Face to face with Shah Abdus Salam, Founder & Executive Director, Development Wheel (DEW)
Dear Readers, we take absolute pleasure to interview Shah Abdus Salam, Founder & Executive Director of Development Wheel (DEW) for our Face to face second issue of 2014. Salam has an astounding body of works that includes building a giant development organization from scratch. His brainchild Development Wheel, that he started with almost no funding, no physical office, and only with a single employee, has made difference in the lives of thousands of people. We asked Salam to take us back to his early days, that also includes his interesting childhood, beginning of DEW as a venture, and his struggles and epiphany throughout the way.
Take a break, find a comfortable place and take your journey with Shah Abdus Salam, who reminded us that, making difference is a choice and pain never goes in vain. ~Ruhul Kader
Ruhul Kader: Tell us about yourself and your path to become what you are doing today.
Shah Abdus Salam: I grew up in the river bank area of Sharishabari Upozela under Jamalpur District. Due to river erosion we’re always on run. But growing up in a place like that was a huge experience. In the year of 1970, when I was only a kid, massive river erosion took away our entire village. Although our family moved to main land area and saved us from many of sufferings but I was a direct witness of struggles and miseries our villagers had to face. I saw people to become beggar overnight by losing all of their belongings.
It was a defining event of my life. It completely changed my view towards life once and for all.
Later on I moved to Mymensing with my elder brother Late Abdus Sattar’s family and studied at Mymensing City Collegiate School and at Anandmohon Collage. After college I attended Dhaka University and studied Sociology.
After my graduation from Dhaka University I joined Brac as a social worker. I never tried for government job due to my discomfort with bureaucracy and corruption. I worked at Brac for about 6-7 months. Then I moved to Care International and worked at Care for about 3-4 years. In 1988, while I was still working at Care, I got married. I was working in Khulna but my wife was living in Dhaka. It was a real problem. So, I requested to Care Authority to transfer me to Dhaka office but they could not. Thus I quit that job and came back to Dhaka. Later on I worked at few more organizations including ILO, UNDP project , and Taree Des Hommes France .
While I was working for other organizations I always wanted to start my own. I had a feeling of dissatisfaction. I always felt like doing less than what I could. When I finally got back to Dhaka I actively started to looking for opportunities to start my own.
After few months of juggling I was able to put few of my friends, teachers and colleagues together to talk about my aspiration. After much talk we came up with the name Development Wheel (DEW) which was chosen by my friend Mossadeque Hossain Monju. Unfortunately, Monju died suddenly at a young age. After his death I stopped moving ahead with DEW for a while. Instead I went on to work for a national organization. I worked there for few months.
But it was not working with me. I was becoming impatient to start. Then I left my job after around six months and started Development Wheel with the help of my general council members, board members, friends and my family.
I appreciate the support my wife Dr. Rasheda, who is a professor of Anthropology Department at the Jahangir Nagar University, extended to me to uphold my vision during the days of my despair when I had no income and no job.
I also owe to my good friend Manzur Aziz who spared his ground floor for us to use it as our first office. That was how I started DEW. It was a tough journey. While I started I had no fund, no donor, and top of that I had no income. But I was committed to stick to the end and wanted to make it happen for my people.
After 2000 I moved to Indira road into a shared office. We had not received any funding yet. We were trying to save us by producing candles and few other handicrafts items and selling those products in local market. Back then I had only one employee, Mr. Abul Khair, helping me. He was a student of my wife and a very nice guy. He supported me a lot. He was with me before moving to an International NGO in 2004. In this period one of my boyhood friends Syed Shariful Islam who was living in UK donated a computer that helped me a lot.
Our real breakthrough came in the year of 1999 when we got Ecota Fair Trade Forum membership and started to attend international fair trade conferences. I was actively involved with fair trade movement and Ecota fair Trade Forum even before 1999 and we were attending in local Ecota fairs. But after having formal membership I got chances to attend WFTO global conferences and got opportunity to meet many new people.
Our story of getting first bilateral project is also quite interesting. I met my British friend Emmilin Scaner-a fair trade activist- during a WFTO global conference in Tanzania. Emmy told me that her sister Harriet was living in Dhaka and looking for a good NGO to conduct a study on Char livelihood. She requested me to help her.
