Weavers of clothing items such as sari and panjabi may witness their sales nosedive in the upcoming Eid-ul-Fitr after most of their items aimed at Pahela Baishakh have remained unsold because of a surge in coronavirus infections and subsequent strict lockdown measures.
The country's biggest selling season kicked off last week after Ramadan, the month leading to the Eid festival, and Pahela Baishakh, the first day of the Bangla calendar, coincided.
But the hopes of good sales shattered after the government was initially forced to implement a lockdown-like restriction from April 5 before setting out for a full lockdown from April 14 as coronavirus cases and deaths from the disease reached record levels.
"For Baishakh, I made 250 saris and around 100 panjabis. As wholesalers showed little interest, more than 70 per cent of my products remained unsold," said Abul Hossain, a handloom weaver of Delduar in Tangail.
He invested all his money to make sari and panjabi targeting the first day of the Bengali calendar and Eid-ul-Fitr.
He has 10 handlooms, and half of them have been sitting idle since April last year. He incurred losses of Tk 5 lakh in the last year.
Khokon Basak, a wholesaler of Tangail, who supplies to brands after collecting them from weavers, said 90 per cent of Baishakh products remained unsold. "I have already completed half of the work for Eid. Now, I have suspended the production."
However, some traditional weavers saw orders grow as the pandemic made handmade sari, salwar kameez, and panjabi dearer.
Manipuri sari weaver Gita Devi of Adampur area of Kamolganj upazila of Moulvibazar used to earn Tk 1,000 for weaving a sari. She has been taking home Tk 1,500 to Tk 2,000 for the last year.
"The demand for sari has increased and traders have asked us to weave more sari," said Devi. She said Baishakh had been great for her as she received higher orders.
According to Rabi Kiran Singh, member secretary of Kamolganj's Manipuri Cultural Complex, which promotes the handloom industry, some small entrepreneurs were created during the pandemic, and they started to sell products online.
"Many people lost jobs during the pandemic, and some of the youths have turned to online-based business as alternative employment. And the online sales make Manipuri sari accessible to many customers."
Rajshahi's young entrepreneur Jarin Tasnim Jui received tremendous responses for her Baishakh-centric products such as hand paints, block works and Kurti on batik.
Operating through a Facebook page called Tonirika, she rolled out the business a few months ago.
Industry insiders said although some producers connected to online platforms were flying high as demand rose, the number of online sellers is very low. Online purchase accounts for less than 10 per cent of the total retail sales.
Producers in and around Dhaka are getting benefits from online sales because many e-commerce and F-commerce entrepreneurs are sourcing products from local weavers, said Shomi Kaiser, president of the e-Commerce Association of Bangladesh (e-CAB).
"Internet has already reached all over the country, and the delivery system has expanded to every district. Small entrepreneurs and producers have to be brought into this network."
She said the e-CAB was helping budding entrepreneurs access online platforms.
Bangladesh has a huge size of Facebook population, with nearly 40 million users.
"We are trying to promote local handmade products through our platform," said Nasima Akter Nisha, president of the Women and e-Commerce Forum (WE), a Facebook-based marketplace with more than one million followers.
Since April last year, there has been a surge in the sales of local items. This is because import has been disrupted due to lockdown.
"When people saw that the quality of these products is very good, they keep buying," Nisha said.
"Those who are properly connected to online and Facebook platforms have been flooded with orders. They are struggling to deliver them in time."
Now, the challenge is to connect rural producers to online and Facebook-based platforms.
Zunaid Ahmed Palak, state minister for ICT, said the government was closely working with the 1,500-member e-CAB, e-commerce platform ekShop and payment platform ekPay to encourage people to shop online.
"The prime minister has instructed us to ensure smooth online sales during Eid. So, we are helping e-commerce platforms to operate during the restrictions seamlessly."
The ICT Division is providing training to 13,000 entrepreneurs working at 6,000 union digital centres so that they can connect producers and sellers with e-commerce platforms, giving rural weavers access to a wide range of new customers and making online sales more popular.
E-COMMERCE PLATFORMS PLAYING THEIR PART
Khokon Basak said, for the last few years, some students have been selling products online after buying them from wholesalers.
"The online sellers have no permanent business plan. They enter the business for a short period hoping for a limited profit. We don't see any good prospects for selling products online yet."
Abul Hossain said online sales were good last year, but it was not enough to stay afloat.
"We are not familiar with the method of business through online platforms."
Local e-commerce platform PriyoShop, has recently completed a campaign called "Bangaliana" to promote 'Made in Bangladesh' products, especially jamdani sari.
The campaign, which aims to facilitate local entrepreneurs and small cottage industries and provide special discounts to end-buyers, has caught customers' attention.
Asikul Alam Khan, founder and CEO of priyoshop.com, said the platform facilitated the shift to online for sari weavers in Tangail.
Alibaba-owned e-commerce giant Daraz organised "Daraz Baishakhi Mela 1428" and received a good response.
During the campaign, its sales were up 14 times.
The platform has transformed 145 villages in 29 districts into Daraz Village, a framework created to take e-commerce to untapped rural communities and enable them with business opportunities using the marketplace.
"Most of these talented individuals create amazing products," the e-commerce platform said in a statement.
Selling online requires maintaining digital shop and processing orders using tools. But more than 70 per cent of these sellers do not have access to a proper computer or smartphone, it said.
The business of weavers who are connected to the platform grew more than five times during the pandemic, it said.
Daraz is also organising campaigns centring Ramadan and Eid.
Shayantani Twisha, head of public relations of Daraz Bangladesh, said Daraz started to see an exponential flow of new sellers after a few weeks of lockdown last year.
Some 17,000 new sellers registered during the pandemic. Most of these sellers sell local products, she said.
The sales of the leading lifestyle brand Aarong, the top employers of artisans in Bangladesh with 30,000 independent and 35,000 fixed crafts workers, dropped significantly in 2020, according to Mohammad Ashraful Alam, CEO of the brand, which has 21 stores.
Online sales soared tenfold amid the pandemic, although they accounted for less than 5 per cent of Aarong's total sales.
To enable the artisans to keep churning out products ahead of Eid, the brand upgraded its online platform, launched a new mobile app, and improved delivery systems.
Due to the pandemic, more people have been staying at home and making online purchases. Businesses too migrated to selling their goods and services through digital platforms.
"Facebook continues to support local businesses, including artisans, to communicate with their audiences and boost their sales online ahead of Eid. We guide them through our authorised sales partner. There is also free training available on our Business Resource Hub," said a spokesperson of Facebook.