Continuing our emphasis on fair trade makers, our Featured Maker this month is Samantha Morshed, OBE, of Hathay Bunano, now called Pebble. Having worked in fair trade for over a decade, she began working out of her spare room with 12 women, and grew her non-profit to great honors and great success. We discussed her beginnings in fair trade and the women she works with via email:
A note from the author-- Ms. Morshed originally did not want to send us a headshot, as she felt that she would be stealing credit from the women who work so hard for Pebble. At her request, we've included numerous photos of the women of Pebble to make sure that we honor those who make every item by hand.
Quinstance: How did you first get into knitting?
Samantha Morshed: I learnt to knit when I was a little more than 3 years old. I could knit before I went to school and before I could write my name. I have no memory of not being able to knit. I would knit clothes for my dolls. I couldn't read patterns so I would just make up the pattern as I went along.
Q: Why did you first come to Bangladesh? What made you decide to teach women to knit in the first place?
SM: I first visited Bangladesh in the 90s with Golam, my boyfriend at the time and now my husband. It was unlike any other place I had ever been before and I was captivated by it. I would ask Golam to take me out for a drive in the car and he would ask where I wanted to go. I would reply that I just wanted to drive around. There was just so much to see and so much that was new to me.
We moved to Bangladesh in 2004 with our two young boys. We had inherited a house and wanted to renovate it and at the same time introduce the children to the other side of their culture.
There is so much need in Bangladesh. It is everywhere and impossible to ignore or turn away from. It would be an unusual person who would come to Bangladesh and not want to help in some way.
When we lived in London, I made cute blankets and hats and cardigans for my own children. When I was out shopping I regularly had little stores asking me where these things had come from. It was an indication to me that there may be a market for this type of product. In Bangladesh I saw how capable the women were with their hands and the beautiful embroidery they did. I had also seen many failed handicraft projects and non-sustainable development and so I felt that I could change the existing model slightly to create a sustainable business with social impact. It was a very new concept at the time and many people thought I was mad or immoral!
Q: What were the lives of these women like before you helped them through Hathay Bunano?
SM: Life in rural Bangladesh is arguably better than life in Dhaka. Rural women enjoy and value their lives and before we came along they were managing for the most part. Whatever people's circumstances, they tended to find a way to manage. The problems would arise from unexpected expenses like a medical need or school books or a cold winter or a bad harvest. Then they would take microfinance loans that they could not afford to pay back and a downwards cycle would begin. Many women that we work with in Hathay Bunano will repay those microfinance as their first priority when they start to earn money. In the early days it would make me so cross. I would say “I don't work this hard in order to repay microfinance that in any other country would have been a finance mis-selling scandal.” Over time I became resigned to it and understood that at least this way the women are able to repay these loans and get out of debt for the first time in years.
Over time we see many other changes in the families--first a TV and a fridge and a mobile phone, a bed rather than a choki (very basic structure). We see women looking healthier, gaining a little weight, shiny hair, clear skin and bright eyes--all the things that come from improved nutrition. We see babies being born in a local clinic rather than at home. We see children staying on in education and going to high school or university rather than being sent out to work.
A small additional income that is regular can make huge differences in women's lives. They are able to plan and save and do all the things that give us hope in life.
Q: What were their job opportunities like before?
SM: Many of the women work in agriculture but this is very tough and only seasonal. We work in very remote and rural locations where there really aren't any alternative opportunities. That's why we do it. We want to demonstrate that it's possible to take work anywhere. Those of us who can create and run businesses need to think more creatively about how we do work and how we can better fit in with people's lives rather than always expecting them to fit in with what is considered more normal business practice, which in Bangladesh will involve economic migration.
Q: On the same subject, what does Hathay Bunano offer them?
SM: We offer flexible, good quality, fairly paid employment. Work as much or as little as you want. It's not rocket science! It's what people want if you take the time to ask them.
Q: What obstacles did you face when you first began your company? What obstacles do you continue to face?
SM: Every business faces obstacles. You solve one and then there's another. I no longer have a job description at Hathay Bunano but when people ask me I say that I'm a problem solver! Every day I have to find the solutions to problems.
Click here to learn more about Samantha Morshed and the fabulous women of Pebble!