Aarong Turns 40: A Brief History Of Aarong

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Oct 28, 2018

Aarong is BRAC’s flagship social enterprise, and Bangladesh’s most popular lifestyle retail brand. The word Aarong means ‘village fair’ in Bangla. It consists of 22 outlets (21 physical and one online store) and sells handcrafted products made by more than 65,000 artisans located all over the country. Aarong is a team of over 3800 people.

In 1976, BRAC organized groups of women in Manikganj and Jamalpur, trained them in sericulture and making handmade products such as block printed and embroidered cushion covers, bed covers, etc. and started to supply these products to shops in Dhaka. BRAC quickly realized that these shops paid for these products not when they were delivered, but in fact, once they were sold. It took months for these women to get paid for the goods. This was when BRAC decided to open its own retail outlet, and the first Aarong shop opened on Mirpur Road in Dhanmondi in 1978.

"From the very first day, Aarong maintained the policy of paying its artisans and producers when products were delivered and Aarong took on the risk and responsibility of financing and selling the inventory," BRAC’s Senior Director Tamara Hasan Abed told FS in an interview in January.

Over the past few decades, Aarong has grown manifold and become a household name among urban consumers in Bangladesh. While it started with a few product lines initially, it now offers a vast range of products and is adding more categories regularly. Aarong has not only played a pioneering role in developing, promoting and protecting the rich heritage of Bangladeshi crafts such as Nakshi Kantha and Jamdani, but has also left an indelible mark on the fashion industry in Bangladesh.

1976: Ayesha Abed and Aarong

In 1976, Ayesha Abed, the late wife of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC (NGO)BRAC, initiated many of the major activities of Aarong by identifying and experimenting with various crafts that women could produce at homes such as Nakshi Kantha, embroidered goods, baskets, mats and items made of cane, bamboo, and jute.

1978: Opened its first retail outlet in Dhaka

In 1978, BRAC opened its own retail outlet in Dhaka called Aarong – meaning 'village fair.'

1980: Investing in the capacity building

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, BRAC focused on developing Aarong's product lines and production capabilities. It began to study and catalog the designs and motifs of traditional art forms. It started experimenting with indigenous forms and materials, adapting them to possible new lines. It hired master craftsperson to help train village women and created a textile design and service workshop in Manikganj to experiment with materials and technologies in stitching, weaving, and dying. BRAC also started producing historically imported items such as men's Panjabi.

1982: Ayesha Abed Foundation begins the journey

In 1982, the Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF) was established to develop women's skills in various crafts through an appropriate working environment, financial and technical assistance and training.

1983: AAF Centers, first 4 outlets and export

AAF's first project, the Manikganj center, was opened on 3 September 1983. The foundation buys handicrafts made by the village women, other NGOs and handicraft producers. In addition to starting the AAF, Aarong opened four retail outlets and began exporting a small percentage of goods to fair-trade organizations. Today, AAF has 13 main centers linked to more than 600 subcentres.

A note on the evolution of AAF

  • Aarong works with artisans in two ways. The first is through Ayesha Abed Foundation (“AAF”), which is a hub and spoke model with the main production center linked to many small subcentres. The main center receives orders from Aarong and prepares and distributes the order and raw materials to the artisans in the subcentre who mainly do the embroidery work.
  • The main AAF center not only supervises the subcentres but does all the preparatory and finishing work, that is, tailoring, dyeing and printing, washing, ironing, and quality control.

The 1990s: Aarong’s emergence as the leading fashion brand of Bangladesh

Aarong began to emerge as a fashion brand. It was among the first brands to start organizing photo shoots, fashion shows, exhibitions and other forms of media-focused events. It participated in its first international fashion show in 1999. Through these initiatives, Aarong was able to expand its popularity and brand identity within Bangladesh.

The 2000s: A momentary setback

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Aarong went through a challenging phase due to management problems and a lack of innovation. Between 2001 and 2004, the company was restructured to improve everything from costing, pricing, design, and marketing to new product introductions and brand innovations.

2018: 40 years of Aarong

From a single shop, Aarong has grown into one of Bangladesh's biggest retail chains, with 21 stores spread across the major metropolitan areas of the country – in Dhaka, Chittagong, Comilla, Khulna, Sylhet, Narayanganj, Bogra and Mymensingh. The company also operates 13 AAF centers while ensuring the livelihood of over 65,000 artisans.

A note on AAF and development of its Artisans

  • AAF’s artisans have access to BRAC’s holistic development interventions such as microfinance, maternal health care, hygiene awareness, subsidized latrines, human rights awareness and legal aid, day care facilities for their children, etc, apart from their daily wages.

A note on how Aarong works with Independent craftsmen

  • Aarong also works with independent master craftsmen and small and micro entrepreneurs from different parts of the country whom we call independent producers. They directly take orders from Aarong and produce goods in their workshop or cottage industry and deliver it to us. They employ groups of artisans under them. It audits independent producers on 39 metrics under what it calls Social Compliance Audit, to make sure that producers look after the artisans who work under them. It has over 800 independent producers working with us.

2018: Taaga Man and new brands

In 2018, it has launched a host of new product lines, categories, and brands, including Taaga and Herstory. In July 2018, Taaga opened a separate outlet in Saat Masjid Road in Dhanmondi to display products exclusive to the brand aimed at young men.

2018: Aarong eCommerce

It has launched Aarong eCommerce platform. It currently delivers products anywhere in Bangladesh. It also plans to launch a global e-commerce platform to cater to customers living abroad. Aarong has a strong following among NRBs, and it wants to serve them through its eCommerce platform.

2018: Aarong loyalty program

Aarong launched its loyalty program ‘My Aarong Rewards’- a brand loyalty programme and a membership scheme to acknowledge regular and loyal customers of Aarong.

2018: Business

Aarong sells over 100 different types of lifestyle products. It has been growing at a 15% rate every year. In 2017, it generated over BDT 850 crores in revenue.

2018: 40 and beyond

Aarong celebrates 40 years of its phenomenally successful existence. It is the largest and most successful craft organization globally.

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