As a sales associate in one of the country's largest lifestyle brands, Charchil Chakma carefully studied the customers' shopping patterns - what they bought the most, what they liked etc.
"I saw that customers, even my colleagues, bought a lot of jewelry. It seemed as if they did not need an occasion, they simply bought jewellery whenever they wanted," he observed.
Soon he opened his own online jewelry shop "Mayuri". His designs are mostly inspired by enthnic minority motifs and patterns.
Although he started with a few hundred takas, Charchil now has a highly profitable business that he runs with the help of four craftsmen. There are days when all his products are sold as soon as he posts their details on his page.
He gives credit for that to "Sabangee" - a social media platform for ethnic minority entrepreneurs for increasing his visibility.
"Sabangee is my strength, the initial source of my success. I have been with it from the very beginning and I am eternally grateful to them. Customers on this platform now know me as the 'jewelry man'!" he exclaimed.
The Chakma word Sabangee means "work partners under the same roof", and this group truly represents that meaning. It has successfully connected multiple ethnic minorities from all over the country and created a family.
From traditional Chakma clothes such as "pinon-hadi", Manipuri ensembles such as "fanek-inafi" and sarees, Tripura outfits such as "rinnai-risa", to Garo "satranji" (floor rugs), ethnic silver jewelries, vegetables, spices, and condiments from the Chattogram Hill Tracts and homemade organic products, the group sells a diverse range of products.
Not only that, if a customer from Khagrachari or Rangamati wants a homemade birthday cake or a specific dress for a special occasion, s/he posts it on Sabangee and most of the time, is able to find the desired product.
From a simple Facebook page, within almost two years, Sabangee became an 18,000 member public group. There are more than 300 entrepreneurs, male and female, along with 20 moderators.
The Business Standard reached out to its co-founders, Bipli Chakma and Trishila Chakma, who shared why they created this platform and chose to help ethnic minority communities.
Both Bipli and Trishila are entrepreneurs who run their businesses in the city.
Bipli and her three sisters run the famous restaurant "Hebaang" in Mirpur and she also works in the administration department of a renowned hospital.
Trishila has her own page called Tareng, which sells T-shirts printed with ethnic minority designs.
Trishila said, "Bipli Di and I were connected with Juvda (Jumma voluntary blood donors association) and our regular meeting place was Hebaang restaurant. During one of these meetings, we came up with the idea of Sabangee."
In January, 2018 , Sabangee held its first fair with ethnic minority products from seven entrepreneurs. The response was overwhelming and many customers even came from the outskirts of Dhaka. The co-founders realised their platform was going to work really well.
When the landlord agreed with an advance, Bipli and Trishila rented the top floor of the same building where Hebaang is situated to have a Sabangee outlet and a permanent space to hold fairs and exhibitions.
The outlet was closed in 2019 due to losses, but they kept the space. However, it was hard for them to keep paying the rent during last year's lockdown, so they shifted their activities online.
"When things improved this year, another fair was physically held in January with nearly 105 entrepreneurs. Everyone was happy, and we thought now we would be able to recover from the losses incurred during last year's lockdown," Trishila said.
The plan was to hold larger fairs for 'Bijhu' or New Year's in April. However, due to the second lockdown, an online fair was arranged. Even then, new entrepreneurs are joining the Sabangee group every day.
Kuheli Chakma from Rangamati has been running her online business "Udondi" for the last four years. She sells traditional dresses for children and adults made with yoke designs.
She learned about Sabangee during last year's Bijhu, and has since been a part of it. "Sabangee gave me an identity, now everyone in my neighbourhood, and even beyond, knows my name and what I do. My page also has more customers now."
Another entrepreneur, Somapti Chakma Soma from Khagrachhari, sells a range of products like ornaments and traditional dresses. She also sells fast-food and items like homemade yogurt.
"I used to be a moderator at Sabangee and I got to witness the group's growth. Even before it was formed, we would often sit and talk about how we wanted a common platform for ethnic micro entrepreneurs. Every time we had a fair, online or offline, the response from customers was huge. As for my business, Sabangee helped me earn a name and boosted my confidence. Everyone now knows me, that girl who rides a scooty and delivers all over the city!"
Bipli informed us, "Sabangee is one of the first ethnic minority business platforms. Here we do not just buy or sell products; we connect like a family and discuss our lives. Customers can complain in the group and sort out their problems. We continuously work on improving relationships in Sabangee. Our advisers, who are the seniors in our communities, have been very supportive and they keep motivating us to help each other."
Trishila shifts her time between Tareng (her T-shirt business) and Sabangee.
She said she has fallen in love with what they do, and will continue to put an effort in improving Sabangee. "I left my job in 2017 and became an entrepreneur because I wanted to do something on my own, I wanted that freedom. I am passionate about voluntary work and cannot think of my life beyond it."
Why continue with Sabangee and keep investing hours from their own schedule? We asked both of them.
"I just want to help the entrepreneurs so that they can grow and expand their business. I want to bring all the ethnic minority micro entrepreneurs under the same roof and make sure they get more orders. We want everyone to see how beautiful these products are. Through Sabangee, we want to motivate them and build trust between different ethnic minorities," explained Bipli.
Trishila dreams of opening multiple Sabangee outlets in the city.
She said, "There were times when I had to travel to and from Dhaka and Rangamati almost every week to bring products for Sabangee exhibitions. Many participants could not come to Dhaka so I voluntarily brought their products. I do not mind doing it as long as I get to help them. Our dream is to have Sabangee outlets. Let us see how far we can go."