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Q&A with Sheenagh Day, Maison Bengal

We're absolutely delighted with our brand new delivery from Maison Bengal, a social enterprise based in Dhaka and Suffolk, making beautiful baskets and rugs. Sheenagh Day, the inspirational founder, took some time out of her ridiculously busy life, and answered our nosy questions about the business and how it came to be.

Shop Maison Bengal ►

Tell us a bit about your background. What did you do before Maison Bengal?

I trained originally as a genetic counsellor, completing my BSC in Genetics in the UK, and my MSc and training in Human Genetics in New York. I then moved into the field of family planning and reproductive health, first in the UK and then internationally. I went to live in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2000, where I was working for a UN affiliated Population and reproductive health organisation.

Why did you start Maison Bengal?

It was while living and working in Bangladesh that the idea of starting a fair trade company gradually gained strength. Poverty, and in many cases extreme poverty, was the underlying cause of so many of the issues affecting the women I worked with. In many cases poverty denied them access to education, nutrition, rights, decision-making, choices and life opportunities. I realised that a relatively small increase in family resources could make a big difference to their lives.

I was also impressed by the high level of artisanal skills, in weaving and basket-making in particular evident throughout the country. I travelled and researched widely and identified three NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) who specialised in poverty alleviation by training local communities in handicraft production. These organizations became Maison Bengal’s local fair trade partners and the collaboration was born.

How do you find the craftspeople to make the products?

I rely entirely on my partner NGOs to identify and train the artisans we work with. They are of course best placed to know which communities have the greatest need for work and income. We work in some very remote areas, where knowledge of the local languages and customs are essential. Also, the vast majority of our artisans have no bank accounts, so my partner NGOs need to distribute wages in cash on a weekly basis.

Who designs for Maison Bengal? And how much are traditional skills part of the process?

Traditional artisanal skills are the basis for all our products, while the design element tends to originate in the UK with our in-house designer.

What does Fair Trade mean to you?

Fair trade is fundamentally an approach to commerce that places the welfare of the original maker at the centre of the business, as opposed to company profits. This means not only paying a fair wage for all products, but also ensuring that an array of environmental, labour and health standards are adhered to. The WFTO (World Fair Trade Organisation) monitors the compliance of their member organisations to their strict standards.

The role of Maison Bengal, as a fair trade buyer, is to ensure year-long consistent orders for the artisans we work with. Our role is also to help our buyers better understand the realities of producing hand made baskets, mats and bags from a poor developing country, disproportionately affected by climate change. (The monsoon season now starts earlier and lasts longer, and it is very difficult to dry and weave a natural grass during the rainy season). These challenges are very real for the people we work with in Bangladesh, and need to be taken into account when discussing orders and production schedules. Maison Bengal acts as an intermediary between the hard realities of commerce and the real lives of our producers in remote areas of Bangladesh.

For me fair trade means establishing a long-lasting relationship with a remote community, where their traditional artisanal skills combined with Maison Bengal’s access to international buyers are merged into a fabulous, symbiotic partnership. We have become mutually accountable to each other.

What exactly are jute and hogla?

Jute and hogla are natural, indigenous plants to Bangladesh.

Hogla is the native sea-grass growing along the thousands of rivers in Bangladesh. Jute is the second most important vegetable fiber after cotton due to its versatility. Over 90% of the world’s jute is grown in Bangladesh in the fertile Ganges Delta. It is traditionally known as the golden fiber, due to its colour and its importance in trade throughout history.

As well as providing a wage for workers, can you tell us a bit about some of the community projects Maison Bengal has undertaken?

It is wonderful to be able to witness over the years the many changes in people’s lives that a fair wage can bring. Education, housing, health, safety, a shift in gender dynamics, fair trade impacts on all of these areas and more. Maison Bengal now works with over four thousand producers throughout Bangladesh, thanks to the wide networks and handicraft training programs put into place by our partner organizations.

In all the communities in which we work, producers are now able to send all their children to school. Parents now have enough money to pay for books, pens, shoes and uniforms. All the mothers we work with are particularly keen to make sure their daughters have the best education possible, thereby giving them greater life choices.

You're based in Suffolk and you've lived in Dhaka. We're going on an unusual, imaginary holiday; taking in both destinations. Where should we go? What should we see?

Funnily enough, there are striking similarities between some areas in Bangladesh and my home in Suffolk. Both are low-lying and flat, have many fast flowing tidal rivers, characterized by muddy embankments and rich wildlife (see photos).

Bangladesh is primarily a very highly populated country (over 165 million people), and a land mass approximately the size of England, two thirds of which are under water for 4 months of the year.

Case History

Rita is a young woman from a remote village in Southern Bangladesh whose mother Pashful has been weaving baskets for Maison Bengal for many years. As a teenager, Rita helped her mother by producing the jute plait which Pashful then skillfully sews together into the desired shape. The money she earned doing this, she spent on additional tuition. Rita graduated from college with very good grades and is now studying political science at Dhaka University. She hopes to become a teacher. She is first young woman in her community to go to University.

Out Patient Clinic

Since 2007, Maison Bengal funds the yearly running costs of a small part- time out patient rural clinic. This provides vital basic medical care to a remote rural community, who previously had to travel over twenty miles to the nearest health facility.

Suffolk

Dhaka

What's next for you?

The next few years for me are to take Maison Bengal further along its journey, and to see how far we can go with it. There is an ever increasing world-wide demand for natural, environmentally friendly and fair trade products. The greater the demand for our products, the more artisans we need to train and employ, and that is my motivation.