When I came back from Tanzania I met Harriet in my office. After a short meeting she requested me to visit our char area activities. I took her to Sharishabari and some of other char areas. After coming back she offered to conduct her study with DEW.
That was our first bilateral project and the real beginning of DEW. You just think we registered in the year of 1996 and we got our first project after 6 years!
Please briefly tell us about your passion.
Salam: Since my boyhood I always wanted to serve my society and people. However, I never knew that it calls social work. So, by definition what I was passionate to become is a social worker. And till today my passion is, same old one, to become a successful social worker.
How did you first get your idea to start DEW? What was the underlying motivation behind starting up your own?
Salam: My father, Late Dr. Sha Abdul Hamid, was the only son of my grandfather. He studied medical in Kolkata. After coming back he visited a village in char area name Bholardiar and saw there were no schools and no health care facilities. He decided to stay there and make a difference. So, he started living in Bholardiar and founded school and started to provide medical care to poor people.
To me my father is the ultimate source of inspiration. He taught me doing something for society is a choice. And choice is way better than gift.
Then the memory of my boyhood, that I told you earlier, always haunts me. I made a truce with myself to do something for this people if I ever get a chance. I saw people who lost everything and became destitute. All these incidents inspired me to start a pro-poor organization.
During my days in Brac I was always on look for learning more things. Brac has this system to give their staffs bicycle so that they can go to village, talk to people, and motivate them. My area of responsibility was community mobilization activity. I learned how to form an organization like NGO, CBO etc. from there.
What were the three main obstacles at the beginning?
Salam: At the beginning things were very pungent and hard. I started out of almost nothing. Consequently, I had to face serious problem with managing network and fund. If I could tell 3 of my main obstacles following might get into the list:
- Money was always a scarce thing. I had to struggle a lot to ensure a regular stream of cash flow to keep things moving.
- We had no office space while starting. It was a disadvantage. When you tell people that you work virtually or from someone else’s office or from home, they take it differently, even negatively.
- People seldom want to work at a startup because of security, opportunity, and status. So, finding committed people was one of the biggest problems as well.
How did you manage fund at the beginning?
Salam: As I said earlier fund was one of the major obstacles at the beginning. For starting-up I invested my own money, used my savings. Besides, my wife and sometimes few of my relatives and friends helped me with managing fund.
Tell about one major challenge you faced in year one and the way you out performed it.
Salam: It was finding the right network. Well, it was even a challenge for us up to third year. Ecota Fair Trade Forum membership helped a lot at that time. It’s a unique network of producers. Through Ecota we got access to international community of fair trade buyers and sellers.
What were the activities of Development Wheel in first one year?
Salam: Forming producer groups and building their capacity. Producing something is not difficult but producing something of quality is.
Three issues are important while you are working to build a brand and trying to have access to international market: 1) quality, 2) market driven product development and 3) design and market access. During our first year we solely concentrated on these three issues. We provided producers groups’ skill development training and knowledge on product development and design so that they can produce quality products that meet exacting international standard.
How did you manage to get access to international market?
Salam: Your tag, whatever it is, can’t sell unless it meets the quality standard by your buyers. So, for us having access to international market is no different than those of our main stream competitors. In a market economy having market access is always competitive.
So far, we don’t have any outlet in Bangladesh. Whatever amount we produce we sell it to the international market. Our main market is Japan. People Tree is buying our product. We also export a small quantity to USA, UK, and few European countries.
Your tag, whatever it is, can’t sell unless it meets the quality standard by your buyers. So, for us having access to international market is no different than those of our main stream competitors. In a market economy having market access is always competitive.
All organizations that buy your products are fair trade organizations.
Salam: Yes. We only sell to fair trade organizations.
Please briefly tell us about Ecota Fair Trade Forum.
Salam: Ecota Fair Trade Forum is national body of fair trade organizations of Bangladesh. We have around 36 members. Most of the craft manufacturing organizations are involved with Ecota. Fair trade is a concept to provide the maximum benefit to producers.
