Embroidered with empowerment, from mother to mother

By Laura Rana, Founder of Khushi Kantha (‘Happy Blanket)

Launching a social enterprise operating between the UK and Bangladesh during a global pandemic is a challenging endeavour. Read about the experience of Laura Rana, Founder of Khushi Kantha (‘Happy Blanket), it shows the power of taking action, as well as some of the challenges that Laura has encountered along the way.

My ‘day job’ as an impact measurement consultant in the international development and humanitarian sectors is all about evaluating human consequences of other people’s decisions.

But when it comes to starting my own initiative, I’m realising how difficult some of those decisions can be.

Khushi Kantha (‘Happy Blanket’ in Bengali) aims to create opportunities for mothers in Bangladesh to provide for their children with dignity, by using their existing skills and drawing on their cultural heritage to generate sustainable incomes. We rework the Bengali ‘kantha’ tradition of mothers repurposing old saris into blankets for their babies to meet global hygiene and safety standards, while retaining the principles of ‘reclaim-repurpose-reuse’ and bringing the cultural heritage of Bangladesh to a wider audience.

The idea was inspired by the birth of my half-British, half-Bangladeshi twin daughters and my first-hand experience of working on the humanitarian response to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh while I was pregnant.

Launching a social enterprise operating between the UK and Bangladesh during a global pandemic has been a challenge! I’ve faced all sorts of logistical issues related to fabric sourcing and figuring out how to start production without travelling to Bangladesh as anticipated.

How much should I ‘pivot’ the original idea in response to changing circumstances and my ongoing learning?

As I navigate these challenges, I’ve been reflecting on this question.

I’ve recently had some samples made in Cox’s Bazar, where the Rohingya refugee camps – and the generous, compassionate Bangladeshi mothers from the host community who inspired me to start Khushi Kantha – are based. Unfortunately, the quality wasn’t what I’d hoped.

So I’ve decided to establish production initially in Dinajpur, in the North-West of Bangladesh, where my sister-in-law lives. As a talented seamstress, Rosa can play a quality control function.

Over 12 million families in Bangladesh live in poverty. Poverty rates in Dinajpur are even higher than in Cox’s Bazar, as I’ve witnessed myself, through my experience of living and working in both places.

Overall, Bangladesh has been making tangible progress in reducing poverty over the past two decades – but there are still millions of mothers struggling to provide the basics for their children, and the impacts of COVID-19 have pushed many families deeper into poverty. I want to start creating opportunities for mothers in Bangladesh as soon as possible. The travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic are making this challenging. If it’s not feasible to establish production in Cox’s Bazar from a distance right now, it makes sense to start with mothers in Dinajpur.

Some of the questions I’ve been grappling with have been even more fundamental.

What should I be investing my time and energy in?

I’m well-versed in ‘best practice’ approaches to measuring women’s empowerment through my ‘day job’. As such, I was all set to establish a sophisticated participatory, multi-dimensional monitoring and evaluation system. In fact, this was about the only bit of attempting to establish a social enterprise that felt very much within my comfort zone.

But then one of the trainers in the ‘Theory of Change’ session I participated in through the Cambridge Social Ventures incubator highlighting that the more time and energy I’m spending on monitoring and evaluation, the less effort I can invest in selling blankets, which is ultimately how I’m going to achieve the impacts I’m seeking to measure.

She suggested I ‘keep things simple’.

This has been the most valuable advice I’ve been given in relation to just about every obstacle I’ve encountered so far – from figuring out my supply chain, to communicating what I’m trying to do, and building a financial model.

To what extent should I be contributing to women’s empowerment in a more transformational sense, as part of Khushi Kantha’s commitment to #buildbackbetter?

The income generation opportunities we will create are compatible with existing childcare and household responsibilities. The blankets are totally hand-stitched, which means they can be made at home, in between other tasks. Ultimately, I would love to offer childcare facilities – but we’re not there yet.

But is partnering with Khushi Kantha just going to increase the number of hours women already work? Should I be advocating for a more equal division of household labour to accompany mothers’ partnership with Khushi Kantha?

My sense is ‘not yet’ – ‘waltzing in’ and trying to instigate social change within communities can be dangerous. First, we need to establish trust, and demonstrate tangible positive impacts of our presence.

Time and time again, I’ve been amazed by the resilience and generosity of Bangladeshi mothers living below the poverty line. This is what is inspiring me to contribute to the #buildbackbetter movement, by harnessing the collaborative power of a global community of mothers to build better futures for the next generation.

What does ‘empowerment’ mean to you, and how are you navigating these questions?

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