenirs anymore; they are the medium of turning a country into a brand.
But can you remember a souvenir which represents Bangladesh, purchased or received as a gift from anyone, to celebrate the experience of visiting this country? Bangladesh is still not familiar with such culture of souvenirs.
Hat Bakso is one of very few firms which is working on branding Bangladesh for tourists. It is a design and manufacturing firm that sells souvenirs, such as miniature replicas, fridge magnets, keyrings, thematic wall frames, bookmarkers, paperweights and other traditional decorative products that represent our beautiful Bangladesh.
The recent growth of the tourism industry in Bangladesh – until the pandemic hit -can be a huge opportunity to promote Bangladeshi souvenirs among tourists, as well as help rural and sub-urban artisans increase the sale of their products. But Bangladesh is yet to explore this field.
Around 20% of tourists' expenditure goes into shopping but still, we have very few brands which work to represent Bangladeshi culture and heritage among tourists.
Bangladesh is a land of natural beauty, with many heritage sites, fascinating architectures, the world's longest sea beach, and the largest mangrove forest of the world. Yet, we are far behind in grabbing the opportunity to project this heritage and culture in souvenir products and earning from them. Hat Bakso just wants to do that.
Having started its journey in 2015, Hat Bakso came to the market in 2017 after intensive research and product development. It is run by five University of Dhaka alumni – Shafat Kadir, founder and CEO, Robiul Hossain Jewel, founder and creative head, Morsalin Anik, supply chain head, Khairul Bashar Sazal, admin head, and Tanzina Tareq Nitol, head of communications. Interestingly, none of the five members is from the same batch or even the same department.
"It was in 2013 when I came up with a business idea of portraying the beauty, culture, and heritage of Bangladesh, but I did not know where to start from. As I had an MBA from the faculty of business studies, I could only figure out the business idea and the possibilities in it," said Shafat.
"But I needed to develop products from scratch, which needed a creative hand. I got help from my university professor who introduced me to Robiul from the ceramics department of the fine arts faculty. Together, we founded Hat Bakso," he recalled.
Shafat said it was a very slow start as they needed to experiment with and develop products from scratch. Moreover, they did not have any example to look at for developing the business.
"Even though we took small steps, we definitely have gained speed now. Once we successfully finished the designs, there was no looking back. Later on, other members of our team joined us in different departments," Shafat said.
"Two of us are from the business studies faculty, one from fine arts, one from social science, and one from engineering and technology. We are very grateful to our professors as they helped us build the perfect team we have now."
Hat Bakso mainly crafts their products out of fine marble stones and then paints them, to bring them to life. The products contain unique designs, and one will definitely want to keep them at home. The miniatures are made perfectly, according to the real structure, and the vivid colour will mesmerise you. They use different colours and styles in every design, from replicating the original to terracotta.
Robiul, the creative head, mainly designs all items and selects the style of colouring too. The first item he made for their firm was a miniature of Ahsan Manzil.
"I remember how hard it was to calculate the exact dimensions and replicate the colour in the miniature. We visited Ahsan Manzil several times and took pictures of the sight from every angle from nearby buildings. The day I finished my first model of the miniature was one of the best days of my life, as it was the beginning of Hat Bakso," said Robiul.
"The process of making the artifacts is not that critical. At first, I have to make a perfect model with clay and then we pass it on to the production team where our workers replicate it using marble stones."
"I also have to select the perfect colour which suits and expresses the beauty of the actual structure and our painters then copy it in our factory. So, each and every item we make is a result of a lot of effort, care, and time."
Hat Bakso's product line contains tourism series, deshi vehicle series, 1952 series, Pahela Baishakh series, independence series, and miniatures of every popular national monument and structure. It is also open to take clients' own designs and requirements and make artifacts accordingly. Marbles used in their products are imported.
Though the firm mainly operates through their Facebook page, they have special counters in several hotels and restaurants all over the country. Currently, one can find their products in Mermaid Beach Resort, Bishworang outlets, Barcode cafe, Cheez and Beanz restaurant, Boithok cafe, Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation office and branches, duty-free shops in airports, and Sana's Artroom, among other places. They are currently approaching many other popular resorts and hotels all around Bangladesh as their target customers are mainly foreigners.
Tanzina, the head of communications, said, "Definitely, we want to establish our own outlet and we are working on it. But more than that, we want to make our products available to our target customers, and opening an outlet will not fulfil that objective."
Morsalin, the supply chain head, said they are currently developing a network through which they can take orders from abroad and deliver products to other countries.
They also take bulk orders from different ministries, universities, hotels, resorts, and corporate bodies.
"Even though we have not reached the global platform yet, which was the initial plan, we are having a satisfactory sale," said Morsalin.
Hat Bakso has a factory where they usually make the souvenirs, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, they are operating mostly from their office in the capital's Azimpur. The firm has 30 staff members, including factory workers. A large portion of the employees consists of artists who colour products, and they are mainly university students.
Khairul, the admin head, said, "Most of our employees are part-timers from our own university. They actually keep us more enthusiastic about our work and being with them makes us feel young every day."
Speaking about their future plans, Shafat said, "Our main focus will be offering quality souvenirs at a great value. We will feature a large selection of unique souvenirs and offer original paintings and mosaics in the near future."
Souvenirs are an integral part of travel experiences. Most tourists return home with souvenirs to preserve and recall the memories, and Hat Bakso is trying to make this happen by projecting the beauty of Bangladesh to the world.