The estimated female population in rural Bangladesh is estimated to be 55 million, out of which only 5.9 million are engaged in livelihood activities (BBS, Labor Force Survey 2002). It is further estimated that 75% of the population lives in rural areas, often excluded from formal market distribution systems. Building on a traditional model, with his organization JITA Bangladesh, Saif has developed a systematic approach of “door-to-door distribution network” engaging underprivileged women as “Sales Entrepreneurs” across Bangladesh. In a society where women are often excluded from economic activities, and where rural areas are dominated with male oriented activities like farming, Saif’s model has been effective in providing livelihood opportunities for the BOP-female population in rural Bangladesh. According to Saif, exclusion of women from mainstream distribution network often deprives them of access to essential products and services. It is understood that with a conservative culture, women are often inclined to purchase products such as sanitary napkins, birth control products etc, from other women. Saif has partnered with various partners like Uniliver, and developed local distribution hubs connecting 6,700 individual women entrepreneurs, providing essential market based products to 7 million consumers. In his distribution model, Saif emphasised on products that impacts healthy living, agriculture, livelihood, and improved lifestyle. In addition, he also provides training to the women entrepreneurs, and carries out periodic workshops that educate women in areas such as health. Moving forward, Saif is also trying to engage underprivileged men and women that are excluded from economic opportunities, either due to certain disabilities, and or lack of resources. Using the same distribution network, he plans to give access to their products and services to be sold in mainstream markets.
Die neue Idee
Bangladesh, a conservative Muslim patriarchic society excludes women from economic, and livelihood activities. Saif’s hybrid model has been effective in providing livelihood opportunities for the base of the pyramid – BOP female population in rural Bangladesh, by defying cultural, and gender barriers.
Saif has crafted a new scheme to amplify women empowerment through developing an enterprise model that leverages the complementary strengths of both NGOs and private commercial organizations. Saif has identified that while the large number of NGOs in Bangladesh focuses on social impact, yet struggle to sustain, and scale due to their “donor-driven” mentality. On the other hand the, private organizations offer efficiency, and profitability. An approach to combine both would result in a profit-driven sustainable model, bringing about a regulatory balance between impact and efficiency.
In 2004, Saif joined the Enterprise division in CARE Bangladesh, and immediately assigned to design the model of the “Rural Distribution Network”. Using Natore (a resource deprived rural area in northern Bangladesh) as the first location, he has developed the overall operation, structure and interface of the model. The primary objective of the model was to create a rural distribution system to provide economic opportunities and accessibility to commercial products to underprivileged communities. At the core of the model, are the women entrepreneurs “Aporajita” which is the Bengali for “one who are not defeated”, consisting of a group of destitute women, selected by the program as independent entrepreneurs. Most of these women are divorced, widowed or, circumstantially sole bread earners in their families. These women sell consumer products in a “door-to-door” manner to rural communities who are typically at the base of the pyramid (BoP). In 2009, the model was fully operational and implemented across different locations in Bangladesh. Identifying the opportunity to scale this further and, faced with the reality of resource limitations, by 2011, Saif formulated a plan with CARE, engaging Danone Communities as a partner, and formed the for-profit model of JITA Bangladesh.
JITA has evolved from a non-profit NGO program to a for-profit sustainable organization, one that has scaled significantly by applying process efficiency, technology, and responsible governance. At the core of JITA’s work, Saif continues to innovate to ensure continuous improvements in the livelihoods of the Aparajitas. He has designed a system which provides a shared distribution cost to ensure that all partners remain profitable, a strength that he has achieved by scaling. Over the years, he has also shifted JITA from a push to a pull strategy. This has allowed him to categorize products that they love, accept, or reject, aligned with their priorities to balance between the entrepreneurs’ profit, and provide access to effective products that impacts healthy living, agriculture, livelihood, and improved lifestyle of the communities.
Saif has been working to test the model in other countries. With partnership with USAID, Saif has recently worked with partners in Ethiopia to replicate a similar model. He feels, with the growing popularity of similar distribution networks around the world, his model is able to combine commercial interests, with strong social impact. Recognizing the impact of JITA, Unilever wrapped up its own distribution model “Joyeeta” in Bangladesh, a model that has been successful for them in India. In addition to his core work with JITA, he has leveraged on JITA’s distribution network, to pilot a model under the umbrella of Good Little Enterprise. The model allows BoP communities to provide access of their products to the mainstream markets. Currently, products such handicrafts, agro-based foods have been making their way into the distribution channel. In addition to that, using the same hybrid concept, he has designed a model for the large worker population in the ready-made garments sector in Bangladesh. One of the biggest challenges that the textile industry is facing now is to balance low production cost with improved employee benefits. He has identified that a large part of their wage is being spent on basic household consumptions, healthcare and food. Saif’s model with Good Associates, engages commercial organizations, public sector and manufacturers to work together in providing subsidized products and services that would allow the workers to maintain substantial net earnings.
