Textile handicrafts need boost
Today, handicrafts represent less than 1 percent of exports from Bangladesh. In contrast, the global market for handicrafts is estimated to be close to $100 billion. Surely this represents a huge opportunity for this country in terms of rural employment creation.
The rural areas of Bangladesh are filled with women eager to show their fine handicraft skills, being naturally proficient with stitches passed down from mother to daughter and all having a genuine interest in crafts.
For many years textile handicrafts have been seen as an opportunity for the creation of rural employment and the alleviation of poverty and many NGOs have diversified into production of all sorts of fabric items.
Despite investment, mainly from international donors, the growth of the industry has been starkly different from its cousin the garment industry, which now dominates more than 70 percent of Bangladesh's GDP. Clearly something isn't working.
A great deal of effort has been put into the promotion and production of “Nakshi Kantha”, a traditional and beautiful embroidery stitch, firmly rooted in this country and representing the rich cultural heritage of Bangladesh. But the rest of the world knows little about it.
This is not so surprising since much of the western world has lost its inherited tradition of embroidery and whilst there are experts in all countries, a vast majority of western women would find it difficult to distinguish hand embroidery from machine embroidery, let alone recognise the specific differences of embroidery from various regions of the world.
As with all industries, textile handicrafts are an ever-evolving industry representing a changing world where the interest in all things hand-made remains very strong, and hand-made products extremely desirable, but where interest in the tradition of the handicraft has lost its prominence.
Textile handicrafts in Bangladesh must therefore change with the times, just as the garments industry does seasonally, where styles change with fashion trends.
Without a doubt, the global market for handicrafts and all things hand-made is expanding. When customers are faced with two products of similar price, quality and design, they will invariably select hand-made over mass produced. The price premium of hand-made items is small and whilst it is possible to make competitively priced handicrafts in Bangladesh, it is important to understand that pricing is one of the key factors to success in expanding this industry.
Changing designs is not a new concept in Bangladesh handicrafts and many donor-funded projects have been developed and run around the concept of bringing in designers to work with rural artisans to help them make new designs to meet the new demands of the international marketplace.
But the world is a fast moving place and when the designers have left, who will be around to continually develop new products with these artisans?
Since success in this area will only be achieved by meeting the needs of the customer, we must first consider what the customer is looking for. International buyers of hand-made products are clear in their requirements. They need large volumes, consistently high quality, timely delivery and effective communication. If the Bangladesh textile handicraft sector can provide all this, then the likelihood is that the buyers will supply the designs. Projects bringing in designers to work with artisans for short periods of time equally bringing small-scale success for only a short period will no longer be necessary.
Large volumes cannot be produced by a single small group of artisans. Consistency in quality cannot be maintained over different groups of artisans where there is no connection between them. Timely delivery is a challenge to us all everyday and so much more so to artisans with little or no understanding of the countries that their products are destined for. Effective communication requires literacy, language skills and IT skills and equipment in a world where customers want questions answered immediately.
Empowering small groups of artisans is therefore not likely to bring significant growth in this industry.
There are significant similarities between the garments industry and the production of textile handicrafts. They both need good quality raw materials, effective sampling facilities and centralised quality control, finishing, packing and despatch. Whilst the garments industry has all manufacture under the same roof as well, clearly the major production work for handicrafts can be done in various rural parts of the country in small-scale groups of artisans, both living and working locally.
Access to good quality raw materials is a fundamental problem for the current model of handicraft production through small disparate groups of artisans. Whilst Bangladesh is full of high quality raw materials, imported and produced for the garments industry, these are not available in small scale to groups of handicraft producers. The whole production process for raw materials here is geared towards volume.
Small-scale handicraft producers are therefore left to buy what is available in the open market and often with yarns and fabrics to 'bucket dye' in their own homes. Without consistency of raw materials, how can we ever achieve consistency of finished handicraft products?
In order to maximise the potential of the handicrafts industry we need to embrace all that is good and successful about artisan production in small rural groups and combine this with lessons learnt in large volume production by the garments industry.
In order to expand the rural production of handicrafts specifically for export we need to combine the craft skills of the artisans with the business skills of SMEs, who could provide all the centralised services along with bulk purchasing of raw materials, sampling, marketing and communication.
It is unrealistic to assume that with a little training, a new design or two and some capacity building, a small group of artisans will be able to secure sales to stores overseas. Similarly, it is unrealistic to assume that large department stores in the west, would be interested to source tiny volumes of one particular product from a single supplier in a far away land.
Generally retail companies will place a limit on the number of suppliers that they choose to buy from in order that they can manage administratively. So not only must the supplier be able to make volume, but will also need to be able to make a whole range in volume in order to have a chance of competing to supply.
Without a doubt, expansion of the textile handicraft industry in Bangladesh would bring enormous direct benefits to the rural population, who are waiting for an opportunity to work and become adept at textile handicraft production.
Expansion of this industry through existing markets, rather than aiming for the creation of markets, would be most cost and time effective. Traditional “carcupi” stitching, with the finished look of a modern chain stitch, can easily be used to replace stitching which might previously have been made by machine. Traditional hand knitting with two needles can easily be used to make small items, which can be time-consuming by knitting machine. Traditional crochet has no machine alternative though.
The method of making handloom fabrics is much more flexible than machines in creating diversity in cloth. Diversification of this industry therefore is not so much about creating new methods and developing new markets as about adapting existing skills to the requirements of today's marketplace and the needs of today's buyers.
In order to maximise the potential of the handicrafts industry, we need to combine the skills of the artisans and the SMEs, to diversify by adaptation. Finally, the banking sector needs to address the needs of this industry with applicable products and services.
It was almost 30 years ago that the Letter of Credit (L/C) became the primary instrument of choice for the garments industry in Bangladesh and the banking sector enabled business to be conducted by releasing part-payments against the value of L/Cs, so that factories could start production of orders.
While the L/C is not ideal for the handicraft sector, other services, like reduced interest rates, low collateral, short-term loans and both international and domestic factoring, will enable expansion of this industry.
Currently Bangladeshi handicraft exports represent only a tiny fraction of the global market, maybe with some slight changes in emphasis, Bangladesh has a real opportunity to become a significant global player in a thriving and expanding industry.
The writer is the CEO of Hathay Bunano and welcomes comments at [email protected]