Fair Trade operations are based on ten standards. If you are a member of Ecota or want to be one you have to maintain those. But as a developing country it is quite difficult for us to maintain all those standard. However, trying is a good thing. So, those who are trying and helping producers we would welcome them to come and join with Ecota.
How many people work at Development Wheel now?
Salam: We are now 45 members’ family.
Getting access to market is difficult and for startups it is a huge challenge. Please briefly tell something for young starters who are struggling with market access.
Salam: For Fair Trade organization we have our global and regional network. Every two years we have conferences and we also organize fairs. Last year we had a week long fair in Brazil and we carried samples and products over there. These fairs and conferences are our meeting place with international buyers. We do meet with buyers, get new design ideas, and get new contact and contracts.
Getting involved with a community that can help you with market access is important. To me finding the network is the major challenge. Work hard on building your own network or find one.
As I said earlier tag can’t give you any advantage if your products suck. So, make sure your product quality is competitive.
Bangladesh has a negative impression among international buyers regarding maintaining commitment. So, while dealing with your international buyers, make sure you walk your talk.
Besides, today opportunities are ubiquitous. Internet has changed the way how we find people, connect with each other and get things done. Taking advantage of these modern technologies is important.
However, for us receiving money through online transaction is a problem till today. This is a pure disadvantage. I think solving problem related to using online transaction platforms like PayPal is fundamental to the development.
As a social worker you days are definitely filled with schedules. How do you manage your time? Tell about a typical day of your life.
Salam: I start my day with a morning walk. I wake up at around 6:30 am and take a walk for an hour that sets my tune for the day. By 9:30 I’m ready and come to my office.
As a social worker you can’t have a lifestyle of corporate or government official. I don’t have a personal life! No way to enjoy vacation. My family is upset with me. They say DEW is my family and everything. However, I think it’s important to give time to your family. Balancing work and family life is critical for your growth and progress and happiness.
I usually work in my office. I attend meetings, workshops, and seminars all the time, as we have loads of these things in NGO sector.
Besides, I visit field where our projects are under going. I enjoy visiting field and talking to people who are making real difference. Moreover, I think if you want to solve problems of grassroots people you need to know them. You have to feel their problems physically. So, I do visit some of our projects every month to see the progress and get to know people.
You have been working for almost 17 years-a real long time. Please share few of your lessons from your journey.
- For me visiting field is an imperative. I find ideas; find new ways of working, and inspiration to do more from visiting field. Get out of building and see things for yourself. New problems and opportunities are coming every single day and you must go and find out.
- Be authentic. Say what you wanted to say, do what you wanted to do. Never try to show up, or do something just to look good. Hypocrisy is a very vulnerable approach to take.
- There are opportunities to take, changes to make. So, having a vision gives you extra advantage.
- Being boss does not do any good if your jobs are not done. Make sure you are done with what you are up to. Working as team is more rewarding than playing boss.
- And be one of your community members.
What it takes to become a successful social worker?
Salam: Success is a matter of perspective. It depends a lot on how you define your success. However, to become a successful social worker having following things are important to me:
- Humanity comes first. You have to have passion for people. You have to care sufferings, sorrows, and difficulties of people otherwise you would not be able to become a social worker.
- Fellow feeling is critical. You need to work in team and you need to feel for people you work with. You need to take care of people you work with and be informed about their advantage and disadvantage and support them in need.
- Make sure bureaucracy does not get into your process.
- Human dignity is an important issue. Respect people and ensure dignity.
- And finally to become a successful social worker you must walk your talk.
If a young person come to you and ask for your advice to start a non-profit organization what would you say?
- Entrepreneurship is hard work. Entrepreneurial success is not as easy as it appears to us. So, no one should take anything for granted. You’ll be tested in every possible way before reaching your goal. There will be difficulties, obstacles, and there will be good days and bad days but never give up hope. Keep doing what you love to do.
- Good things take time to happen. Be prepared to wait. It will take time.
- Have a vision. Make sure you understand what you want to achieve. Not knowing what you want to accomplish makes everything an argument and making and keeping commitment difficult. Know what your vision is and be committed to it.