The female population in rural Bangladesh is estimated to be 55 million, out of which only 5.9 million are engaged in livelihood activities. Bangladesh has made measured improvements in empowering women, predominantly in education, health, and social security. However, despite these developments, there still remain strong challenges, often centering the strong patriarchic culture. Women are excluded mostly from decision making powers and economic control that are typically vested in the hands of men. In addition, due to the conservative culture, especially in the rural contexts, women struggle with limited mobility. As a result, women do not have access to mainstream distribution networks to purchase even basic necessities like sanitary napkins, and daily household goods. Lack of mobility also limits them from livelihood activities outside their locality.
It is further estimated that 75% of the population lives in rural areas, often excluded from formal market distribution channels. In the current context, most rural villages have local convenient stores, often selling basic household goods. With aggressive “push-sale” distribution strategies, and lack of regulations, most of these stores shelf products with very little quality control. Over the years, products such as energy drinks, snacks, and other lifestyle products have flooded the rural communities. In addition, most of these stores are used as social spots by the male population, which prevents women to have direct access. In typical scenarios, men play the role of purchasing products that are usually used by the women in their households.
The average family size in Bangladesh is about 4.4. In the rural context, traditional concept of having more children for better economic security plays a role, a concept that by default makes women a burden to the family. Traditional families largely depend on men as the sole bread earners. The problem of early marriage among the female population is often a scenario that disrupts their access to education. Women end up mostly involved in household works. In the event when men are no longer able to carry out livelihood activities, due to health, accidents, families often struggle to make ends meet. Also in the event when these women are abandoned, they are left with very little economic opportunities due to lack of skills. With the proliferation of micro-finance since the 70s, it could be considered that there have been significant advances in providing economic freedom to women, which on retrospect likely to have stemmed counter remedies to the patriarchal structure. However, various studies suggest that over 60% of loans accessed by women are used by men, while repayment responsibility remains largely with women. In addition, “overlapping loan” is a growing issue, where about 12.6% borrowers are approximated to have borrowed from multiple MFIs. It is apparent that a large number of these borrowers often access the loans for personal consumption, debt payment and activities with no economic returns. Due to lack of business/financial management skills, most of the borrowers struggle to manage the loans, often using them for personal expenses. With many underlined challenges, lack of economic engagements, and ease of access to these loans, the future of microfinance in solving poverty remains a challenge. To-date, there are approximately 16.8 million borrowers, over 95% of them being women. In-spite of this, various studies carried out on Grameen Bank, suggests that while various indicators demonstrate positive impacts aiding poverty, micro-credits in fact do not help women develop micro-enterprises, or any long term sustainable livelihood endeavors; approximately only 11.7% of borrowers are found to be either potential or growing micro-entrepreneurs.
The idea of “Poverty Alleviation” in Bangladesh and globally have been exclusive jurisdiction of the NGOs and donor agencies. Since independence in 1971, NGOs like BRAC has successfully provided the chronic development gaps the country suffered after many wars and internal conflicts. The rise of NGOs in Bangladesh is much due to the resource limitations of the Government, and its inability to provide basic public services for the large population. NGOs, predominantly driven by donor aids, have proved to have played a critical role in the country’s economic devolvement, health and education, human rights, and food security. However, many critics argue that with the aid dependency nature of the NGOs, they have failed to alleviate poverty in Bangladesh, considering that such developments require long-term engagements. With a staggering 50,000 NGOs currently active, Bangladesh remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Recognizing the limitations of NGOs, and the need for more sustainable models with long-term solutions, leaders like Prof Mohammad Yunus have been promoting hybrid models that bring together social impact with commercial interests. In 2004, CK Prahalad spoke about the opportunities for market based products to tap on BoP population in his book, “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.” Several models have been piloted since then including Unilever India’s successful “Project Shakti”. In Bangladesh, both BRAC and Grameen have launched their own models, generally providing donor driven, subsidized products and services to rural communities. Most of these models however remain exclusive to the respective organizations. Due to high operating costs in reaching out to remote communities, these models have largely remained non-profit and aid dependent.
