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Maison Bengal: The bag company making a real difference to women’s lives

— by Alyson Walsh

Maison Bengal raffia bag

 

Sheenagh Day is a bloody brilliant woman. The successful geneticist – with a BSc in Genetics from Leeds University and a Masters in Human Genetics from Sarah Lawrence College in New York – moved to Bangladesh (from the UK) in 2000. In Dhaka, she was working for Partners in Population and Development, an intergovernmental initiative created to improve collaboration in the fields of family planning and reproductive health; when an invitation to visit a local community of women making baskets (95% of the world’s jute comes from Bangladesh), turned into an eye-opening, nine-hour journey that completely changed her life.

 

Sheenagh Day with villagers in Bangladesh

 

Traditionally in Bangladesh, girls only remain in education for a couple of years, instead they are married young and expected to have children. ‘These wonderful women asked me to help them to sell their product,’ says Sheenagh, ‘ They told me, ” We are very poor, with little education and we want our daughters to have a better life than we have.”‘

Describing her career as ‘curly wurly like a double helix,’ in 2004 Sheenagh decided to go back to London to set up a Fair Trade company, Maison Bengal, to help the women sell their products to the western market. Self-funding the business, she started out with market stalls at Spitalfields, and Greenwich. Selling chic and simple bags and baskets, designed by an artist friend Jane Morter, who works on a freelance basis for the company. People liked the product. Within five years Maison Bengal received a couple of big orders from The White Company – and now sells in 37 countries around the world.

 

Maison Bengal pops up at Ally Capellino

 

Listening to Sheenagh tell her incredible story, at an Ally Capellino event, recently (recorded on Ally’s Instagram feed HERE) the birth of Maison Bengal sounded like a very smooth process. So, I asked her if this was really the case, ‘ It was reasonably straightforward, but it took a long time – as neither I or my suppliers had worked with the commercial sector before,’ explains Sheenagh. ‘It’s been  an organic growth, one step at a time as and when affordable. I never asked for outside financial help to speed things up. I had very little idea of how you grew a business, other than to simply keep on trying to sell the goods, and see what happens,’

This success has meant a huge change for the villagers. ‘Our suppliers could probably not have coped with a rapid growth, so it is a good thing the business evolved as it did,’ continues Sheenagh, ‘The biggest challenges, once the business got to a certain size, were really to do with storage of the products and finding the right people to help pack and despatch the products.’ Working with an NGO, Maison Bengal ‘trained the neediest people’  – and provided them with these new skills.

 

Who makes your bags?

 

‘For women who never leave their village, this is a big deal. They have far more economic empowerment than they’ve ever had. They can buy cows, build a house, buy an electric rickshaw for their husbands – but the most important thing is to educate their children, particularly their daughters.’

Realising the benefits of regular pay – compared to fishing and farming – the husbands are now involved in basket-making, too. Given the patriarchal nature of the society, this took surprisingly little encouragement, according to Sheenagh, ‘Once they realised their wives were getting a regular income, and how much their family benefited from this significant addition to the family finances; it wasn’t an issue.’

Extra Large Jute Bag by Maison Bengal

Now 60, Sheenagh is changing women’s lives in a completely different way. Developing this business model has allowed her to have more of an impact on women’s health. With the backing of Maison Bengal, the village has gone from no health care at all to having a small mother and child clinic with a doctor who comes every Friday (traditionally a Muslim day off). ‘ The reason I left genetic counselling was really because I felt I couldn’t change things. I could possibly help people make the best, educated decisions for themselves, but I couldn’t take the problem away,’ Sheenagh explains, ‘ With Maison Bengal we aim to achieve sustained transformative change in people’s lives. To help their children fly and make their lives better. And I’ve certainly achieved more in terms of what makes me tick as a person.’

Currently helping 5000 women in marginalised communities throughout Bangladesh, Sheenagh is pleased with the progress Maison Bengal and its suppliers have made, but never complacent. ‘Many people now rely on us, so it is essential to keep drumming up demand for the products, designing new things, and dealing with the many challenges we have to face (Covid, Brexit, fluctuations in currency exchange rates, the effects of climate change to name just a few).’

Having worked with the original Bangladeshi community for over 20 years, she has watched the children grow-up. Today, two of the daughters are studying medicine and law, in Dhaka.  The first girls from the village to go to university.

 

Maison Bengal maker

 

Sheenagh Day’s advice on making a difference:

 

What would you say are the skills required to achieve all this?

I would say patience and determination to see Maison Bengal succeed in providing incomes to families. You could not expect immediate success, it was always going to take time to build trust, understanding and a market for the products. I was brought up in France, we moved there when I was six years old, so trying to communicate when you don’t have much shared language is in my DNA. I’ve also always wanted to help other people in some way I suppose, and to feel I was making a positive change.

And what have you learned along the way?

That authenticity and enthusiasm are essential, throughout the whole supply chain, with artisan producers, suppliers, buyers and colleagues. That if you believe in something enough, and work at it long enough, bringing people with you all along the journey, something good will come out of it.

Any advice on making a difference, helping to change the lives of others – or even your own?

I’d say if you’re thinking of changing paths in midlife, don’t be put off by other people trying to dissuade you; by telling you the idea is a step backwards on your career trajectory, or that you will lose face, status or credibility. If you believe in your idea, and think you can make it work, then go for it!

Keep things simple, and always be authentic.

 

 

Shop Maison Bengal HERE.  The Maison Bengal pop-up is at Ally Capellino (9 Calvert Avenue, London E2) until 13 August 2023

 

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