The Jute entrepreneurs bringing sustainable economic growth to Bangladesh

As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and seeks to recover the economic damage, ‘Build Back Better’ has become a global catchphrase. It stands for the need to re-build a global economy that generates economic growth in a sustainable way that protects the environment and combats climate change.

All around the world, we see young entrepreneurs make strides toward achieving this goal. Like in Bangladesh, where young women in particular are setting up Jute businesses that benefit the environment and their communities.

Jute is a traditional crop of Bangladesh with many environmental benefits. Apart from being a biodegradable material, Jute cultivation cleanses the air, requires less fertilizer than other crops and improves soil texture. It also plays a vital role for the rural economy of Bangladesh. Higher demand for Jute creates more employment and development in rural areas of the country.

Meet three young Jute entrepreneurs who have been supported by our Bangladeshi member Bangladesh Youth Enterprise Advice and Helpcentre (B’YEAH) through our programme funded by IKEA Foundation and find out how their businesses benefit the environment and their local communities:

Esrat Jahan Chowdhury, Founder of Tulika

When Esrat quit her job to realise her dream of starting her own Jute bag brand called Tulika, no one believed in her vision. Even her own mother was angry at her and refused to provide financial support. Esrat found it very difficult to get any information on where to buy Jute fabric and navigate the legal requirements for setting up a business.

But then she met local YBI member B’YEAH. B’YEAH provided Esrat with business training in different areas and paired her with a mentor. With this support and her hard work, Esrat built a successful business with 15 employees. Her vision was true and her bags proved incredibly popular, she even earned enough money to pay for her daughter’s education and contribute to her family’s expenses.

When Esrat’s business hit a rough patch during the COVID-19 pandemic, B’YEAH was by her side again to support her in taking her shop online, as part of our programme ‘Accelerating Youth-led Businesses in the Digital Era’, funded by IKEA Foundation. Esrat received training in e-commerce and digital marketing and adapted her business plan. This connected her to new customers that would have been impossible to reach before the pandemic and secured her a large order from Europe, setting her on the right path to achieving her goal: export her Jute products all over the world to raise awareness of and demand for this environmentally friendly material while bringing sustainable economic growth to Bangladesh.

Apart from the environment, Esrat is also very passionate about creating opportunities for rural women through her business. Many of these women have not had the chance to receive a formal education and struggle to find work. Esrat is giving them the opportunity to use their creative and handicraft skills to produce bags for her. They are working at home so that they can earn money despite having to take care of the household and children. Esrat’s goal is to employ many more of these women and promote female entrepreneurship and green business around the world.

In Esrat’s words:

“This is not just a business; this is a social responsibility.”

Fatiha Islam, Founder of JUCOF

Growing up, 24-year-old Fatiha watched her father and grandfather create Jute products. Proud to carry her unique, homemade Jute bags to school, Fatiha became passionate about the material at a young age and was determined to become a Jute entrepreneur herself. After studying an undergraduate degree in clothing and textile as well as fashion design, Fatiha started her business JUCOF in 2017, manufacturing Jute bags, gift items and clothing such as blazers. Initially, she received no support from her family who didn’t want her to get involved in business. But that didn’t stop Fatiha and within just two years, her business grew from employing just one person to 15 employees. Fatiha is proud of this achievement because she is passionate about supporting her community. She says “I was determined to become an entrepreneur so that I could create jobs for others. Besides exporting my products, I want to contribute to my country’s economy as well.”

The biggest challenge for Fatiha’s business so far has been the COVID-19 pandemic. She had to shut down her business for two months and all of her orders were cancelled. However, things started looking up again when she was introduced to YBI member B’YEAH and attended training in e-commerce as part of YBI’s programme funded by IKEA Foundation. Following the training, Fatiha started advertising and selling her products online and managed to get new orders from the buyers who had originally cancelled on her. More recently, Fatiha also participated in B’YEAH’s decent work training, which is part of the same programme, as she wants to be a responsible employer. The training helped her implement health and safety measures in her factory and ensure proper documentation and written contracts for all her employees.

Currently, Fatiha is working on opening her first showroom very soon as well as increasing her exports. Her goal is to reduce the use of plastic materials by promoting Jute. She says:

“I sell Jute products to reduce the use of plastic materials – this will be a blessing for the environment. I believe it is our duty to ensure that the next generation can live a safe and healthy life in a clean environment.”

Sabiha Islam Bithi, Founder of Purnota Craft

Struggling to find employment, Sabiha was inspired to start her own business when she read the story of a successful entrepreneur in a local Bangladeshi newspaper. With no prior knowledge or experience in entrepreneurship, she started her business Purnota Craft in 2017, producing a wide variety of Jute items, including diaries, tissue boxes, keyrings, penholders, pillowcases, lampshades, gift items and more.

Sabiha’s business was growing at a steady rate until COVID-19 hit Bangladesh in March 2020. To cope with the new challenges and continue running her business through lockdown, Sabiha attended B’YEAH’s Advanced Digital Skills Training as part of our programme funded by IKEA Foundation. In the training, she learned how to promote her products online, how to use WhatsApp for business and how to manage a website. This helped her business tremendously and enabled her to hire more staff, taking her total number of employees up to five by mid-2020. To become a responsible employer, she participated in B’YEAH’s decent work training, which is part of the same programme. Following the training, Sabiha now offers her employees paid holiday and sick leave as well as overtime. She also implemented health and safety measures, such as fire extinguishers and first aid boxes, in her factory.

Apart from providing decent work opportunities to her employees, Sabiha takes pride in being a green entrepreneur. She is alarmed by global warming, the dramatic increase in natural disasters and the destruction of life in the ocean. She says:

“I believe that if we are kind to nature, nature will be kind to us. As citizens of this earth, we all have a responsibility to protect the environment. I am proud to offer a recyclable and biodegradable alternative to harmful plastic items with my Jute products.”

About our partnership with the IKEA Foundation

In November 2019, we launched our three-year programme ‘Accelerating Youth-led Businesses in the Digital Era’, funded by IKEA Foundation, to equip young people in India and Bangladesh with the entrepreneurship skills they need to build and sustain thriving businesses, create jobs and boost local economies. The programme is delivered by our local member organisations, Bharatiya Yuva Shakti Trust (BYST) in India and Bangladesh Youth Enterprise Advice and Helpcentre (B’YEAH) in Bangladesh.

The programme has three key components:

Design and implementation of country-level projects: young entrepreneurs are provided with training, mentoring, access to financial support and other business development support to start and grow their business.

Digital accelerator:  YBI’s innovative approach enables BYST and B’YEAH to explore, identify and understand their digital context, adapt their training to address digital skills gaps in young entrepreneurs and improve their own digital capacities. 

Understanding decent work: through research into decent work, YBI developed a framework that supports members to implement training that helps young entrepreneurs understand their business and employer regulations and create positive business standards and decent work concepts.

The Digital Accelerator component of the programme in particular has helped many young entrepreneurs like Esrat, Fatiha and Sabiha through the COVID-19 crisis. In 2020 alone,

  • 1,932 young entrepreneurs received counselling,
  • 665 young entrepreneurs completed digital skills and entrepreneurship training,
  • 333 new job opportunities were created.

Read more about the programme here.

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