There are approximately 4.5 million people employed in Bangladesh’s Ready-made garments industry, about 85% of them being women. Due to low wage, poor labor rights, and lack of regulations, Bangladesh has remained attractive for manufactures due to its low manufacturing cost. With a number of recent incidents, the Government recently started adapting measured changes including raising minimum wage to $68 a month, a 77% raise from the current wage. Experts however claim that this will have large implications on the $20 billion industry, which is one of the biggest contributors to the country’s GDP. According to a study, with rising inflation (6.27% as of 02/15), with the typical consumption pattern, an unmarried worker requires $56/monthly for food based products. While trying to address national and international pressure to bring about regulations in the sector, Government is also struggling to ensure Bangladesh continue to remain attractive to manufacturers. This provides opportunities for CSOs, private and public sectors to work together in ensuring products and services to be available to the workers without stretching too much on their net income.
Saif believes that the role of the public and development sector is always going to be limited to address any long-term sustainable solutions. Having worked in the private sector, Saif has come to appreciate the various forms of exploitations practiced by large corporations, and at the same time recognizes the efficiency they operate with. Having experienced the development sector, he also understands the limitations of most development organizations, particularly in being aid dependent.
Saif comes from a conservative and humble background, where he grew up in a village community in Southern Bangladesh. He spent most of his early days exploring the country side and people. In his school years, Saif became a role model among his peers both with his academics and extra-curricular activities.
Saif demonstrated his first entrepreneurial endeavor by developing the first library in his own community during his high school years. According to him, this was perhaps the transformative period in his life where he challenged many setbacks from the communities to develop the project. The complexity of such a project in a conservative society lies mainly on their perception of such facilities providing opportunities for cross gender interactions. Saif had to seek approvals from community leaders, and engineer a business model that could sustain the project. At the initial stage, he collected books from various academic institutions, and work out a fee and membership model to sustain the library.
For his college, Saif moved to the capital city of Dhaka. Having grown up in a large family, Saif was always protected with strong family affections and ideologies. In Dhaka, he started experimenting with art and other creative activities. However, after his father’s demise, his focus shifted on trying to pursue a career that would enable him to support himself and his family. Saif was also faced with the reality to move back to his hometown to be among his family members. After graduating with a Business Degree, he was selected in a very competitive trainee program with British American Tobacco. As a trainee, Saif was involved in sales, marketing, community engagements and product sourcing. Very early on in his career he started realizing how private companies exploit poor communities to increase profitability. He cites example of how his company was involved in luring local farmers for tobacco cultivations, and yet as part of their CSR initiative educated farmers on how to better manage the lifespan of their farms by cultivating more soil friendly products. Saif however was unable to settle himself in a position which he refers to as “a contradiction” of the private sector.
In 2004, Saif applied for an opportunity with CARE Bangladesh, and was selected to join the Enterprise division within the organization. Bringing his knowledge from the private sector and his interest for social good, Saif immediately found his ground with the Enterprise division. While piloting the “Rural Sales Program” he was required to explore the Northern part of Bangladesh – an area that is struck with chronic poverty, unlike the region where he spent his entire lifetime. While spending time with the communities, Saif met many destitute women. Being the only person with a business background, he started developing the operation model of the project. The project was an immediate outcome of the CEO of CARE and BATA Shoe Company discussing the possibility of reaching out to the BoP market. Saif was involved in designing the entire model from scratch, merging the business interests of BATA, and social impact of CARE. By 2006, having already piloted the project, he was leading the program which by now was a separate division within CARE.
Recognizing the opportunity, and unable to pursue his ambition of scaling the program, Saif began the long journey of formulating a strategy to separate it into an independent entity. As a person, Saif has remained consistent to merge the private sector towards social good. He has been working to transform the mindset of the private companies to be more responsible and inclusive. With his social business model, JITA, he is also demonstrating that social objectives could be achieved better by partnering with private organizations, emphasizing on scale and innovation. Saif continues to explore ways to further enhance the lives of underprivileged populations.
In addition to that, he is also working with the Private and Public sector to bring together a set of subsidized services to the general workers in the ready-made garments industry. Saif predicts that with recent interventions by various international quarters, manufacturers are being obligated to improve on their working conditions, benefits etc.; a scenario that raises the cost to international buyers to a point when Bangladesh may no longer be an attractive textile manufacturing location, a trend experienced by China, Vietnam and Indonesia in the past. Saif recognized that the general workers spend more than 50% of their monthly earnings on purchasing products and services. He has designed an integrated model that includes convenient stores subsidized by the Government and the Private sector.