A growing number of women are trying their luck in the business of jute and jute products and many have turned into successful entrepreneurs – by investing a small amount instead of pursuing traditional jobs.
Bangladesh exports 282 types of products made with jute – which has a long history and is fondly dubbed "golden fibre" for its high value – to around 135 countries, according to the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB).
In the last 12 years, the annual exports of jute and jute products have exceeded the $1 billion threshold four times.
In fiscal 2020-2021, exports of these products saw a 31% year-on-year growth.
Exports of jute bags and sacks increased by 30%, other products by 5% and hand-picked jute fibre and staple fibre by 10%.
The Business Standard caught up with some women entrepreneurs in the sector to talk about their success stories.
Esrat's journey from a banker to a successful entrepreneur
Owner of Tulika
Graduating from Southeast University in business studies, Esrat Jahan Chowdhury began her career at a private bank. After several years, the 35-year-old switched her profession, securing a job at Dhaka Regency Hotel.
But the sought-after jobs could not satisfy the woman from Cumilla who had cherished a dream of entrepreneurship. In 2016, she finally tried her luck in business by setting up "Tulika", a brand of jute products, with her savings of Tk80,000.
For two years since 2015, this woman entrepreneur had analysed how to produce quality products from jute. She embarked on making jute products in 2017. At the end of the year, the benefits of her hard work began to emerge. She received an export order.
More than 50 permanent and temporary artisans and workers worked at her factory.
She manufactures 20 kinds of products like jackets, shoes, shawls, wallets, vanity bags and laptop bags and her annual turnover is over Tk2 crore.
Esrat Jahan Chowdhury told TBS, "I had to struggle a lot to start the business: in the beginning, many discouraged me for being a woman. When we received an export order at the end of 2017, the enthusiasm increased even more. Others in the family also stood by me."
"Then I received two more export orders. I did not need to look back since. At present, my jute products are exported to Ireland, Italy, France, Sweden and the Netherlands," Esrat put it.
Asked about the demand for jute products in the local market, she said, "Jute is known to us as sacks of sugar. When we go to buy jute goods, many think I would like to buy sacks."
The demand for jute products in the domestic market is nominal as people are not familiar with the products. Again, small traders are far away from going for advertising due to a lack of capital. But the demand for these environmentally-friendly jute products abroad is huge and increasing day by day.
Esrat said they started the business with small capital. However, their biggest asset is quality products. But there is no government initiative for entrepreneurs. As a result, many small and medium entrepreneurs cannot ascertain their positions.
This woman entrepreneur thinks that the government should have special attention to the jute industry.
Short term and long term mortgage-free loan facilities should be ensured, she says, adding the government should make arrangements for small and medium-sized jute traders to participate in various exhibitions abroad.
She hopes her turnover will reach Tk30 crore, and her factory will have more than 1,000 employees by 2032.
Ismat wishes to introduce versatile jute products
Owner of Jermatz Limited
Ismat Jerin Khan is working to spread jute versatile products internationally. The products of her company Jermatz Limited are also exported. She has received recognition of her work from WEConnect International, a global network that connects women-owned businesses to qualified buyers around the world.
In 2019, her company became the first in the handicraft category in the National Industrial Fair. Recently, she got land allocation at the Bscic Industrial Estate in Dhamrai to build a factory.
Her father was a businessman and she wanted to follow suit. So Jerin, who completed MBA, left her long career in journalism behind and focused on her own business. In 2013, she received special training in media, entrepreneurship and business from the University of Oklahoma with a US government scholarship.
Although Jerin started making versatile jute products with only Tk50,000-Tk60,000 in 2010, her formal journey began in 2014, with everything needed to do business, including a trade licence, in her hand.
Ismat Jerin Khan said she has edged up to this position by doing small things. "Now there is a good demand for my products in the country's market. Considering this demand, in 2019, we have set up a showroom in the capital's Eastern Plaza for selling versatile jute products. And we recently established another showroom with a partner at the Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel," he added.
The products produced by her company include jute sarees, table mats, shatranji, baskets, laptop bags, home décor items and many more.
She regularly participates in DITF, JDPC, SME, BSCIC fairs with all these products. She received export orders at China and Germany fairs in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
About WEConnect International's recognition, Ismat Jerin Khan said, "They liked our products. They saw our sales volume. They collected details of the products we work with: How products are being manufactured, where the raw materials are coming from and who are producing them. Satisfied with everything, they awarded us with the certificate."
"This is a great achievement for us. Because they have a lot of buyer contacts. We have already talked to some buyers in their reference. Now we are working with buyers in the US and Germany," she added.
Regarding working on jute products, Jerin said, "I think I will work on some products that will not harm the environment but will add some value. There will also be employment. I will be able to support rural women. In that case, jute is the best."
She said the demand for jute versatile products is increasing in the country. They use these products in decorating their homes. Buyers at various fairs enquire about the availability of the products at other times of the year.
Jermatz Limited's corporate office is at the capital's Bangla Motor. Ismat Jerin Khan said that she will soon build a factory in the DhamraiBscic Industrial Estate where it will produce jute and handmade products in particular. At the same time, it will create employment for rural women.
"The government wants to take the jute sector forward. We now have a designer crisis. The government needs to come forward to overcome this crisis by creating designers in this sector. Then we can always take part in foreign fairs with products of new designs. We will be able to spread jute versatile products quickly," she added.
Started with small investment, Afsana's venture sees $2m turnover
Owner of Asix
Afsana Asif Soma, a managing partner of Asix, was born in the Mohammadpur area of Dhaka. After graduating in finance from the University of Dhaka, she spent several years in the teaching profession.
However, she always had an interest in business. In the beginning, due to lack of capital, she took Tk15,000 from a pawnbroker by mortgaging her gold earrings in Old Dhaka. In 2010, Afsana started her business of diversified jute products with a small investment.
At present, Asix employs about 300 people. Its annual turnover is about $2 million. She has already received the Outstanding Business Women Award in recognition of her successful entrepreneurship.
Afsana Soma told TBS, "When I was finishing my university studies, my family started having tensions with my career. But when I told everyone I would do business, instead of getting into a job, then their tension got a bit intensified. This is because I did not have the capital to do business then. Then to raise money for the business, I sold the earrings, which were originally meant for my wedding."
Afsana taught at Sunshine Grammar School in Chattogram for several years when she had set up a workshop there for designing various dresses and saris for women.
Her students started liking her handmade designs very much. In this way, her reputation as a designer spread widely. At that time, she had to move to Dhaka again with her family. Even after coming to Dhaka, Afsana taught at the capital's Scholasticaschool for some time.
Speaking on jute products, Afsana told TBS that at one time she thought about doing versatile designs of the country's indigenous traditional jute products.
"At that time, I started studying the jute sector extensively. I saw that our jute market is not complete, there are few designers for the target market," she added.
"Since then, I started doing new designs for jute products. Then I set up my factory and held an exhibition in Dhanmondi. At one time, I also started making shoes with jute. At present, I am making new diversified products by mixing corn leaves, palm fibre and hyacinth with jute fibre," she added.
She is herself the inventor of new design jute products. She makes 9-10 types of jute products including home appliances, pet accessories, bags and shoes. These products are now exported to Japan, Canada and European countries.
Afsana, who has been working with golden fibre at the peak of her career as a fashion designer and entrepreneur, said that jute products are 100% environmentally-friendly and the demand for these products is increasing day by day at home and abroad.
"So my hope is that in the next 10 years my factory will be able to create 50-60 thousand jobs and the annual turnover will reach at least $100 million. I believe that these dreams will come true one day if we get government patronage," she went on.