At CPDL Majesta on Jamalkhan Road in Chittagong city stands a busy cafe named 'Honest Centre & Cafe'. On one side of the cafe is a super shop, and on the other, a library piled up with hundreds of books.
People come in to order snacks and buy things - just like any other average establishment. But, at the cashier, it isn't quite business as usual.
If you have bought a product, the store clerk returns some money back to you along with the product, because Honest Centre and Cafe has created a system where customers can partake in a share of the profits.
Essentially, this establishment is built on a unique concept defying the mechanism of a commercial, profit-making business.
"The basis of our work is trust and honesty. Everyone here maintains transparency in taking or providing services. That's why our institution and other projects have been named 'Honest.' We try to support individuals based on their needs," Md Enamul Haque, who is in charge of the operations of Honest Cafe, told The Business Standard.
So how does it work?
To reiterate, if you buy products from their platform/super shop, a part of the profit is returned to the customers along with the purchased products. Many might think that the profit is adjusted only after inflating the original price of the product. But on the contrary, their products are sold at a lower price than that of other stores.
The goal of this innovative model is that the youth can earn without any investment.
Haque explained, "In other places, the businessmen charge more money keeping the profit, rent and miscellaneous expenses in mind. Here, if a product of Tk100 is sold for Tk125, then 60% of that profit is returned to the buyers.
Then the price of the product stands at Tk110. Tk6 out of that Tk10 goes to the 'donation' fund and the remaining Tk4 is spent on day-to-day operations. In other words, the whole profit is either distributed or spent on the store itself."
With "If you can't afford it, you can take it absolutely free" written on one of the walls, this cafe was launched two years ago, keeping struggling students in mind.
For those who live on tight budgets, a decent meal at a restaurant is a privilege. The cafe offers light breakfast items including coffee, soup and noodles at a low price.
After the launch, many students found employment opportunities here as well. Students do all the work, from cooking to managing the cafe. Currently, 15 students are working on a part-time basis at the cafe. The part-time students earn some money too.
There are around seven volunteers who assist them in running the operations. When a student is on special leave, these volunteers step in.
Besides students, people from all walks of life come in too. On one side of the cafe stands a library (which requires no card or payment from visitors) with "Don't chat, read books at the Honest Cafe" written on one of the walls in this section.
There's no rent to pay because Honest Cafe was handed the venue and centre space for free by an individual closely associated with the parent organisation that launched Honest Cafe and Centre two years ago.
In fact, the parent organisation, Pay It Forward, has been operating in Bangladesh since 2016 and currently has nearly 60,000 members.
How it all started
A Dhaka income tax commissioner, Badal Syed (a pen name which he prefers to use for this story) founded Pay It Forward primarily to address, and ultimately, solve, pressing problems of disadvantaged groups, essentially by providing scholarships to students.
"This [parent organisation] started its journey on my initiative. Many joined later, now this isn't solely mine. [In fact] there are nearly 60,000 members now," Syed told The Business Standard, adding, "the primary objective was to bring back students who dropped out of university because they no longer could afford it."
While the aim was to aid public university students, there have been college students too who benefitted from Badal and his Pay It Forward organisation's efforts.
After this initiative started, "we have been able to bring about 4,000 students back to school. A large portion has already graduated, working as doctors, engineers, and school teachers. Currently, we have 1,600 [underprivileged] students who we run [financially support]. The monthly cost amounts to about Tk20 lakh a month," added Syed.
But all this was possible without any crowdfunding. "We have a unique method. We don't raise funds. We don't take cash from anyone. We simply form a bridge or direct communication channel between students and those who want to help [pay for one's education]," said Syed.
Pay It Forward has an online platform. Students apply for scholarships or aids, and the organisation verifies their applications and then posts them on their online page. Among the large member base, "there are many donors, they see the applicants and let us know that they want to help Mr X or Ms Y. We make the connection, and they carry out transactions directly. We monitor their educational progress," he explained.
At one point, the volunteers at Pay It Forward realised that it was not sustainable to take on the responsibility of such a large number of students and pay their tuition fees. They thought of expanding their outreach in a different way by building a system where the students themselves could earn the necessary money for their studies.
The journey to establish the Honest cafe we see today began with that idea. Slowly, bit by bit, a student-friendly model was developed.
In July 2017, the super shop and an online platform were created. On this online platform, young entrepreneurs post their products with detailed specifications. In 2020, Honest Cafe was launched, primarily for students. Here, both buyers and sellers are students of different schools and colleges.
"Currently, the online platform [Honest Cafe and Centre] has more than 136,000 members. During the Covid-19 lockdown, many people started their pursuit of becoming entrepreneurs. And many of these small entrepreneurs started selling various products online.
Our platform has taken the responsibility to sell the members' products. We don't charge anything and the entire profit is handed over to the entrepreneurs. Our aim is only one - to stand by these small entrepreneurs," explained Haque.
A plethora of projects
Beside Honest Cafe, the parent organisation has set up other charitable entities as well. There's March Forward, which essentially provides quality education for underprivileged students via online courses. They bring in teachers to take online classes.
There's Parents Lounge – a space created for the elderly community in Chittagong city where they can come to spend their leisure time and share their life stories with each other. "We also do birthday celebrations from time to time," said Syed, adding "on some days, there are only five people who come in, on some other days, more than 20."
Recently, the parent organisation started the DPS For Future project, where they open DPS accounts on behalf of students who can collect and use it for their master's degree. "150 DPS accounts are opened every year [on average]" informed Syed.
And Honest Cafe itself has more projects. One arranges various training sessions for students to build their careers. A group of young volunteers now carry on its operations, maintenance and activities.
Then, under the project "Donate It Forward," they provide essential goods and services to people free of cost. Thousands of packets of food items were distributed among flood-affected people in Sylhet and Netrakona.
Earlier, during the onset of Covid-19, this volunteer group brought oxygen cylinders from China with the permission of the government and provided free services to medical facilities in district towns. To date, 1,735 oxygen cylinders have been distributed in several medical centres under this project.
Now, anyone can avail a nebuliser, oxygen cylinder, medical bed, wheelchair and other essential medical items from here. People are encouraged to donate it to 'Donate It Forward' if they have any of these things in excess.
Although these projects under Honest Cafe operate as separate entities, they remain interlinked. For instance, at the Honest Cafe, customers and staff were informed about the medical support they can avail at Donate It Forward.
In another instance, after working at the cafe, some students came forward and said that they no longer needed scholarships - which was later divided among other financially disadvantaged students.
With its noble aim and pursuit, Honest Cafe (and its parent organisation and its volunteers) want to further extend their helping hand to people from all walks of life and help millions of students.
Nusmila Lohani contributed to this story.