By Shea Parton
Photos by Atish Saha
Unity is strength and honesty is peace.
You may have just rolled your eyes while reading the above phrases, which are painted in four-foot tall Bengali characters on the front of the Saidpur Enterprises (SE) factory where Apolis' market bags are made. The striking thing is that these precepts are genuinely consistent with what I've encountered at the Saidpur factory, and it's what I've seen while working with Ghayasuddin, the factory's manager, over the last seven years. As my brother and I have been collaborating with him for going on a decade, he's grown to be not just a business partner, but a friend—and I am continually floored by his desire to transform the community of Saidpur by using business as a force for good.
Najma Ara Khatoon was born in the city of Saidpur, where she also grew up and got married. She has four children, three daughters, and a son—and she's so happy that all of her children have received an education. Even her youngest son, who is disabled and requires regular care, has been able to attend school this year. Her husband works as a barber, but his daily wage of 100 taka—equivalent to just $1.25 USD—is nowhere near enough to care for his entire family. With wages like that, providing for six people struggle.
But we are happy to report that for the last ten years, Najma has been leading the fabric cutting team at SE, which has enabled her to earn enough over 80% of her families earnings with her Fair Trade wage - and the true game changer for this business model is - their annual dividend from Saidpur Enterprises profit and their retirement fund (SE Provident Fund), currently amounting to 112,000 taka ($1,400 USD) for Najma. For a long time, Najma and her family have lived in a bamboo hut inside a refugee camp, but with the annual dividend she receives from her share in the cooperative's profits, she has rebuilt their home with brick walls. She's also purchased a bed, medicine for her disabled son, and other necessary household items. We're so thankful to be a part of her story—and anyone who's purchased an Apolis market bag is a part of that story too.
Today I not only got to see Najma, I also got to learn more about the process of farming the jute fiber the market bag is made of. For centuries, Bangladesh has been one of the world's top producers of the environmentally friendly jute plant, which plays a prominent part in everyday life here in Saidpur. As my team and I traveled 45 minutes from the market bag factory to the fields, we crossed over ten bridges which all had jute hanging off the sides to dry. Jute is everywhere in Bangladesh—even on the money (many taka coins feature jute leaves on them).
The Apolis market bags are made of 100% golden jute fiber, which comes from the stem and outer skin of the plant. The fibers are extracted by bundling jute stems together and immersing them in running water. The raw fibers are then transported to the wonderful moms at SE, who craft them into the bags you know and love. One of the best things about jute fiber is that it is strong and durable, yet is sustainably harvested in a way which doesn't negatively impact the local economy or environment. I guess what I'm saying is that the jute needs to be on your top ten list of plants (you have a top ten list of plants, right? I mean, doesn't everybody?).
Tomorrow, I'll have some more stories to share about the women who make these bags—so stay tuned as we continue our Bangladesh updates over the last few days of the trip! You can catch live broadcasts on the Apolis Instagram, as well as daily updates with photos right here on the Apolis Journal. Below are some images from Day Six, along with some links to some beloved travel items accompanying me on this trip. Thanks for reading!